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The man who sold Nirav Modi's art

March 30, 2019 14:18 IST

Saffronart managed the auction of Nirav Modi's art collection, raising Rs 593 million for the government.
Founder Dinesh Vazirani tells Avantika Bhuyan how he built Saffronart into an institution.

Golly-Wog by the late legendary artist F N Souza from Nirav Modi's art collection fetched Rs 13.8 million. Photograph: Kind courtesy Saffronart

IMAGE: Golly-Wog by the late legendary artist F N Souza from Nirav Modi's art collection fetched Rs 13.8 million. Photograph: Kind courtesy Saffronart

It's a sun-kissed November afternoon.

I enter the newly refurbished environs of The Oberoi, New Delhi, to meet Dinesh Vazirani, CEO and co-founder, Saffronart.

It's a long walk through the lobby and down to the lower level, where Saffronart's gallery is housed, right next to the buzzing patisserie and delicatessen.

As I enter, a melange of works -- modern and contemporary -- comes into view.

Subodh Gupta's This Side is the Other Side -- a magnificent cast bronze Priya scooter with stainless steel and chrome-plated milk cans hanging on the side -- shares space with a signature G Ravinder Reddy polyester resin fiberglass head, Devi.

Other significant works include Jars, an oil on canvas by Arpita Singh, Untitled (head) by F N Souza and Pearl Diver's Embrace by Anju Dodiya.

 

As I walk around, the air-conditioning, on full blast, casts a wintry chill, belying the sunshine outside.

Vazirani walks in, and we sit down to a much-needed cup of coffee -- a frothy cappuccino for him and an Americano for me.

Warmed by the brew, with oatmeal cookies and coconut macarons from the deli as accompaniments, I ask Vazirani about the 18-year journey of the auction-house.

Launched in 2000 -- a time of dial-up modems and patchy connectivity -- Saffronart was one of the four niche online brands that formed part of the startup, Planet Saffron, started by Vazirani and his wife, Minal.

The other three included Saffron Soul for holistic medicine, Saffron Style for fashion, with Mehr Jesia and Tina Tahiliani curating the content, and Saffron Space for interiors.

"It was a crazy time. Our office space was swarming with people, ranging from Ayurvedic doctors, models, artistes, interior designers, and more. It was becoming difficult to manage four brands, and we felt like we had to focus on one thing," he says.

It was a tough decision to shut Planet Saffron down in 2003, but in hindsight, Vazirani feels it was a sensible thing to do.

The decision to focus on art came naturally to the couple, both being avid collectors.

"As entrepreneurs, failure is difficult to accept. But we thought, let's give it one more push and see if Saffronart can work by itself," he says.

And, all the groundwork -- meeting clients, international exhibitions -- came together, with the venture taking off in 2004.

"When I look back, I feel pushing on required courage. But if you do something with passion, courage is incidental," he says.

However, the initial years of Saffronart were not without their share of challenges.

The Internet was slowly making inroads into people's lives, but there was a general wariness about making online transactions.

The Vazirani duo was told by nearly everyone around that no one will buy art online.

There was a perception that art, being an extremely tactile medium, needed to be viewed at close quarters.

Ignoring the naysayers, the two set out to create a model that would satisfy themselves as collectors.

"We were frustrated with galleries at that time, with no publications, information or research material available. We thought let's solve this problem for others like us," says Vazirani.

So they set out with the goal of educating people and arming them with tools, such as condition reports and provenance, to make the right decisions.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

The nearly two-decade-long journey has changed Vazirani in many ways, in the way he views entrepreneurship, and also his perception of art.

"Not all of it is good, but it's definitely a learning," he says.

More than anything what has kept him going is a sense of adventure, the idea of encountering a new and different work every day.

"It's not the same as seeing the same mobile phone being reproduced every day. That discovery itself gives you a rush," he says.

In the last 18 years, Saffronart has sold 30,000 paintings, and Vazirani remembers them all, including the prices.

"It's so crowded up there in my head," he laughs.

But because of that experience, he is able to view each painting in its context now.

"The more you see the more you learn, and the better decisions you can make. It gives you context -- this work was exhibited at the MET, this one has not been exhibited at all. This knowledge helps you. It's been 18 years of crowding my head, but that memory stays on," he says.

As he sips on his coffee, Vazirani recounts the significant milestones.

A proud moment for Minal and him came in 2006 when the Harvard Business School produced a case study on Saffronart.

"I did my MBA from Harvard, so going back to that classroom and standing on the other side was a lovely experience," he says.

The next one was reinventing Saffronart after the financial crisis of 2008, when there was no sizeable market for art.

"How do you sustain a global organisation, with offices in New York, Delhi, Mumbai and London in such a scenario? That brought in a lot of introspection. We diversified to best utilise the platform, and the excellent people that we had, by doing furniture, jewellery and vintage cars," he says.

One outcome of that was Saffronart's move into the live auction space in 2013, with its first such sale in Mumbai, Francis Newton Souza: Works from the Collection of Keren Souza Kohn, which combined online, room and phone bidding.

The same year, the company also diversified by launching StoryLTD, an online auction and e-commerce platform to serve a broader base of art and collectibles buyers, with many no-reserve auctions in the categories of rare books, vintage furniture, jewellery, and more.

This has become a more experimental platform for those who are looking for affordable art, but find the atmosphere of a gallery too intimidating.

I ask him if the online platform will make the offline space redundant?

"No," pat comes the answer.

In his opinion, the two formats go hand-in-hand and complement one another.

"In India, unlike in other countries, people learnt to purchase art online and offline at the same time... around 2000. For them, the comfort level with online is quite high. But live auction offers a certain sense of drama; it gives certain collectors a sense of confidence, of seeing the process pan out in front of them. But we do only two live auctions a year, and most are for charity," he says.

These various mediums have also given him a sense of how the Indian collector is changing.

For instance, today, one can see young and aspiring collectors from tier 2 and tier 3 cities as well.

"Collectors have gone through a journey. The biggest lesson was in 2009 after the financial crisis. The worldwide auction market for Indian art, in 2007, was $150 million, which collapsed to $40 million," he says.

This led the average collector to realise that art was a long term asset.

But more than that, it was a legacy to be left behind for future generations.

"They realised that art was not like stocks, which was what it was being treated like earlier. There was a certain weightiness attached to it; one needed time and patience to appreciate it," says Vazirani.

"Today, collectors are more educated. They are not speculators. There is a difference between the two."

Having crossed the milestone of Rs 3 billion in turnover, Vazirani is thinking of moving onto the next phase.

"A friend of mine asked where do you want to go next. I said, I want to build Saffronart as a strong international company. And he remarked, 'That's where you are wrong. After 18 years, you are not building a company, but an institution -- the mindset for both is different, the metrics for the latter are more long term'."

That statement propelled Vazirani to think seriously about getting into art education -- both for art history and vocational training.

"One day, I want to have a museum," he says wistfully.

Avantika Bhuyan
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