Delhi Art Fair

Revival of the Indian art market

Although the commercial trade of art and artifacts in India has an ancient history, it is only since the new millennium that a distinct market for modern and contemporary art in the country has emerged.

Insider’s view

Revival of the Indian art market

Tekst: Olav Velthuis


Sequence, 1981, Tyeb Mehta (1925 – 2009), Oil on Canvas

Sequence, 1981, Tyeb Mehta (1925 – 2009), Oil on Canvas

Although the commercial trade of art and artifacts in India has an ancient history, it is only since the new millennium that a distinct market for modern and contemporary art in the country has emerged. The first signs of its emergence were witnessed through the successful sale of the collection owned by the American couple Chester and Davida Herwitz, at Sotheby’s in New York, in 2000. Chester Herwitz had visited the country since the 1960s, and bought artworks of M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta and others who belonged to the most influential ‘Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. Many of these modern Indian artists received their education at British art schools in India, and were exposed to modernism during their extensive travels in Europe. Even to this day, they are among the country’s most coveted artists, whose artworks are sold for prices of six and sometimes even seven figures.

The recent emergence of an art market in India can be attributed to a number of factors. Partially by following a wider wave of cultural globalisation: the global art world – including art dealers and collectors in Europe and the United States – developed an interest in art produced in emerging countries, such as China, Brazil and India. Moreover, the desire among Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to cultivate their identity by collecting modern art from their home country played a key role. Although their importance for the market development now seems to be waning, they were one of the first groups of buyers when the market emerged. The local buyers originating from India’s booming upper middle classes began following the footsteps of NRIs. The latter not only looked for art to decorate their new urban dwellings, but also for sources of status and identity.

The real boom in the market started around 2005, when prices for Indian modern and contemporary artists soared. The dealers at times doubled the prices within one year. The media were covering the most successful artists and portrayed them as though they were celebrities; while the investors rapidly moved into the market in order to make quick financial gains. In those days the financial newspaper The Economic Times had even started publishing an investor’s index for the Indian art market, akin to well-known stock market indexes like the AEX or the Dow Jones.

With the global financial crisis of 2008 the bubble in the art market burst, however. Many art investment funds had to fold up shops as they were unable to pay their investors the return they had promised. Prices dropped rapidly. To some extent, the remaining artists, dealers and collectors have welcomed the burst of the bubble, since it purged people with the ‘wrong’ (read: financial) motives from the market, leaving those with the right ones: people interested in art for aesthetic or artistic reasons.

Vasudeo Gaitonde

Vasudeo Gaitonde

Ever since, the market has slowly recovered. Last December, Christie’s organised its first, highly successful auction in India, where a work by Vasudeo Gaitonde was sold for 3.7 million dollars, making it so far the most expensive modern work of Indian art ever sold at any auction. Since 2009, an art fair is being organised annually in Delhi: the India Art Fair attracts both local and international interest from art galleries, buyers, and the wider public.

Some structural weaknesses remain, however. First of all, India lacks a developed art world with public museums and art centers, where modern and contemporary art can be nurtured. In a country with more than one billion inhabitants, only a handful of institutions regularly exhibit modern and contemporary art. The government seems to disregard the sector. For a stable and smoothly functioning art market, however, a flourishing art world is sine qua non. Secondly, the integration of the Indian art market with the remainder of the world is severely hindered by tax structures, import tariffs and customs duties that make foreign galleries refrain from entering the market.

130423125_olav_velthuis1Olav Velthuis is an Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam


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