I was over at a friend’s place the other day in Delhi, and noticed a stunning new painting on her living room wall. When I complimented her on her taste, she candidly revealed that it was something her art adviser had recommended, but, she added casually, she didn’t like to get too attached to the art on her walls, since it was mostly bought for investment. The moment this painting would fetch a reasonable sum, she’d sell it and buy another one, by a better-known artist. She’d do this, she told me, till she could buy a Husain, the artist often described as the “Picasso of India”.
I was impressed, not so much because this friend of mine, who, in college, couldn’t tell a photograph from a painting, had finally learnt something about art, but because she’d thought about her investment wisely, with a specific goal in mind and was working towards it. It struck me as an example of how much India had changed in the past decade. Art investment was not really a concept even as recently as five years ago.
Today, however, it’s being considered a lucrative option. Though it’s still in the early stages and not everyone thinks of art while investing, but, thanks to the tremendous boom in Indian art, more and more Indians are putting their money into the Indian art market, which is said to have gone up more than four hundred times in the past ten years, and in the past five years, Indian art prices are believed to have risen tenfold.
Though Indians bought and appreciated art before, this trend of buying it for investment has only recently gained popular appeal, especially after Indian works started to fetch unprecedented amounts in markets abroad. In September 2005, Tyeb Mehta’s painting , ‘Mahishasura’, was sold for $1.5 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. It was the first time an Indian painting had crossed the million-dollar mark. Last September, works of some prominent Indian artists were snapped up for record amounts, again, at Christie’s in New York.
Since then Indian art seems to be on a high. In a recent contemporary art sale in London, Bonhams – one of Britain’s biggest auction houses – featured Indian modern and contemporary art in one of its bigger sales. In December this year, France will see the first auction of modern and contemporary Indian art when Paris-based auction house, Artcurial, brings out about eighty Indian works.
Art, till recently in India, was something only the wealthy, or rich NRIs (Non Resident Indians) showed interest in, since the middle class didn’t have the time or the money for such extravagant pursuits. But, with salaries in some sectors rising up to twenty percent in the last few years, that mindset is now changing. Today, art is not only for the super-rich, but India’s middle class too, with its extra spending power, is looking at it not only as an investment, but also as something that can take them a few notches up the social ladder.
To cater to this till-now-niche-but-growing demand, many companies have set up art funds. Some banks even offer loans to those who are keen to buy art but don’t have the money. This interest has, thus, led to a sudden rise in the number of art galleries cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which are doing brisk business and opening international branches in cities like New York. Walk into any half decent art exhibit in a Delhi gallery, even by a not-so-well-known artist, and you’ll see sold signs on most of the works.
Indians, now more so in India than abroad, suddenly seem very eager to buy good art and own, what may become the next Husain. As a result, a lot of young and upcoming artists have seen their work being appreciated like never before, to the extent that they themselves are often surprised by the overwhelming response.
It seems that both the Indian artist and the Indian collector have come of age in the new India. The latter have more money than they know what to do with, and the former are only too happy to fuel this craze.