WHEN CHRISTIE’S decided to expand its market to Indians at home after years of selling Indian art to the country’s affluent diaspora in the West, Hugo Weihe was made the point person for its maiden venture in Mumbai in December 2013. Under his leadership, the London auction house achieved many record-breaking prices that year, including the Rs 23.5-crore sale of Gaitonde’s oil on canvas.
So, naturally, when the former international director of Asian art at Christie’s took on his new role as the CEO of Saffronart—a premier auctioneer with deep Indian roots—on July 1, the world took note. The development is also being seen as the rightful moment for Indian art to further shine on the global map. As per Saffronart, Weihe will oversee its presence in Mumbai, New Delhi, New York and London in building a market for Indian art and antiquities globally.
“At Christie’s, my goal was to build sales in India, and it was a great success. For me, it was clear that the next step was to build the market in India itself from the ground up. I’m really thrilled to now have this possibility with Dinesh and Minal (Vazirani, co-founders of Saffronart), and take this superb platform to the next level. The market in India has grown consistently and more than half of the activities are happening out of India itself,” says Weihe, who has been a longstanding adviser and friend to prominent private collectors worldwide.
Weihe brings to Saffronart a wealth of experience and knowledge. Internationally considered as one of the foremost experts in the field of Asian art, Weihe was brought on board to Christie’s from Sotheby’s in 1998 to establish the department of Indian and south-east Asian art from scratch. During his time, Weihe was instrumental in catapulting Christie’s Asian art department and specifically the Indian department to a market leadership position, largely due to his carefully curated shows, sourcing of exceptional masterpieces from various important collections, innovative business sense and detailed knowledge of the market.
Weihe has also appeared as a panelist and moderator for discussions on south Asian modern and contemporary art besides conducting interviews with artists and collectors at various international venues and art fairs. He has a PhD in art history from the University of Zurich and also authored a book, Die Ware Kunst (Art as Commodity), in 1989. In the early 1990s, he was the publisher of Artibus Asiae, an important scholarly journal in the field of Asian art in collaboration with the Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC.
As the new CEO of Saffronart, Weihe’s immediate priorities will include tapping other opportunities like the antiquities market, which it plans to develop in India. “I believe that the antiquities market has great potential. But we see that some 2,000-year-old antiquities are often not valued as much as modern paintings. We will try to do away with that discrepancy and close the gap,” offers Weihe.
Talking about his love for Indian art, Weihe says as a student of art history in Switzerland, he was always interested in cultural exchange and influences across cultures. “First, I was interested in Japanese impressionists’ works. Then I was also interested in Himalayan art. Studying in Switzerland, I came across the first refugees from Tibet there. Since they were from the same mountainous landscape as Switzerland, they were readily accepted. I really appreciate Nepalese and Tibetan art, and I realised that all of these originated from India. So India is like the motherland of them all,” he explains.
While in Switzerland, Weihe had the privilege of working with art historians Eberhard Fischer and BN Goswamy at the Reitberg Museum in Zurich. “They were the pioneers in collecting Pahari paintings and writing the monographs, and establishing that. So that was my contact with Indian art in Switzerland, which really inspired me. I wanted to do more for Asian art in general and for India, as the nucleus of it all. It may sound unusual, but for me, it’s a natural passion,” he explains further.
Weihe wants to connect India’s enormous cultural wealth and history—5,000 years of history and culture—with the rest of the world. “Now is the moment for India to reach out to the world. Today, everyone wants to learn about India, know more about the country. (PM Narendra) Modi is out there trying to reach out to everyone. Now is also the moment to be really proud of the country’s heritage,” he says.
Saffronart is a pioneer in online auctions. The website, www.saffronart.com, as the online location for all auctions, is central to the services the auctioneer provides. Weihe now wants to take it to the next level. “It’s a beautiful model.
The cost of space is very low and you can put out all the information online. We’ll push the technology to remain cutting-edge always. Now, we also have the mobile platform as the next step,” he says.
Online sales are attractive, but Weihe says live sales are equally important. “The whole atmosphere of a live auction is different. There are the pieces of artwork, the people and the confidence of an open marketplace. We will try to expand on both the verticals,” he adds.
In April this year, Indian art admirers got an opportunity to view original prints of Hollywood posters, lobby cards and publicity stills at a Hollywood film memorabilia auction initiated by Saffronart. Prior to that, Saffronart hosted three Bollywood sales. Its first one in June 2014 saw the Amitabh Bachchan collection, which had two film posters—Don and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar—selling at a whopping Rs 1.74 lakh.
Weihe considers this as an exciting platform. “There’s a great opportunity for us to do popular art, Bollywood, comics and other things. To build on that, we have StoryLTD, which is a sub-brand of Saffronart. Looking at the categories that we can do, I believe that it’s a great platform,” says Weihe, adding, “We can also look at categories like tribal art, which is uniquely important for India.”
As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, Saffronart will hold a special sale in September at The Oberoi in New Delhi. “This will be high-end and really selective, and will set a new milestone for the company,” Weihe adds.