With changing time, Indian art auction houses betting big on the online format

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New Delhi | Published: June 18, 2017 3:12:00 AM

When Saffronart conducted its 2017 online summer auction recently, up to 74% of the contemporary lots on offer were sold.

art, Jehangir Sabavala, paintings, The Long Dark Land, auctionJehangir Sabavala’s The Long Dark Land, which sold for Rs 2.15 crore at an auction by DAG Modern in April.

When Saffronart conducted its 2017 online summer auction recently, up to 74% of the contemporary lots on offer were sold. Achieving a total sale value of Rs 22.68 crore (about $3.5 million), the auction—which featured a selection of works by artists from the subcontinent—reflects the efforts of homegrown auctioneers at repositioning a market that has been seeing a slow revival in the past few years, one that has even led to global players realigning their strategies to suit the current context, that is, to go increasingly digital.

In March this year, Christie’s announced that it will discontinue its celebrated annual sales in India. The decision came as a surprise to many, as the British auction house’s India sales have witnessed new records being set and new segments being added since it conducted its first annual sale in the country in December 2013. That year, not only did Christie’s double its pre-sale expectations by totalling more than Rs 96.59 crore, but also set a new record for Vasudeo S Gaitonde, whose Untitled, a work from 1979, sold for Rs 23.7 crore against a pre-sale estimate of Rs 6.50-R8.50 crore. In 2015, Gaitonde once again soared above the pre-sale estimate to sell for Rs 29.3 crore, breaking the previous world auction record for the category set in 2013.

Why, then, did Christie’s decide to shut shop in India? As per Sonal Singh, director and specialist head, Christie’s India, the company has been going through a global repositioning. “Indian art auctions have taken place in London and New York for over 20 years… we will continue that. We felt that an auction in Mumbai is not the most essential way to support the market and to continue to give Indian art an international platform,” she explains.

Industry observers also believe that Christie’s now wants to focus on live auctioning in its flagship cities such as New York and London, and wants to amplify the digital approach in other markets such as India. “Christie’s shutting shop in India does not reflect the sensibilities projected by the Indian marketplace since it has also brought down the curtain on one of its London offices, which used to house close to 200 employees. It’s safe to deduce that this is not a decision made to withdraw from the Indian market, but as a cost-cutting initiative,” says Tushar Sethi, director of Astaguru, an online auction house based in Mumbai.

Christie’s move gives a big boost to Indian art auction houses that have been increasingly banking on the online channel. “This only gives us an indication that Astaguru’s model is relevant not only for the Indian marketplace, but on a global level as well. Our front-runner vantage point with regards to digital auctioning gives us leverage and a definitive headstart,” adds Sethi.

Launched in 2008, Astaguru conducted a total of six online auctions last year. In 2016, the auction house also celebrated the milestone of having conducted its 25th auction. “The growth rate for the financial year 2015-16 surpassed the 60% mark in comparison with our turnover of the previous financial year. This rate of growth affirms the fact that we are treading upon the right path with calculative foresight,” says Sethi.

Home advantage

The way of the future is undeniably digital, and Indian art auction houses are going full throttle to capture the market. As per the inaugural edition of the South Asian Art Market Report 2017 published by ArtTactic, a London-based art market research firm, domestic auction sales now account for 59% of the market. While Christie’s dominant position in the south Asian art market has been gradually eroded since 2013, domestic auction houses such as Saffronart, DAG Modern, Pundole’s and Astaguru have increased their market share at the expense of Christie’s, say experts. “There is tremendous scope for local auction houses, provided you set some guidelines to work within. An auction is a great platform for both buyers and sellers, as it’s a public, transparent process, which offers them a level of comfort for determining pricing, as well as establishing authenticity for the works,” says Mallika Advani, a specialist in modern and contemporary Indian art and an auctioneer at Pundole’s, another homegrown auction house based in Mumbai.

“The appetite for auctions in India seems healthy, as collectors here are keen to educate themselves and buy more. As with all segments of the art market, pricing and quality remain the key factors. Fair and well-thought estimates are the key to achieving the most successful results for both buyers and sellers. More often than not, the market will determine its own level for works, which is a clear indication of buying trends,” adds Advani.

Pundole’s is a relatively young auction house having conducted its first auction only in April 2011. However, that auction turned out to be a ‘white-glove’ sale, which, in auction parlance, indicates that all lots on offer were sold. This is considered a difficult and rare achievement.

Post the first auction, Pundole’s took on a life of its own, and carved out a unique niche within the art market in India. The auction house has had 16 sales since 2011 and has established some record prices for artworks in various categories such as a world record for Raja Ravi Varma at an auction (`20 crore); the domestic record for an Indian miniature at an auction (`1.60 crore); the domestic record for an antiquity at an auction (`6 crore); the world record for a Gaitonde paperwork at auction (`1.70 crore); the world record for a figurative Gaitonde work at an auction (`4.20 crore); and so on.

Next up on the auction calendar is a decorative arts sale in September followed by a fine art sale at the end of the year, says Advani.

Digital overdrive

During Saffronart’s recent online auction, participants were found to be hailing from around the world, with new bidders coming in from Singapore, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Hong Kong and Switzerland, thanks to the auctioneer’s digital push. Interestingly, 25% of the bids were placed through Saffronart’s mobile app. The highest bid through the app was for Tyeb Mehta’s Falling Figure, the top lot of the sale.

“Participation through app doubled from last year to nearly a quarter of the total bidders. Up to 40% of the total sale value, above `9 crore (approximately $1.4 million), came through bids placed on the mobile app. The app, which allows bidders to participate in Saffronart’s live and online auctions while on the move, is increasingly becoming an important platform for bidders,” says a Saffronart spokesperson.

Saffronart was founded in 2000 as an online auction house. At the time, the art market in India was in its infancy. It wanted to bring transparency to the process of buying art, and give accessibility and information to buyers around the world. “We publish prices of sold artworks, and make high-resolution images and condition reports available for buyers to make an informed decision,” adds the spokesperson.

The online summer auction is Saffronart’s flagship online auction held in June every year, with viewings in London, New York, New Delhi and Mumbai.

“Online auctions have great potential. They grant easy access to buyers based around the world, placing information at their fingertips. They transcend the restrictions of live auctions and are highly cost-effective. That being said, we believe that a combination of online and live auctions is the way forward. Online auctions afford convenience; live auctions are packed with the thrill and excitement of the auction process, which are equally important,” says the Saffronart spokesperson. Saffronart runs a mix of both formats every year.

Kishore Singh, president of DAG Modern, which took the auction route only in September last year, agrees: “Technology is definitely impacting the way we live and consume, and art is no exception. The online model has proven hugely successful, and I am convinced that more and more auction houses will have to use the model,” he says. “Most auctions now have a hybrid model—live auctions with bidders in the room, telephone bids and online bids. Of course, the purely online model seems to be catching on, too, but while a live auction seems to be best for more high-end art, online-only sales seem appropriate for works with a mid-market value.”

DAG Modern is one of the only auction companies in the country that has taken its previews to six cities before an auction, “and we aim to grow that number each time”, Singh adds. So far, DAG Modern has had three auctions, and has found the response reassuring. “Our next auctions will follow in the fall-winter season,” says Singh.

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Even Singh of Christie’s India is positive about the online format. “We hold approximately 350 auctions a year, of which 100 are online. Each online sale offers the same conditions of sales as live auctions, and is researched by the same team of specialists. This demonstrates that online sales don’t compromise on quality of expertise or client service… they are a tool expected by today’s clients,” she says, adding, “At present, online auctions occupy the third component of Christie’s offerings, beside live auctions and private sales. Online sales accounted for 33% of new buyers at Christie’s in 2016.”

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