Pundole’s artwork sale last week is one of many successful virtual auctions during the pandemic. Is there an explanation?
A torrential downpour, howling winds and even a pandemic couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of eager buyers at Pundole’s art sale last week. The Mumbai-based auction house sold 98% of its 64 lots, at a hammer price of ₹14.78 crore or $1.9 million (including a 15% buyer’s premium). The sale included world record auction prices for six artists including Krishen Khanna, Piraji Sagara, Mehlli Gobhai, Navjot Altaf and works on paper by Sudhir Patwardhan and Homi Patel. “There were works for all budgets, from ₹20,000 and they were a combination of good quality, superb provenance and hard-to-find subjects, which created the perfect storm – no pun intended”, explains Mallika Sagar, auctioneer and fine arts specialist. Despite the lack of buzz of a live room, technology allowed for frantic bidding. Many works were put on the market for the first time, from two private collections — that of Tina and Bakul Khote and that of Beroze and Michel Sabatier.
Brand modernist artists continue to command a premium. An early work on paper by S.H. Raza, offered by another seller, sold for ₹80,000,000, more than two and a half times its low estimate. But active auctions for contemporary works by Anju Dodiya, Vasundhara Tewari Broota, Nalini Malani and Navjot Altaf were also encouraging. Against the backdrop of the migrant crisis, Nalini Malani’s 1988 watercolor ‘Regarding an Immigrant Family in the City’ sold for ₹13,000,000, well above its estimate of 2,000,000 at ₹3,000,000.
Ways to spend it
Indian art auctions have remained buoyant since March, when Sotheby’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale fetched ₹35.7 crore. In June, Saffronart auctions totaled ₹17.5 crore. Last month, Christie’s July sale fetched ₹35.7 crore and ₹51.4 crore from Asta Guru. (All figures include buyer’s premium ranging from 15-30%).
During the lockdown, Saffronart has, in addition to its main auctions, held many smaller, unreserved auctions such as Absolute Tuesdays and Friday Fives with a mix of art and other collectables. Minal Vazirani, president and co-founder of the company, says these have also been very successful. “These auctions took on a life of their own during this time,” she says. The company’s 20-year bet on online sales has set it apart, as it has just under 40% market share in the global Indian art auction market.
As discretionary spending on leisure activities, whether travel or shopping, comes to a halt, even occasional art buyers are willing to spend more. After all, how many people will buy high-end bags on the internet and, more importantly, where will they wear them?
“Art around the world seems to be holding its value because of easy cash flow conditions and because people have more time at home to look at art,” says the businessman and art collector. Dara Mehta art. Staying indoors has clearly had an effect on the art market. As Udit Bhambri, another prolific collector, puts it: “You spend so much time at home, but you can’t really rearrange your house right now. Art is an easy way to look at your space differently.
The pandemic has seen serious and emerging art collectors react to stable prices and good works coming to market. Mumbai-based businessman Shyamal Bodani, who started collecting art five years ago, bought 11 works during lockdown months, including a watercolor by Ayesha Sultana, a mural by Manish Nye and a work by young artist Biraaj Dodiya. He finally found the time to find out more about these artists, who were always on his radar. “My art has kept me company for the past six months,” he says.
Digital activity drives sales
“People imagine that the art world is suffering, which is not the case at all,” says Roshini Vadehra, director of the Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery. “In terms of volume, our sales in the past two months have been higher than in recent years as everyone is in India and not distracted by holidays.” When the pandemic hit, the gallery decided to intensify its digital distribution, via a weekly newsletter and an online store. Vadehra has also sold to NRIs based in Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta, in the $30,000 or higher range, using apps like Art Placer (which lets you preview a digital display of art).
Shireen Gandhy, who runs Mumbai’s Chemould gallery on Prescott Road, said she sold three works by Anju Dodiya, whose solo show was on display when the lockdown hit. “In March, I wasn’t even sure I would receive payments, but they arrived without us asking,” she says. Since then, about 20 sales requests have come through Instagram alone.
Prateek Raja, co-director of Experiment in Kolkata, explains that the gallery also engages with young collectors who returned to Kolkata during this period. “We meet our collectors at art fairs where there is literally a five minute window to talk, but over the past few months we have had several in-depth conversations with collectors that last much longer than a rushed conversation. “, he says, referring to presentations with customers made on Zoom.
In April, the three galleries joined several others to launch In Touch, an online platform where each shortlisted space works to sell. While the jury decides on its commercial success, the initiative reflects the kind of cooperation that exists between art sellers.
Saffronart has launched a gallery partner program to give local galleries access to a wider global network. “There was a perception in the market that it was a zero-sum game, that if one person sold, it could hinder other sales,” says Vazirani. “If we collaborate, it fosters a greater level of engagement and helps attract more people to the arts ecosystem.”