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Amin Jaffer (International Director of Asian Art, Christie’s) in conversation with Yamini Mehta (Director of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art, Christie’s).


AJ: It is over ten years now that modern and contemporary Indian art has been sold at international auction as a separate category. Today India has a rapidly developing gallery scene and modern and contemporary Indian art features regularly in the international art press. More than ever it seems that the work of Indian artists is receiving worldwide attention. You’ve been working in this field for some years, what do you feel is the current position of modern and contemporary Indian art?

YM: We are certainly at an interesting crossroads right now because contemporary artists such Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya and even much younger artists are now starting to be shown internationally, being picked up by western galleries and included in art fairs, biennales, festivals and major museum exhibitions. In the past such artists might have been pigeonholed as South Asian, but today the significance of their work to global audiences in being recognised. I believe too that there will be renewed interest in the work of mid-career and older artists, many of whom are in their seventies, eighties and nineties, but still of course painting and putting together interesting exhibitions. Once they are no longer exhibiting I think we will start to see some interesting retrospectives taking place and with it a renewed appetite for their work, both domestically and internationally. I think that sometimes the key problem we have is that such artists are only now catching up in terms of exposure in the international art market.


Do you think international competition exists for the Progressives and the artists of the 1970s and 1980s as much as it does for the really cutting edge contemporary artists, whom we know are being sought after by leading contemporary art collectors around the world?

While there is competition and interest in some of the senior Progressive artists, we would like to see more international interest in this vein. Certainly from the selling side, some of the most sought after works are coming out of western private collections, which means at one time these works were collected when they were contemporary. Artists such as Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani and Rameshwar Broota also have legions of admirers but it does come down to the exposure the artists receive. Many of the more senior artists are not presented in the international art fairs, nor have they been included in venues such as the Venice Biennale. India, unfortunately has not had much representation nor was there an official pavilion this year that could offer such exposure. Recent museum shows may have featured a handful of the senior artists but there tends to be a much stronger focus on younger artists, so there hasn’t been that one all-encompassing exhibition as we saw with the Guggenheim’s take on Russia for instance. I do think it would be worthwhile as contemporary South Asian artists are part of a larger historical canon and not operating in their own vacuum. I also think that for a non-educated audience, it is just as important to see how Jamini Roy and Ravinder Reddy can be connected by their work. Unfortunately in London, galleries and artists are resorting to ‘renting’ prestigious museum spaces and having short-term exhibitions just to be seen but it is certainly not the same as being in a show curated by the in-house museum staff.

Today it is not just in Indian contemporary art but in contemporary art throughout that we are seeing a situation where works that are being made by young artists are fetching high prices and achieving a level of success that may not have been the case some years ago. I think it is part and parcel of the time we live in. There is an element of investment and speculation that is coming into the contemporary sphere. As price points are a lot lower, people are willing to take a gamble on contemporary artists that may cost anywhere upwards of a few thousand dollars as opposed to a few hundred thousand dollars. Buying contemporary art is also accompanied by the thrill of novelty and the thrill of the hunt, that is to say, being able to acquire works by artists before they are fully in the public domain.


Are institutions actually buying contemporary Indian art? It’s a fascinating question, because museums and foundations play a central role in the development of an artist’s value. Ultimately they recognise and therefore acknowledge the significance of an artist’s work by declaring that it should be accessible, displayed, represented and exhibited on a global platform. Do you think that Indian art is getting this kind of recognition?

I think it is only now starting to happen internationally. A few museums in Japan, Europe and Australia have been ahead of the curve where contemporary art is concerned. There was an article in The New York Times last month stating that one of the New York museums has been endowed with funds to acquire contemporary Asian and Asian-American art. I would imagine that some of the major museum projects in the Gulf region will also have a South Asian component. A lot of this reflects the current position of India as a leading global economic and political force. It goes with how India as a nation has been positioned internationally. For four or five decades after independence, India was primarily nonaligned, officially neutral and semi-socialist. This limited routes for cultural exchange with the West. If you want to study India today, there are far fewer venues at the graduate level than for instance with China or Japan. Indians are also only now achieving the status that gets them invited on museum boards and as trustees which in turn shapes the direction of the museum and what it acquires. This requires a certain level of philanthropy as well.


Well, this leads on to a very interesting point, which is that we have known for years Europeans and Americans have been avid collectors of Mughal miniatures, Rajput miniatures, bronzes, all sorts of high quality Indian works of art. Do you think that having now participated in the art world in the process of buying art, Indians will turn their attention to traditional Indian works of art, which as I say have received great critical approval internationally?

When I started working at Christie’s, now almost 10 years ago, it was actually in the Indian antiquities field which was primarily inhabited by European and American collectors with a handful of Indians participating in the auctions. Interestingly enough a few of the most renowned western contemporary art dealers and critics actually have fantastic personal collections of classical Indian, Himalayan and South East Asian art. Prices were much higher for these works in comparison to contemporary art, but now that we are seeing six-figure dollar sums attained for newer works, some collectors are looking further back in the past and perhaps thinking that these masterpieces that have stood the test of time look more like a bargain. However, collecting in this field requires much more connoisseurship and this in turn takes time and education to develop. Another pitfall for a collector based in India who might be very interested in buying say a classical Indian bronze, sculpture or miniature at international auction, is that he or she faces antiquity laws which in a sense penalise and create obstacles for the importer of such works instead of rewarding that collector for bringing back a national treasure.


If I understand correctly the Indian legislation stipulates that someone who is importing an antiquity to India pay a 15 per cent import duty as well as apply for a special licence to bring an item into the country. Once it returns and is registered it cannot be brought out again. One of the issues of course is that with the increasing wealth of Indians, the country is likely to become a magnet for high quality pieces of Indian art. Surely if laws were liberalized we would start to see extraordinary Indian treasures coming back into the country over the next 30 or 40 years.

I would not be surprised if there was a surge in acquiring classical Indian antiquity in regard to works from Gandhara, Pala, Gupta, Chola all the way to Mughal and British Company School periods reflecting different collecting tastes. We do see something akin to this in the Chinese field of a buy-back of culture. I think we are in the age of the modern maharaja and maharani who enjoy the trappings of luxury and revel in their status as patrons. These are not necessarily investment buyers but are passionate collectors with a refined sense of history and aesthetics, though the rarity of these works may well make it an interesting investment over time.


What do you think the obstacles are for collectors of modern and contemporary Indian art today? On the one hand, in our conversation so far, clearly one of the issues is speculative buying. One of the other issues is probably that of knowledge or lack of knowledge, the fact that collectors are sometimes not buying from a position of confidence but from a position motivated by all sorts of other reasons. Collectors buy for a variety of different reasons; it is not only the beauty of the object that makes one want to acquire it. However, do you think that buying a work for status or social position is particularly strong in the modern and contemporary Indian art market?

One socially networked client of ours mentioned that anybody who’s anybody now has to have an Indian art collection to be seen as having arrived in society. There is an element of truth in that people are more likely to notice what is on the walls now than they did ten years ago. Though we often get asked about which artist to invest in, I shy away from answering this directly because I cannot predict the future; I can only advise which works or artists I think are good or which ones have interesting things to say about themselves and the times they live in. What I find a little troubling is that there is a class of very speculative buyers with little knowledge about what they are buying but who assume that everything is going up. In a buoyant market everything floats and sometimes there is very little distinction between fine art, commercial art, and mere decoration. There are a few elements in the media and some in the field who have actively been promoting this notion of investment and huge percentages of yearly returns. You can’t compare art to real estate or stocks. Art is not as liquid and it is not as easy to judge what the values are or what the values should be in time.


One of the issues of course is that each work of art is distinctive. And even if it is a print or a multiple there is the question of condition, provenance, and so on which make for an interesting work. But again, as someone who has worked in the field I am very curious to know what you feel determines a good work of art, what type of things should people be looking for when they are buying?

Sometimes it is a tangible, effable quality and sometimes it is a feeling that unfortunately cannot be so easily expressed. We advise our clients to buy the highest quality that they can afford and that means looking at the work in terms of the execution and technical merit, the condition and the concept behind the work. We are finding that artists may be pushed to create works because they have received commercial success and cease to take chances or risks once they have figured a formula and that is when you start to see works being churned out to cater to a large demand. The new collector should at the outset tread carefully. It is important to buy what one likes, but before investing large sums of money one should take the time to speak to people who are in the field – museum/gallery directors, curators, auction houses – to get a full overview about the works, or the artists’ career or the artists.


One of the things I have noticed is that with the emergence of a gallery scene in India, there are a significant number of very smart galleries I have visited recently with plenty of wall space. Of course galleries constantly need new exhibitions and inevitably there must be a sort of marathon for artists to produce enough to fill all of this space. What does that mean for Indian art and for the buyers of Indian art today?

There are some great venues that have come into being and the style of presentation is at the same standard whether you are in Chelsea or Mayfair or Colaba. The galleries certainly have smartened up from the pressure of stiff competition to hold and procure artists. However, one also has to judge a gallery based not on an impressive space or the current show that is running but on the full programme of shows, the quality of the artists that it represents and the vision of its proprietors. Commercial galleries are mainly interested in turnover of sales. They could be selling anything. The high end galleries are more interested in placement and positioning their artists and are more likely to have their artists in international venues and with prominent collectors.


One of the critical aspects I think, intrinsic to forming a collection or buying works of art is knowledge. I am frequently asked, ‘how do I acquire knowledge of art?’ On the one hand there are books available on the subject, but they don’t necessarily give you a critical understanding of why certain artists are important, let alone provide an understanding of the physical properties of a work of art. Often handling a work of art or owning it is the best way of developing one’s knowledge. What do you feel, where can people who are interested in Indian art, in modern and contemporary Indian art, go and learn?

We have clients who made time to take courses, whether at Christies’s Education or the Courtauld Institute. Unfortunately these are still very early days where the field of contemporary Indian art history is concerned. I find that there are relatively few scholars who combine the linear depth of Indian art history and the breadth of the contemporary scene. Sometimes this is necessary to understand a very post-modern work, say by Atul Dodiya, where he could alternately reference Gujarati poetry, Gandhi and Josef Beuys all in the same body of work. For the collector who is coming into this field it helps to start by just going to museums, be it the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay, the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the V&A or the British Museum in London where you get an overview and can look for works that are deemed to have quality. It is a good exercise to analyse why a particular work is on display or what attributes inspired a museum to own and display the work. That is the best way to develop one’s eye.


We often speak excitedly about modern and contemporary Indian art. But where do you think South Asian modern and contemporary art broadly is going – both geographically and in terms of where the artists are, in terms of the development of art trends artistically as well as international recognition?

The Indian art market often includes works from the region at large, whether from Lahore or Karachi, Colombo or Dhaka. Organisations like Khoj and VASL bring together artists from different parts of the subcontinent allowing for exchange. Artists are being invited for residencies at places like The Mattress Factory or Gasworks and this allows for exciting new influences to infuse the work of the contemporary artists as we have seen parallels with the senior artists who received Rockefeller grants. For instance, Tyeb Mehta’s painting style underwent a complete transformation following his stint in New York. Khoj will be featured at London’s Frieze Art Fair for the first time. Boundaries are becoming more fluid and we are more likely to see artists from the South Asian diaspora shown in India and vice versa. This is a wonderful time to be in the art scene as the rest of the world is actively trying to make up for its previous neglect and indifference. I imagine that for the top echelon of contemporary artists this is a wildly competitive time.