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Growth trajectory of Indian art intact despite adverse economic conditions
Leading art research firm ArtTactic’s market confidence report late last year had given a thumbs-up to Indian modern art, albeit expressing a touch of caution about the contemporaries. The analyst firm’s Indian Art Market Confidence Indicator then had pointed to a good recovery largely on the back of stronger secondary/ auction market for Modern Indian art.

What does its latest report indicate even as the year 2011 draws to a close? According to it, the confidence in the Indian Modern art market still remains reasonably high, in spite of negative economic outlook globally. The overall Indian Art Market Confidence Indicator of ArtTactic is down by more than 25% (28%, to be precise) from six months ago. But this is more to do with macro-economic factors and the decreasing confidence in the economy, which has gone down by a significant 69%.

However, most experts are still strongly positive about state of the Indian Modern art market, with a streak of confidence gradually returning to the contemporary Indian art market, as well. Giving an overview of the auction scene, the insightful report mentions: “The last round of Indian art auctions (in September 2011) was a lackluster affair, with the final sale figures coming in 17% below the low-end of its pre-sale estimate range of 885,120 to 989,475. However, the total (although it failed to reach the pre-sale expectations) managed to halt the steady decline in sales volume that the market has experienced for almost a year.”

On the other hand, the broader Chinese Contemporary Art Market Confidence Indicator maintained a positive bias, in spite of drastic drop in the contemporary art market confidence level, internationally. The Contemporary Art Market Confidence indicator of China presently stands at 80; the highest reading of all the Market Confidence Indicators released by ArtTactic Art. Incidentally, that of US and Europe is 35, whereas India is doing much better (though not as good as China) with the country’s Market Confidence Indicator reading at 53. However, this market confidence as far as China is concerned, might face a stress test, so to say, in the next 6 months. Analysts are a bit concerned about the sustainability of the present growth rate. Close to half of those (49%) surveyed (up from just 17% of in April 2011) feel the Chinese contemporary art market will be flat in the next 6 months.

Corroborating this undercurrent of thought, Colin Gleadell of The UK Telegraph studied Asian art (that of China in particular) sales figures attained by Bonhams and Christie’s London, to suggest that some steam sure has gone out of the Chinese market, as quite a few of the higher valued lots were unsold in November 2011. Amidst the rising nervousness, a big boost to the world art market came in the form of Sotheby's rounding out New York's major fall auctions with a sale that fetched 315.8 million of contemporary & postwar art -well over its high estimate of $270 million. It was the third-highest sale total achieved by its contemporary art department. (Its peak is at $362 million evening sale in 2008.) The highlight was selling off a quartet of Clyfford Still paintings for an impressive $114 million, nearly twice their total asking price. A telephone bidder paid more than $19.5 million for an emerald-green triptych by Francis Bacon, ‘Three Studies for a Self-Portrait’ that the British artist did in 1967.

The sale, held in a backdrop of world financial market turmoil, gave Sotheby's its highest contemporary total since May 2008 -- when the art market was at its peak. The sale blew every expectation away, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer was quoted as saying. Art market observer Adam Lindemann’s take on the stratospheric prices achieved was rather sarcastic: “If it (the art market) could speak, it would have cackled and then quoted Mark Twain by stating, ‘the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ Most of the artworks successfully found new homes at reasonable if not modestly bullish prices. So what’s my advice to those intrepid collectors committed to moving forward? These days I’ll take my cue from the wisdom of old Ben Franklin, who once said, Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see...”

Emphasizing the growing faith in contemporary art in billionaires, The ET Bureau report mentioned: “The reasons are as abstract as the subject on sale but millionaires, billionaires and collectors with ready cash seem to be racing to the art market to buy what they think is more tangible than any other available investment options. It quoted, Associate Vice President (Specialist, Post-War & Contemporary Art and Head of Evening Sales), Koji Inoue, as saying: “This strong trend, been spurred by collectors not really looking at art as an investment, will continue in the market. It’s more buoyed by a powerful store value. They weren't necessary speculators and could not let it pass on a once in a lifetime opportunity, no matter what the economic standards are."

Back home, online art auction house Saffronart’s '24-Hour Absolute Auction of Contemporary Indian Art' fetched Rs 2.44 crore ($510,194) of sales. It featured 85 lots of which Subodh Gupta's 'Untitled' sold for Rs 72 lakh ($150,000). Apart from the investment angle, Indian art is drawing global attention for its sheer aesthetic and thematic qualities. New foreign influences infiltrate, collide and intertwine with the country’s rich traditions and ancient values that still remain unchanged. Socially sensitive, talented contemporary artists highlight this irony through their practice placed in a global context in a range of artistic media from painting, sculpture, and photography to installation and video art.

The brain behind Outset India, a platform to draw private funding for art in India, Feroze Gujral, mentioned in The HT interview: “The contemporary Indian art scene is growing at a fast pace, second only to China. It is considered as a serious business with a turnover of over $350 million in 2011. Our country has immense potential to flourish in this space.”

However for it to grow, the market (valued somewhere between $100 million to $ 400 million) will need to broaden its base to encompass Tier II and III cities, moving beyond Delhi and Mumbai, apart from not relying on NRIs for its international push. Last but not the least, this is not a market for those looking to make quick money, but perfect for committed collectors, ready to pick the quality works on offer at attractive prices.