Christie's in India: Catering to a new community of collectors

Ahead of its debut exhibition in Mumbai, Christie’s CEO Steven Murphy points to emerging markets and online sales as opportunities that have an impact on how the auction business is morphing with the times

Published: Dec 19, 2013
Christie's in India: Catering to a new community of collectors
Steven P Murphy, CEO, Christie's

James Christie’s first-ever auction, in December 1766, had four Indian glass paintings. Indian properties have since been part of its auctions but it is only been since the 1990s that it began to dedicate auctions to Indian (and subcontinental) art in London and New York. It established Tyeb Mehta as the first Indian artist to cross the $1m mark in 2002, and his values have increased ever since. Benchmark prices were also created for F N Souza in 2008 (Birth, $2.5m), while S H Raza’s Saurashtra, auctioned in 2010 for $3.5m, remains the most expensive work of Indian art ever sold. Records are hardly new to Christie’s which, a few weeks previously, established a new yardstick for the world’s most expensive painting (Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud, $142m). Its first commercial auction in 2013 in Mumbai has created a stir among collectors of Indian art, not least for its selection of noteworthy ‘national treasures’ – artists whose works cannot be exported and, therefore, sold at auctions outside the country.

Spearheading Christie’s since 2010 as chief executive officer is Steven P Murphy, sometimes described as ‘the most powerful person in the art world’. With previous stewardship in music and publishing at EMI Music/Angel Records and Rodale Inc. at times of change in both industries, he couldn’t have come at a better time to the elite world of art, and his presence has been marked with an effort to turn ‘mass’ while retaining the core values at Christie’s. His big forays in 2013 have included Christie’s debut in, first, Shanghai, and now Mumbai.

Murphy’s first visit to India as head of Christie’s coincided with the India Art Fair, and in Mumbai, this time round, he spent three days ahead of the auction meeting private clients – industry-speak for likely bidders wanting to check provenance and authenticity and review prices. He was accompanied by Christie’s India team, now headed by Sanjay Sharma, previously of Swarovski, and accompanied by auctioneer Hugo Weihe and expert Amin Jaffer. He spoke to Forbes India before the auction to forecast new directions for the auction house and the likely prognosis for art trends in general and Indian art in particular. 

Welcome to India. What are your expectations from Christie’s debut in Mumbai?
Wherever I travel I find that the interest and audiences for art continue to grow, and with that we see new collectors engaging in the art market at all price levels. This is equally true in India, a country with such rich artistic heritage. Christie’s has had an office in India for the last 20 years and we have been holding sales in this category over many years in London and New York. Spending time with our team here in Mumbai and meeting clients over the last few days, I am more certain than ever that the time is right for us to be holding our inaugural auction. 

How familiar are you personally with Indian artists? 
I have always held a fascination with India and was very fortunate to spend some time here before joining Christie’s. I was in Delhi in 2013 at the India Art Fair which was impeccably staged and curated. I benefit from the insight of the international Christie’s specialists who have over 150 years of combined experience in the field. In February, two of our specialists brought me to the studio of Syed Haider Raza, where I had the honour to meet the master, and that extraordinary experience, of course, has led me deeper into an appreciation and exploration of his work. 

You entered China and India both in 2013. Can you tell us the major strengths and weaknesses of both markets? What will 2014 be like for them?
I’m not sure that comparisons work well as each market is very distinctive. We have had offices in both India and mainland China since the 1990s. In both countries, we have seen evidence of the global trend whereby more and more people are showing interest and enthusiasm for art – be it at museums, art fairs or the art market. At Christie’s we believe that the auction is not only our heritage but our invitation to new clients. So our inaugural auctions in China, and now in India, serve to convene the art community and collectors, and allow us to showcase both the art and our services, and connect these communities through Christie’s to the rest of our global network.

2013 was significant also for the record price you set for Francis Bacon. What are the big sales you have planned for 2014?
The Francis Bacon was a great moment – particularly as such a huge amount of work goes into creating the momentum for a sale. Before the auction in New York, works of art from the sale had toured to London, Paris, Moscow and Shanghai. In our world the train is always moving and the announcements of the lead works for our next major sales in London in February will be upon us very soon. 

You’re a great votary of online commerce. How will you get it to impact Christie’s, and particularly Christie’s India?
It already has. We held our first online-only auction in December 2012, and followed with seven sales in 2013. We have held over 40 online-only auctions and we have seen that almost 40 per cent of buyers are new clients to Christie’s. This is an accessible and convenient platform with which to connect with collectors anywhere in the world, and we are already looking forward to offering more sales in 2014. 

In addition, the website continues to see a growth in visitors, and almost one in three of our clients now chooses to bid at a traditional auction via Christie’s LIVE. [Christie’s auction in Mumbai was broadcast on Christie’s LIVE for bidders from around the world who were able to bid online.]

What direction is the global art market going to take? Are we out of the woods as far as the recession is concerned?
The fundamental fact is that the combination of the surge in interest in art, combined with the new connectivity available online, has opened the door to a vast population of new collectors globally. This surge in new buyers, which is continuing, far outstrips any modulation in sales that macro-economic trends would affect. In fact, 2010, 2011 and 2012 all saw record levels of sales for Christie’s – and while we won’t announce results for 2013 until the New Year, it has continued to show growth. In the last few years there has been a fundamental shift in the art market which has developed and evolved during this time probably as much as it ever has before; the cultural appreciation for art has boomed, and technology, and the internet in particular, has made Christie’s even more transparent and accessible to collectors anywhere in the world. We have witnessed the coming of age of a truly global art market. We have never before had exposure to so many collectors and our client base is deeper than ever before as people from around the world are attracted to engage in the art market. From £1k to £50m, we serve every level of the market, from London to Shanghai, New York to Mumbai – and everywhere online. 
 

Do boom years scare away collectors? Are bad or negative years good for them?
Thanks to the worldwide cultural growth of art appreciation and Christie’s ability to connect with more and more clients through Christie’s online and our opening of fully staffed operations in new markets, we are benefiting from these boom years. And while prices are increasing, that encourages art, and in fact, masterpieces, to be offered for sale, which in the end, is very good for the collectors.

To get back to India, can you share your plans?
We believe that India, Indian collectors and Indian art will increasingly become a significant contribution in the future growth of Christie’s internationally. Christie’s has operated since 1766 and built a global network of 12 auction centres, 53 offices in 32 countries. This is a major milestone in Christie’s history and further solidifies our position and commitment to this exciting art market with its strong heritage and appreciation of art. We look forward to offering collectors in India more direct access to Christie’s. Building on our 20-year history with a permanent presence in India, we are making a long-term commitment to the future development of this market.  We look forward to offering collectors in India more direct access to Christie’s and concomitantly offering Indian art to the world through the Christie’s network. The two complement and enrich each other.

London, New York, to an extent Hong Kong and Dubai are hubs for international art. Can India make the cut?
It already has – the artists represented in this sale are the same names you would see in the sale catalogues for New York in March and September and London in June, and actually, I believe that Christie’s can play a role in developing that hub here as we invite our clients and collectors from around to consign their works and also to join us here in the coming seasons. 

Can you tell the difference between New York, London and Mumbai as markets for Indian art?
We are incredibly fortunate in this, our inaugural sale, to have great works from leading artists of the modern art movement in India, many from the personal collection of the highly respected gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy. Some of these works cannot be exported and we are very privileged to be able to provide an environment where they can be exchanged domestically and their importance recognised by an international group of collectors. As for a more thorough analysis of the differences in each region, perhaps this would be best answered after the sale when we have had a chance to analyse the results.

Tell us about the biggest challenge India offers Christie’s?
We are fortunate to have the office already established and a 12-strong team in place here further supported by the international specialists. We have also appointed a new managing director, Sanjay Sharma, who will lead our business here. I think the biggest challenge is already overcome – the logistics of putting on our museum-quality exhibitions in New Delhi and Mumbai have involved hours of planning and hard work. Fortunately we have a great team who work behind the scenes and source with the most talented local contractors who work alongside them to make it all run smoothly.

Is Christie’s looking at a larger picture – selling Western art in India? 
We will adapt to the demand in the market. However, the sophistication of the Indian collector is already evident, and needs no encouragement from Christie’s. Our role is to present Western art and other objects and genres here as we do around the world, and frankly, let the art speak for itself. It will find its own connection to India’s sophisticated buyers. We have also increased the ease of access for collectors based in India who wish to engage with Christie’s in other global selling centres  - from New York to Shanghai. 

Is it important for a nation’s art to have a global or even a continental base of collectors instead of a provincial national base alone, as is the case of Chinese and Indian art?
This is already a global category and these artists are not only included in our sales held around the world but are increasingly shown in major museums and institutions there. For example, there will be a major retrospective of V S Gaitonde’s work at the Guggenheim in New York in 2014.

In your debut auction, you’ve eliminated contemporary Indian art almost completely from the sale. Is there a message in this for the collector?
Our aspirations in India are long term and so we made a strategic decision to keep this, our first sale, relatively small and the quality high, which is consistent with what our clients expect from our international team. Domestically there has been an adjustment in the contemporary market. Our sale includes important works by the leading names, the majority of them modern works of great quality and with exceptional provenance. In our experience this is what collectors are looking for regardless of the location of the sale. 

At the same time, you’ve brought a lot of focus on previously neglected Bengal artists. Are you creating a new market within the moderns?
We are delighted to step back in time to shine a new light on the Bengal school. By offering works by Rabindranath Tagore, the importance of this school will be rediscovered. Now is the moment to reconnect with history by linking the art of the important chapter of Indian modernisms taking place at the pre-independence time with the Progressive art movement which took place after gaining independence. 

What will Christie’s do to educate the Indian market? 
India remains a growth market for our business and our experience in other parts of the world where the art market is in its relative infancy, the marketplace needs to work together collaboratively to provide the best environment for artists and collectors to meet and share their interest and passions. Initiatives that provide these opportunities, whether they be gallery openings, exhibitions, art fairs or auctions, help to provide a sustainable, nurturing atmosphere in which the art business can only benefit and continue to thrive. We all have a part to play and education and accessibility here is key which is why we were so keen to support Homelands, the touring exhibition organised earlier this year by the British Council. Their education programme was one of the critical reasons behind our decision to take part. The auction and pre-sale exhibition has also given us an opportunity to bring the very best of Indian art to Mumbai and New Delhi. In New Delhi we hosted an art forum discussion focused on cultural stewardship with Kiran Nadar, chairperson of the Kiran Nadar Museum, Pooja Sood, director, KHOJ, International Artists’ Association and Bharat Wakhlu, resident director, Tata Services Ltd.

Auctions headbeam prices, so what’s your prognosis for the Indian art market?
We believe India is a dynamic growth market with great potential, and wish to connect it with Christie’s activities around the world. We believe that India, Indian collectors and Indian art will increasingly become a significant contribution to the future growth of Christie’s internationally. 

Will art elitism survive this decade, or has the virtual museum and the net robbed it off some of that sheen?
It’s part of why this business is so dynamic. With an increased global demand for art, we have invested in sale channels and geographies which have connected us with more people than ever before. We have also invested heavily into digital operations so I think this is the part of our business that I have the greatest expectations for as they allow anyone in any part of the globe to purchase online. In fact, nearly half of our online-only buyers are new to Christie’s and web traffic is up 22 per cent in the first half of the year. With a superb private sales and exhibition platform we continuously offer clients access to acquire great art throughout the year.

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