Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Warrior (1982) will soon be offered at Christie’s in Hong Kong with an estimate of between $31 million and $41 million. But pore through any catalogue for auctions by art houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonhams and the names of Indian artists that generate the highest sales range between $1 million and a shade under $5 million and are almost always by masters that include F.N. Souza, V.S. Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Raja Ravi Varma, Akbar Padamsee, and depending on the year and the work, M.F. Husain.

The prices, which vary for artists based on size and work, have crossed the $1-million mark but for both collectors as well as investors where does one place one’s future bets before the price escalates?

Long-time art auctioneer and gallery owner Dadiba Pundole adds that it is ultimately a process you can’t rush, nor can you have exact answers for when and how and which artist will break that price barrier, he says. “It’s a combination of both market perception and how galleries represent the artist in his or her lifetime.”

Ultimately what matters in addition to quality is the group of people who buy “into the artist” and set the tone for art going forward. “Anyone who makes money will want to hang trophies on their wall but setting the trend is another thing,” Pundole says.

He declines to identify which artists he thinks will make it big in the future but underscores the fact that it would behove any modern artist to pay attention to their Indian heritage over the last 70 years and capture that in their work. As example, in India, M.F. Husain exemplified that with work that ranged from Mother Teresa to Madhuri Dixit in his lifetime. Across the world, in America, Andy Warhol did the same with everything from Marilyn Monroe to Campbell’s soup cans in his bid to encapsulate a slice of Americana in all his works.

There are several factors that drive the prices of art throughout the world. “When serious collectors show interest in a particular art style of the artist, a particular series of an artist, it plays a role in the pricing of the art,” says award-winning artist Paresh Maity, whom critics refer to as India’s best water colourist.

Does that mean consumers in India are only content with “pretty art” to adorn their homes? “In order to have a relevant presence in the art market, it ultimately has to be a serious piece of art. Art which is technically strong as well as aesthetically sound and conceptually powerful will always be in demand,” says Maity.

Adarsh Saran, art aficionado and one of the earlier collectors of Indian art, goes on to say that there’s always been room for serious art. “With the advent of European influenced art of recording ethnic tribes, flora, and fauna through Indian Masters (Impey Collection) that caught on in 1750s through the1900s, to the Company School recording local festivals and scenes and social lives of the ‘locals’, there were collections but mostly with British ruling classes, being auctioned in London,” Saran says. “With the onset of the Bengal School inspired by Tagore-Santiniketan and Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay, collections started being built by rich Indian business houses—predominately the Parsis in Bombay and Marwaris all over India.”

Serious art as a class resided in institutes and libraries, but the crossover started, particularly as many artists travelled out to Europe and started residing there. Artists like Paritosh Sen, Gopal Ghose, Jamini Roy, and F.N. Souza made Europe their principal and injected influences in their work and what followed later was the recognition of masters like Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, and Amrita Sher-Gil, Saran says.

Rakhi Sarkar, founder director of CIMA (Centre of International Modern Art), says that the makings of a champion in the long term are as much about purpose as talent. “Art is not supposed to only be pretty. It’s also about being a means and a voice for society,” she says. “Sound art education is lacking by and large in India.”

In her view, artists that are likely to see upward escalation and ongoing appreciation include Ganesh Pyne, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Prabhakar Barwe, Sailoz Mookherjea, Abanindranath Tagore, and Ramkinkar Baij.

One factor helping the demand is that Indian society is also possessed with an unusual sense of competition or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ that tends to trigger a chain reaction of “They have this, and we must get it as well. Its human nature comes into play,” says Saran.

Sarkar has another view. She adds that as Picasso once said “paintings are not for or decorating an apartment. It is an offensive and defensive against an enemy.”

Her point is that true evolution will occur when big art lot buying decisions for homes and offices are taken by an educated eye. The pivot to push modern artists such as Maity and those of his generation into the million-dollar league could also come from buyers, as the shift in collectors continues. “Today, collectors are more discerning, informed, and evolved, and their way of thinking and perceiving art is very different than what it used to be,” Maity adds. “Exposure, travel, and education in art has changed the next generation of collectors.”

So ultimately what will push newer Indian artists into the million-dollar price range?

Auctions will determine that final push over present peak levels. “Look at China. Most don’t know that Chinese art and even Sino-Tibetan art has gone through the roof. If the Indian trend continues, Indians will collect more and pay for it more, this will inevitably occur,” Saran says.

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