One of French impressionist artist Claude Monet’s finest ‘Water Lilies’ series paintings ever to appear at auction—the ‘Le Bassin aux Nymphéas’—broke the $70-million price barrier as it went under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City on Wednesday. The sale stands testament to the unabated demand for top quality work despite the uncertainty that grips the world economy today. As a matter of fact, the art world is seeing record prices over the last few days. On Tuesday night, a Christie’s auction saw a Basquiat painting that was estimated at $50 million go for almost double its projection and sell at $93.1 million.

Since July 2020, the world has been witnessing a massive boom in art prices with many records in the West, as well as in India, being broken.

“The world is supposed to be in crisis but the rich are hedging on art like never before,” says Ashvin Rajagopalan, director of the Piramal Art Foundation. “The pandemic has ushered in an art market boom.”

The trend also includes Beeple’s ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ NFT that sold for close to $70 million at Christie’s. The buyer was the Metapurse fund, a group investing in digital art.

Leading artist Paresh Maity says that works of art that are made by hand and are critically acclaimed will only further appreciate in the years to come, the point being that demand coming from a growing community for a particular style or school of art pushes prices higher.

The other phenomenon is that the number of super rich are growing regardless of whether the world has been hit by a pandemic or not, even in India. According to the Hurun Global Rich List 2021, in keeping with the global trend, the number of billionaires in India grew to 209 in 2020––50 more than a year earlier.

“In my mind, I no longer see a bubble but rather a genuine demand for masterpieces created by the growing number of billionaires in the world who all want to buy in on this elite asset class that also gives a buy-in to social and cultural standing,” says Rajagopalan. “The global [art] auction market was valued at about $67 billion in 2019 and has now started to concentrate in the hands of a few, and continues to grow. It is the best example of supply- and demand-based growth because the supply is extremely controlled and limited.”

This untitled oil on canvas by V.S. Gaitonde sold for a record ₹39.98 crore this March.
This untitled oil on canvas by V.S. Gaitonde sold for a record ₹39.98 crore this March.
Image : By special arrangement

He adds that there’s also a lot of extra money among the wealthy globally, and they are finding alternative investments. “Art has always performed better than the stock exchanges,” Rajagopalan says.

Back home, the trend isn’t any different. Almost every artist has broken their world record price, be it V.S. Gaitonde, Amrita Sher-Gil, or Tyeb Mehta says Dinesh Vazirani, who runs the Saffronart Gallery in Mumbai. His gallery has also seen record prices in recent times. An M.F. Husain oil on canvas work called the ‘Battle of Ganga Jamuna: Mahabharata 12’ sold for ₹13.44 crore in March last year and an untitled work by V.S. Gaitonde in March this year for a record ₹39.98 crore, amongst others.

“It’s the same parallel operating here as well. The truly great works are so limited in supply for collectors to acquire and supply is not increasing; and so there is a very strong belief in their long-term value,”says Vazirani. Saffronart has conducted scores of digital and hybrid auctions and will soon be hosting an online no reserve auction titled “Art Rises for India” with a view to donating proceeds to support Covid-19 efforts.

Former Novartis CEO Ranjit Shahani, who is an avid art collector and aficionado points to how “trophy works” command high prices because they also don’t come out for sale very often. “A painting from Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ series also sold for astronomical prices years ago for similar reasons, in Japan,” he says.

He’s alluding to the sale in 1987, when the iconic work was up for auction at Christie’s London. Speculation was that it would go for as much as $12 million, but the art world was astounded when the bids kept going up, finally closing at $39.9 million, breaking valuation records and setting new benchmarks.

History clearly repeats itself in the art world.

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