Buying art can be baffling. You have so many questions swirling in your head. Should you put your money into contemporary paintings or go for modern sculptures instead? Does the painting you’re looking at complement your new corporate office? And is the art you’re about to pick a good long-term investment? You could throw all caution to the winds and follow British art investor Charles Saatchi, who once famously said: “There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good. Artists’ dung can be good. Oil on canvas can be good.”
Or you could look to Arvind Vijaymohan, founder and CEO of art research and advisory firm Artery India, instead. The 39-year-old Delhi-based art advisor steers clear of any radical advice and helps premium art buyers make more evolved and mature decisions that cut through all the trappings of hype and speculation in the art market. He says he’s built the world’s largest financial data centre focussed on Indian art sales and tracks more than 800 artists so he can ensure his clients avoid making bad buying or selling decisions. “In India, the challenge really has been lack of focus on quality. People have only been interested in looking at buying a bright, colourful large work which is oriented on signature,” he says. “The grounding of what makes the work important, why it is worthy of collectability, and also, most important, whether it fits into their collection— a number of these questions aren’t answered.”
So, what exactly does Artery India do? Well, it combines the role of an art think tank and an advisory firm for top-end clients such as rich industrialists and financial institutions like private banks. The company has an extensive database which it uses to provide a range of services from private sales broking to reports on the market performance of Indian artists. Vijaymohan says Artery India is in a prime position to be of tremendous use to financial institutions or private family offices with capital for art, thanks to its meticulous research on an artist’s work and financial trajectories. The company’s database encompasses 85,000 images, over 1,500 books, catalogues, and academic references, and 50,000 sales records of over 800 artists across more than 480 sales channels tracked since 1987. “Every single auction house in the world that would feature an Indian work of art is tracked by us,” says Vijaymohan. “We actively follow the primary markets, charting the exhibition calendar and keeping a close view on the sales of all shows.”
Such market intelligence has become increasingly necessary, with art growing into an asset class alongside property, shares, mutual funds, and commodities. Investors looking to put their wealth into traditional assets base their decisions on tangible criteria and questions, but art cannot be quantified in the same manner. With the art market booming both in India and abroad, international art advisories like London-based ArtTactic help investors figure out the more volatile alternative asset class. ArtTactic is the global leader in art market research which uses techniques similar to those employed in financial markets. ArtPrice in Paris is another leading art market analysis firm that tracks the industry and provides market intelligence for investors.
Artery India is a relatively new, homegrown effort, but it has already facilitated the sale of paintings by the who’s who of Indian art since it was established 15 years ago. Its list ranges from Pre-Modernists and Modernists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza, V.S. Gaitonde, Manjit Bawa, M.F. Husain, Jehangir Sabavala, and Krishen Khanna to more contemporary artists such as Thukral & Tagra, Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, and Sudarshan Shetty. “We have represented assets by all the Masters, covering a wide range from works on paper starting at Rs 50,000 to important paintings in the high crores,” says Vijaymohan.
Vijaymohan thinks this is the best time for Indian Modernists whose aesthetic was shaped by the post-colonial milieu. Their art—which ranges from abstract minimalism rooted in Indian cultural heritage to international styles such as Cubism and Expressionism—has been selling for astronomical prices after the economy and the art market recovered from the financial crisis almost 10 years ago. In recent years, blue-chip Western art galleries have held retrospectives of major Indian artists like Gaitonde and Bhupen Khakhar while the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg have also started collecting Indian art.
Look at the figures and you get a sense of the growth in the Indian art market: The turnover of auction sales in 2011 was Rs 284.9 crore for 1,153 artworks; five years later, sales had jumped to Rs 609.3 crore for 1,378 artworks. Gaitonde, regarded as one of India’s greatest abstract painters, topped the list with a jaw-dropping total of Rs 111 crore in 2016. An untitled 1995 oil-on-canvas work by Gaitonde is probably the most expensive piece of Indian art; the abstract painting rendered in golden yellow and snatches of blue permeating what appears like a brick wall sold for Rs 29.3 crore in 2015. According to Artery India Knowledge Databank, this year’s auction sales so far stand at Rs 505.4 crore for 1,449 artworks, with Tyeb Mehta leading the pack at Rs 22.9 crore.
Of course, not everybody is impressed with the research on the Indian art market. Art critic and historian Zehra Jumabhoy says the art world is an opaque, unregulated, and ever-developing space. “The Indian art world is so small that people wear multiple hats: they are dealers, collectors, analysts, auction houses or all these depending on what you are contacting them for at any one time.”
Gossip, she says, is often the only source of information, as paradoxical as this may sound. “Before trusting any art market research firm I would ask: Who do they get their information from? How reliable are these sources?” she adds. However, Vijaymohan remains unfazed; he says that Artery India depends on reliable secondary data or published auction sales figures and collects primary data by directly approaching collectors.
He should know. Vijaymohan’s art education began at home where his father, a professor at the prestigious Delhi College of Art, was friends with senior artists of the day. Growing up in a house filled with stimulating conversations around art, and important artists flitting in and out, Vijaymohan never felt the need to get a formal education in the discipline. He was in New York in 2000 when Sotheby’s held a major auction called Contemporary Indian Paintings and even at that young age, he could not bear to see Mehtas, Razas, Gaitondes, and Souzas being sold for prices as low as $21,000 (around Rs 13 lakh at today’s rate) .
Seeing enormous potential in Indian artists, Vijaymohan started studying global art markets and burnt the midnight oil to understand the capricious patterns and permutations responsible for the rise in market values of some of the greatest artworks in the world. Armed with his own body of market research, Vijaymohan then started building his evergrowing databank with a capital base of Rs 1.5 crore in 2002 and soon he was negotiating furiously on behalf of his clients, whose identity he guards fiercely.
Artery India has come a long way since then. Today, it has a string of high-profile clients on a retainer basis who pay a fee starting from Rs 1.5 lakh a month. Artery’s other offerings include appraisals, customised reports, and inventory management for select non-retainer clients for a fee starting at Rs 15,000. For the past decade, it has been publishing intelligence reports on the performance of the Indian art market although these documents were only privately circulated within its client circle. In February, it shared its market analysis with a mainstream audience for the first time in a bid to simplify the widespread information asymmetry in the Indian art world.
Vijaymohan decided to share his market analysis with a wider audience as it’s been 30 years since the first mainstream Modern and Contemporary Indian art auction was conducted in 1987. “This constitutes a wide reference range that offers a strong insight into the movement of the market,” he says. “We felt that the market at large had finally displayed a degree of maturity where it could benefit from our focussed market and artist performance analyses.”
Vijaymohan might be gung-ho about Indian art which has been attracting spectacular prices in international and domestic auctions in recent years, but India still does not seem to have a robust and reliable pool of buyers like China, which is in perpetual competition with the U.S. to anoint itself the art market superpower. This anomaly is more evident when it comes to contemporary art. “The fundamental problem with the contemporary art market is the lack of domestic demand rather than the absence of international marketing,” says art writer and curator Girish Shahane.
( The story was originally published in the December 2017-March 2018 special issue of the magazine. )