New York-based Auction house Sotheby's is holding its first live auction in India at the end of this year. For decades, Sotheby's has been doing previews for its overseas auctions in Delhi and Mumbai. The increasing response from South Asians is prompting Sotheby's to take India seriously. In a conversation with Business Today, Gaurav Bhatia, managing director of Sotheby's India, speaks on the preparation for the maiden auction in Mumbai.
BT: How long have you been planning for the first India auction?
Gaurav Bhatia: Indians have been participating in Sotheby's auctions. Sotheby's is one of the oldest auction houses in the world. It's listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The first formal record of an Indian client is back in 1930s, when an Indian maharaja bought a diamond necklace for his queen from Sotheby's in London. Since then, we have seen an increasing participation of South Asian clients at Sotheby's auction.
We have two primary auctions of South Asian modern and contemporary art, which feature Tyeb Mehta, F.N. Souza, Vasudeo Gaitonde, S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain, and Atul Dodiya. We have an auction in the Spring in New York during Asia Week, which we just had, where we sold Tilottama by Raja Ravi Varma. Then, we have an auction in October in London.
So when these two auctions happen overseas, we bring the highlights to India. Every time the New York auction happens, we bring the highlights to Delhi, where we showcase all the highlights of the work that's going under the hammer. If there are 100 paintings that are being auctioned, we bring about 40 to India. It's a preview. We have private collectors, who attend. It's 2-3 days affair. We have been doing this for many years. About 200-300 people attend, who are mix of clients and potential clients. We replicate this in Mumbai for the London sale. We call these travelling exhibits for the main auction because the main auction doesn't happen in India.
Over the past five years, we have seen that number of bidders from India have doubled. They spent in excess of $250 million in last five years. We are seeing young demographic coming in. These Indian clients are transacting across categories, not just South Asian modern and contemporary art but also transacting in categories like Old Masters, Impressionist, Continental Furniture and jewellery.
In 2016, Sotheby's opened its office in India in Mumbai. We have launched Boundless Mumbai, which is the name of the sale. It's going to happen in December. It's not just going to be art but other categories - photography, design, and furniture.
We are bringing one of the most iconic works of Tyeb Mehta. It's an unseen work. It's the first time it has ever come to the market. This is the most important series called Mahishasura. Tyeb painted this in 1993 for a private collector. We think this is the most important painting Tyeb ever created. It's metaphoric work where Durga is killing Mahishasura. It was painted at a time when Mumbai was at the peak of its riots in 1992. Tyeb felt threatened, and as a Muslim painter living in Mumbai, he escaped to Santiniketan and found peace there. Just at the time he got a call from a private collector who commissioned him to make a painting for him. This is the painting he created. It's angst of an artist. This work is estimated at over Rs 20 crore.
BT: Why this private collector chose to give it to you for auction?
Bhatia: I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was over at the house of my father's friend for a drink. He invited me over last year. He has an incredible collection of art. He was showing me his private collection. I found this painting on the first floor in the private area. I didn't know the full story at the time, and that's when he told me about the Santiniketan, Durga and why Tyeb painted it. He was not a seller. As I was leaving, I asked him to give me Durga. Three days later, I got a call from him. He asked me what I am going to do with it. I explained him that I am going to put it in the inaugural auction, and I feel it's an important work and we can get him fantastic price. He comes from a privileged background; he doesn't need money. It was just a moment when he also felt for it.
BT: Do you think for inaugural auction you need paintings like this for the auction to work?
Bhatia: Absolutely! The whole spirit of our auction house is to give you access to rare things that have never been seen before. The process of sourcing is very critical. We are not an art gallery. We give you story, provenance, sense of quality, sense of rarity that cannot be found anywhere else.
It's important to have works like this in terms of rarity. To me, the younger collector in India is very critical, to be able to engage with him or her, and therefore we are going to include price points that are affordable. I hope to start my pricing at Rs 1 lakh and go up to Rs 30 crore.
BT: You will just have Indian work at the auction?
Bhatia: It's going to be a mix. The spirit is, obviously, South Asian work. Some of it maybe international creators who are inspired by India. The whole auction is going to show sophistication of India. The sourcing will be largely done in India. We have a global team of specialists, who are involved in sourcing for our sale. We are not a primary market [broker]. We are not here to promote art. We don't source from artists. There has to be an existing demand already in the market for an artist.
BT: How many pieces of art will be up for auction?
Bhatia: We don't know the exact number. It's about the quality; not the quantity. But we haven't defined it yet. I would say 60-100.
BT: What kind of commissions you make on auction sales?
Bhatia: Typically, when we sell a painting, buyer pays a buyer's premium. From the buyer, we take 25 per cent commission. For the seller, because we have to market the work, we also get commission, which usually varies depending on the value of the work. The buyer pays 12 per cent GST [goods and services tax] on the value of painting, and 18 per cent on the buyer's premium [that is 25 per cent]. In other regions like US and Europe, the taxation is 6-8 per cent which encourages people [to bid more].
BT: What kind of people do you expect will be participating in the auction?
Bhatia: The target is becoming younger and younger, and I think it's to do with digital exposure. We had our first online sale for South Asian art - F.N. Souza's work - that happened in March last year. We have seen the number of Indians bidding online increased nine times over the past five years. Also, there has been 60 per cent increase in the value that Indian clients have spent online in the past five years. People are very comfortable buying online.
BT: Who can participate in the auction?
Bhatia: Anybody can participate. All we need is a registration ID and some form of financial backing.