27th May 2005

India on the Canvas
Dinesh Vazirani says India`s wealth creation is reflecting on art
There was a time, Dinesh Vazirani confesses , he had almost 'given up' on art after losing money in the business. The founder-director of the Rs 22 crore online art auction company India Ltd, which he runs with his wife Minal, said 'People told us that selling art is a touch-feel thing and online transaction as a medium will never work. But then we were looking at a structural shift in the way one can purchase art and Internet was a medium which is both non-threatening and transparent,' says Vazirani.

That bad year was 2001. As an upstart in the art market, Vazirani wanted to create the right splash about Indian art on an international platform. He spent nearly $180,000 to put up a show in New York's Chelsea Flat Iron district. Held at a 20,000 sq feet pavilion, the show opened to rave reviews but translated very little into profits.

Only 20 per cent of the works, worth $400,000, got sold and 'Most of the works were given to us on consignment. Since we were to receive commissions, we lost a lot of money'.

But today, in less than five years and in a far shorter tenure than any auction house in recorded history, the fortunes of have dramatically turned. Its May 10 auction generated sales worth $3.7 million, equalling Christie's historic auction of Indian art in March this year.

Its star painting ' Tyeb Mehta's Kali ' fetched a whopping Rs 1 crore, four times over the high price estimate. What's more, the entire show of 145 works was sold out. The average lot price of the paintings jumped from $12,000 to $26,000 after the auction.

While the company's offline exhibitions, online sale and auctions generated a consolidated turnover of Rs 22 crore last year, Vazirani is projecting Rs 50-60 crore by the end of this year.

'Like, a jigsaw, everything started to fit into place. It's a nice feeling to see the model work,' he says.

But the first building blocks go back to 1994. After an MBA from Harvard, Vazirani, with wife Minal, returned to India to join his family-run business which was into manufacturing of industrial cranes.

'Both of us started collecting art which was affordable at that time,' says Vazirani. With a $1 million placement from a venture capitalist, the couple started exploring the option of launching an online art auction.

'We found that it was difficult to source art from galleries and thought it was necessary to reach to a larger audience,' he says.

Today, with the reach of the Internet, coupled with saffronart's lower buyer's premium at 10 per cent compared with 20 per cent of other auction houses, saffronart managed to draw nearly 140 bidders this month when an average auctions on Indian art doesn't draw more than 60 bidders.

Besides, saffronart's gamble to push out younger artists in the auction arena is paying dividends. As Vazirani says, there is pent-up demand for works for younger artists such as G R Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty and T V Santosh, all of whom got their first break at a public auction through saffronart.

'Today, buyers as young as 25 are willing to set aside a budget for premium quality work of younger artists,' he says.

Unlike Christie's and Sotheby's which have broadly relied on MF Husain, F N Souza and SH Raza to boost sales, saffronart's tilt towards painters such as Baiju Parthan, Justin Ponmany, Riyas Komu, Jagannath Panda and Sunil Padwal, all of whom were featured at a public auction for the first time this month, are paying rich dividends.

While saffronart today provides art advisory services to ABN Amro bank, it is gearing up with a slew of other offline activities. This year, it proposes to take retrospective shows of S H Raza and Krishen Khanna to London and New York.

At present, the company is expanding its oeuvre to include sculpture, photography and mixed media. As the total Indian art auction sale is expected to touch $ 40 million this year, Vazirani says he's only drawing on a canvas that is The Indian Story.

'There is excitement about India globally, and along with that interest in art and culture is gaining prominence,' he says. Maitreyee Handique

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