Amid pandemic, auctioneers paint a profitable canvas with hybrid auctions

The general view is that the digitally driven model will dominate the action for now
At a recent auction conducted through a live webcast, Mumbai-based auction house Saffronart broke all records for an Indian work of art. Saffronart’s Spring Live Auction, which ended on March 12, achieved a combined sales value of almost Rs 79 crore, with V S Gaitonde’s Untitled (1961) going for Rs 39.98 crore — a new record for Indian art.

“To almost touch Rs 40 crore is an amazing price. And in the entire auction, there were only two lots that didn’t sell,” says Saffronart CEO Dinesh Vazirani. “There were quite a few bidders for the work. The Gaitonde eventually went to an Indian buyer,” he adds. Who the bidder is, however, remains a mystery though it is speculated that it’s one of India's top women collectors. Kiran Nadar, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Sangita Jindal are amongst some of the leading art buyers in the country. 

While there was no audience in the room during the auction, the sales were conducted in a live format with collectors bidding online, through phone or through absentee bids. 

Vazirani goes on to say that last year, despite the hurdles posed by the pandemic, he hosted 83 auctions, sold 3,004 artworks and saw an approximate turnover of Rs 300 crore, which was some 20 per cent more than earlier years.

“From the comfort of your home, when you can see the artwork on sale thro­ugh a screen and also other bidders making a play, it’s easy to enjoy the process online,” he says. “Of course, you can­not replace the drama of live auction, which has all the excitement and adrenaline of winning or losing on a piece of art.”

Others agree on the direction that art auctions have taken.

Ashvin Rajagopalan, director of Mumbai-based Piramal Art Found­ation, says that the last time anyone paid close to Rs 40 crore for a Gaitonde was on Sep­tember 3, 2020 — this, too, was during a hybrid auction. An untitled 1974 oil-on-canvas by the artist sold for Rs 36.8 crore (inclusive of buyer’s premium) during an online sale, says Raja­gopalan, adding that the top three most expens­ive pieces of Indian art have, in fact, sold after the lockdown, in the mi­d­dle of the pandemic.

“While the trend indicates that there is very much a bubble forming, the story here is that while the lockdown meant disaster for some, a few businesses profited handsomely,” Rajagopalan says. “Online has pushed the needle when it comes to art prices. And while earlier it (online auction) was low-profile, now it has created even more opacity and given access to anyone and everyone. That’s because even the auction house won’t know who really is buying a painting at the time.”

Players like global auctioneer Sotheby’s and Indian auction house AstaGuru, for example, have started advertising and marketing upcoming sales on Instagram in a bid to widen the net. “It’s counter logical but people are actually spending crores online without even seeing it (the artwork) in real life,” Rajagopalan says.

The general view is that the digitally driven model will dominate the action for now. Last year, AstaGuru held nine online auctions. “A lot of individuals were not travelling and spending money as much as earlier, so collecting art for existing collectors became a hobby. And everything high-end and collectible started picking up momentum,” says Tushar Sethi, CEO, AstaGuru.

The jury is still out on whether the advent of the hybrid and digital model will sound the death knell for regular, physical auctions. “Physical auctions may not matter anymore but for commemorative, once-a-year events in New York or London by the global houses,” Vazirani says.

Some, however, are of the view that physical auctions will return. “There will be a dwindling audience for real events but pure online auction is unlikely to totally take over once the pandemic is done and dusted with,” says Dadiba Pundole, owner of Pundole’s.

He, however, acknow­­ledges that what has changed for sure is the technological infrastructure, which allows for better digital image with sharper resolution and, therefore, makes viewing pictures of the artwork better than ever before.

Digital is taking over at a pace faster than he would have anticipated, says Pundole. “That’s the reality, and this hybrid model could drive the future.”

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