MUMBAI (AFP).- Christie's hopes to help revive the Indian art scene this week with its first auction in the country, where the market is yet to return to the heady days enjoyed before a crash five years ago.
The international auction house is bringing 83 lots spanning a century of Indian art under the hammer on Thursday, including works by modern master M.F. Husain and national treasures Rabindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil.
Held at Mumbai's grand Taj Mahal Palace hotel and expected to attract the country's growing band of super-rich, the auction is part of Christie's strategy to tap into the rising clout of Asian buyers, following its first sale in China in September.
"The market has evolved very well, the connoisseurship. People are looking very discerningly at what are the best works," said Hugo Weihe, international director of Asian Art at Christie's.
"People want the best and they're willing to pay the price."
Some have questioned the timing of the sale, given the recent sharp slowdown in India's economy and a difficult few years for the art scene since the global economic crisis sent prices tumbling in 2008.
But Christie's, which has had an office in the financial hub Mumbai for two decades, said it has seen four-fold growth in Indian buyers at its international auctions.
A sale on home turf cuts down transportation issues and import taxes, as well as putting a focus on India's rich artistic heritage.
"The sale is entirely sourced in India, for India. It's a shot in the arm to get people excited," Weihe told AFP.
While contemporary artists were badly hit by the crash, experts say works by modern masters, such as those in the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group formed in 1947, had managed to hold up well.
The 1983 painting "Saurashtra" by Syed Haider Raza sold for almost 2.4 million pounds ($3.6 million) at Christie's in London in 2010, setting a record for a modern Indian work.
A canvas by Tyeb Mehta, another top member of the Progressives, fetched $3.24 million in 2011. His "Mahishasura", depicting the Hindu goddess Durga fighting a buffalo demon, is the top lot at Thursday's auction, with a $1.2 to $1.5 million estimate.
The total sale, much of which has been sourced from the collection of late gallery owners Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, is expected to raise $6 to $8 million. "We hope to exceed the high estimate handsomely," Weihe said.
Yet the optimism and glamour surrounding a Christie's sale may not be telling of the wider Indian market.
Analysis firm ArtTactic said confidence in the Indian art market was down 13.6 percent in the six months to November, amid economic woes and a decline in the rupee, after a steady 18-month increase in positive sentiment.
Priya Jhaveri, who runs the Jhaveri Contemporary gallery in Mumbai, said the collector base may have grown but remained "very small", with galleries still forced to offer discounts.
"All around people are being very price conscious, they want to know where a young artist will be in 10 or 20 years. They're collecting less on instinct and more with caution," she said.
In the boom years before 2008, a global curiosity in India and young Indian artists saw their recognition and prices soar, before coming down with a bump in the financial crisis, explained veteran art critic Kishore Singh.
In recent years "you haven't seen major works coming out of India, which perhaps is to do with the amount of money in the market," he said.
"But it's given the artists time to study, look around and work out what they want to do perhaps more intensively than when the markets were very alive."
Singh said he could also see a newfound excitement stirring in the market, which has given the Delhi Art Gallery, where he curates, the confidence to recently open a major branch in Mumbai.
Despite its ups and downs, the Indian art market remains in its infancy next to that of China, where the Christie's sale of international works in September raised $25 million.
Those in the art world say much more needs to be done to make the subject accessible, with a better art curriculum at Indian schools, greater philanthropy and more exhibitions at public institutions.
But things are starting to improve, says curator Susan Hapgood, who left New York for India and set up the non-profit Mumbai Art Room in 2011 to promote appreciation of contemporary art.
"The art scene is changing from elitist and rarefied to something more populist, which is a hugely welcome sign and which bodes well for future sales of art," she said.
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