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Monday, May 10, 2021

On the Record: Theory of Art

Hugo Weihe, former Christie’s Director and new Saffronart CEO, on Indian art and the sudden interest of international auctions houses in India

Written by Pallavi Chattopadhyay |
Updated: September 14, 2015 1:05:58 pm
Hugo Weihe Hugo Weihe

You set up the Indian art department at Christie’s, followed it with a successful auction in Mumbai in 2013 and are now Saffronart’s CEO. Has your perspective changed along the way?

From my point of view, I was always working from a New York perspective while looking at India because the NRIs were the ones who had started the market for Indian modern and contemporary art out of New York. I could see the development getting stronger and stronger in India. This is where it is happening and this is where the next step will unfold. We already saw most of the energy coming out of India itself, in terms of collecting and new collectors joining the field. So far, I was looking at it from an outside perspective, but now we can join our forces and experiences.

What are your plans for Saffronart?

We want to expand on all fronts online and describe other categories — tribal art, popular art and Bollywood, among others. The field that we are particularly looking at is the antiquities field, particularly the Indian miniature paintings, stone sculptures and bronze sculptures that I would really like to develop within India. We want to explain their context for new collectors to come in and understand it in an efficient way. India has 5,000 years of history and culture behind it and it is time for India to embrace it.

In the last two years, there has been a sudden interest in India, with international art houses setting up their offices here. Why do you think this is happening?

In some ways, it was because of India opening up economy-wise. India is also on many people’s minds. Companies for foreign investment would like to develop Indian markets, from Kentucky Fried Chicken to IKEA, because everyone understands that India is the next huge middle-end market and aspirational market. With that, come cars and apartments, and with apartments come walls where you need to hang art. So, it is a logical evolution.

Tell us about the first million dollar sale of Indian art that you presided over — the landmark Christie’s auction of 2005, where Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura soldat $1.54 m.

I was confident about it. To me, it was evident that this was iconic. It was clear that he has defined not only an important subject to him, but, in that painting, he had got it and brought it all together. A consultant working alongside us at that time put an estimate of $400,000-600,000 which was double of what anyone had ever said for Mehta. To me, that was a million dollar painting and was a great achievement. Now, you can’t get a Tyeb Mehta piece for less than one-and-a-half million dollars.

I asked Mehta about how he felt and he said, ‘I don’t benefit directly because someone is selling someone else’s painting, but my dream is that one day my work will hang at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and maybe that will happen now.’ Because what happens is that, with monetary appreciation, also comes people paying attention and looking at the work and the artist in a different way, thereby changing perception.

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