AS DETAILS BEGAN TO TRICKLE OUT from Christie’s’ first art auction in India, held at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in December last year, both the international and domestic media sat up and took notice. The auction had fetched a total of Rs 96.6 crore ($15.7 million), a figure that doubled pre-sale estimates. Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura sold for approximately Rs 19.8 crore ($3.2 million). Most dramatically, an unnamed 1983 work by the late Vasudeo S Gaitonde fetched an unheard-of Rs 23.7 crore ($3.85 million), now the highest price for any piece of Indian artwork ever sold. For days, the sales figures were the toast of the art world. Some predicted—as they do now and again—that India’s art market was finally coming into flower. Many speculated that the country’s millionaires were now ready to buy into the global art market, just as rich buyers in China and the Middle East had done in recent years.
The Christie’s auction capped a glorious year for the Indian modernists. Critics consider Gaitonde India’s foremost abstract artist, and the one who, more than any of his talented confrères in the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, stood equal to the best international artists of his generation. In accordance with this reputation, in June 2013, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York announced that it would produce an exhibition of Gaitonde’s work in 2014. That same month, a Gaitonde work called Painting No. 1 sold for $1.1 million at the Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale in London. Other modernists also enjoyed significant attention. Earlier in the year, the Guggenheim had produced a Zarina Hashmi retrospective—its first of an Indian artist—while the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi held one of Nasreen Mohamedi.
But besides this spurt of interest in Indian modernism, 2013 continued a long lull in the Indian art market, particularly affecting emerging and mid-career artists. Major exhibition openings saw fewer visitors. Three galleries shut down in Lado Sarai, one of Delhi’s gallery hubs. So as promising as the record-breaking Christie’s transactions appear, they raise many questions about how art is currently valued, both in the art market and in the closely related but emphatically dissimilar art auction market.