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Decoding the art of online buying

Entry-level collectors are making a beeline for affordable art. Last year, there was a surge in the sale of artworks priced under 5 lakh—a total of 907 were sold in auctions

‘Jaipur’ by S.H. Raza, a set of two that fetched  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>13.8 crore.
‘Jaipur’ by S.H. Raza, a set of two that fetched 13.8 crore. (Photo courtesy: Artery India)

The most noteworthy development in online buying in 2019 lay in the affordable art segment. There was a surge in the sale of artworks priced under 5 lakh—a total of 907 were sold last year through over 43 auctions, according to the Artery India Annual Market Report 2019. The report, to come out in February, features collated data on sales available in the public domain. Though a sizeable number of works in this segment were acquired by dealers and mid-market operators with the intention of reselling within the short term for minor profit margins, this sharp increase in count—up from a mere 363 works sold in the same price slab in 2018—is also indicative of the rise of early-grade collectors and younger art buyers, as seen from interactions with sellers, including auction houses, galleries, dealers and artists. With traditional investment avenues yielding disappointingly flat results, entry-level investor-collectors are now turning to works valued at less than 2.5 lakh—considered the entry tier of the art market trading sector.

The Artery India Knowledge Report, which is part of the annual market report, further validates this trend. It states that between January 2017-December 2019, all-time high price records were established for 169 artists—figures for 68 of them stood at 10 lakh. Clearly, this is indicative of a widening pool of interest, and of growth in the second and third tiers of the asset pyramid.

However, things don’t seem so buoyant for online buying and selling overall. The 2019 report reveals a slide in the turnover of online sales—it is pegged at 203.4 crore for 2019, down from 338.3 crore in 2018. This despite the fact that the number of works traded online had increased significantly in 2019—from 814 artworks in 2018, to 1,319.

The collective turnover for the year also declined from 704.2 crore in 2018 to 591.07 crore in 2019, predominantly due to an extremely sluggish year-end closing, with the final three months recording a lacklustre performance.

The leading artist in turnover from online sales was S. H. Raza, with 39.1 crore from the sale of 23 works. In fact, the most expensive work sold online in 2019 was from a lot featuring two acrylic on canvas works by Raza from 1976. This realized 13.8 crore at the Saffronart Spring auction.

In terms of online turnover, Raza was followed by V. S. Gaitonde, with 21.06 crore, though this was from the sale of eight works. The artist with the distinction of having the highest number of works sold online in 2019 was F.N. Souza, with 94 works that fetched 20.4 crore.

Astaguru retained its position as the top auction house in the online domain with a turnover of 102 crore in 2019, though there was significant drop in its performance from the previous year. Saffronart held the second position in online sales, with sales totalling 72 crore, from its previous year’s total of 109.08 crore.

Modernists continue to rule the roost online, clocking 175.6 crore from 947 sold works. However, the category has witnessed a slide—in 2018, it recorded a turnover of 285.1 crore from a comparatively lower work count of 574 objects.

A similar trajectory can be seen in the contemporary segment. Last year’s sales of 12.76 crore were realized from 449 works. This is a steep decline from 19.8 crore in 2018, which came from less than half the number of works.

There has been a sharp drop in the turnover of works by female artists. In 2019, 173 works fetched 8.43 crore, compared with 24.07 crore in 2018 from 98 sold works. The singular reason for the triumph in 2018 was the presence of works by Amrita Sher-Gil. A single canvas of hers sold for 11.98 crore, and three works on paper did well too. In 2019, the late artist marked her presence with only four works, which sold online for 67.6 lakh. In fact, the most expensive work by a female artist to be sold online in 2019 was bindis on plywood titled Folie by Bharti Kher, which sold for 91.08 lakh, followed by an oil on masonite by Anjolie Ela Menon, which got 73.9 lakh.The three leading female artists in 2019, in terms of turnover, were Menon, B. Prabha and Kher.

Arvind Vijaymohan is CEO of Artery India, an Indian art intelligence firm.

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