Collecting Art is a Passion of the Heart: Yamini Mehta on Sotheby’s Indian Foray

The Sotheby’s Institute of Art recently launched its inaugural programme in Mumbai through a three-day educational course this September. With October 18 marking the beginning of a vibrant week that will see the celebration of Indian art in London, Yamini Mehta – international head of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art – speaks about the Institute’s educational programmes in India and the business of art, over an email interview. She says that interest in art is burgeoning today in India, “helping to contribute to the development of the next generation of artists and art lovers.”


Why do you think there has been an increased interest among Indians in art, and emergence in new galleries and museums here?

At Sotheby’s we’ve seen Indian clients purchase works at auction totalling $273M over the last five years, and while there has long been a culture and heritage of patronage and collecting art in India, undoubtedly the rise of a new generation of wealth in the country has contributed to a broadening collector base. As often seen in newer markets, Indian collectors have initially been drawn to the art and artists of their country or region, and have then ventured into other areas of the market as their knowledge, expertise and evolving taste has led them to explore further.


What motivates you to organize educational programmes in India for art?

There is no doubt that we live in an age when art is more accessible than ever before – whether it’s via the international gallery and museum scene or the way in which art and the art world has adapted to the online age. There is now a greater interest in art than ever before, and we have sought to respond to this interest, encourage it and nurture it as best we can by tailoring our education programme in such a way that the most seasoned and knowledgeable collectors as well as those who are new to the field are opened up to learning more about their particular area of interest, and are able to do so through an engaging series of events that introduces them to a range of experts in the field. This educational aspect, combined with showing works of art from forthcoming sales, offers a unique and extremely rewarding way to experience art. I am very conscious that we represent a company that is over 270 years old. This reputation has been built through the centuries where we place value on expertise and connoisseurship and are happy to find ways to impart and extend that to collectors who in turn become the caretakers of the great artworks in their possession.


What are people most curious about when they want to embark on “entering the art world”?
While some people wish to learn more about the history of art from their country or to gain a broader understanding of the history of European art, others are fascinated by the commercial aspect of the art world. Ranging from the business of art to logistics, to finance to specialising in one particular sphere or period of art, to actually creating the artworks, the possibilities to learn are very broad, and certainly for some the prospect of learning with a view to career progression in the art world is a driving factor.


What motivates the people at Sotheby’s to be involved in the Indian art market?

Sotheby’s has been engaged with the Indian art scene for many years, whether it is sales of the finest Indian miniatures and the sale of private collections of art assembled by some of the greatest collectors in the field, or with sales of outstanding works by Modern and Contemporary masters. The art from the Indian subcontinent is incredibly vibrant and represents the culture of one of the largest populations in the world from antiquity to present day.

gaitonde_newyork - Sotheby's Yamini Mehta
Gaitonde (source : internet)

Our Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale in New York, in March this year was led by a monumental work by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. Purchased by eminent patron and artist, Bal Chhabda for his personal collection. It is known to be the largest work that Gaitonde has ever created on canvas and symbolises air, buoyancy and flight, and sold for $2,770,000 (£1,942,633), the third highest price achieved for this artist at auction. Our Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale in London, in October 2015 was led by a beautiful and rare self-portrait of Amrita Sher-Gil from the collection of the artist’s muse, lover, and artistic comrade Boris Taslitzky. We had the rare opportunity to handle 3 works by the only woman whose works are non-exportable and it could be another generation before another work of hers comes into the international market.
As the art market has evolved, significantly so over the last decade, we have worked closely with our clients both in India and the Indian diaspora to help them develop their collections and it’s also been particularly interesting to see how Indian collectors have moved from collecting Indian art to acquiring works across a great number of collecting categories, from international contemporary art, to Antiquities, Impressionist and Modern, to Old Master paintings – and also jewellery too. We are seeing more activity by clients based in India. Looking at Resident Indian clients from 2014 to 2015, there was a 10% increase in the number of buyers, and these buyers are branching out in terms of the departments they are bidding with, from Watches, early British paintings, continental furniture, and Chinese Works of Art, to Design and Books.


In an interview with LiveMint, you foresee that there will be younger and newer art collectors on the rise who will look for “art that speaks to their aesthetics and fits their interiors”. Is there any indication of what this aesthetic seems to be?

Going forward, I think we will see more hybrid collections, which combine modern Indian with modern international art and with the art of the past, as well as collectors designing spaces around their art collections. I see a great future for Modern and Contemporary Indian art on the international market.


In what other ways are young people likely to engage with the art world today?

Through our gallery views and exhibitions, there are countless opportunities for young people to learn about objects of beauty, as well as the people who created them. Our exhibitions are open to the public and provide a great way for people to learn more about art and develop their own understanding and taste in art. But even if you aren’t experiencing the art in person, with our digital advances you can really examine a work of art close up with our online catalogues and apps, learn more about the world’s greatest museum collections through our Apple TV channel for which we have established an international museum network of fantastic video content that provides access to some of the world’s greatest art collections, and we are also very active on social media – whether it’s updates on our events on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or gallery tours with our experts on Snapchat and Periscope. Sotheby’s aims to provide access and interesting content on the art that we are selling, the expertise that our experts are able to share, as well as the myriad collaborations with artists, designers, tastemakers and influencers across our digital platforms including fascinating blogs and stunning visual sideshows of our sales and exhibitions, as much as through our physical spaces. Through our programming and connection with Sotheby’s Institute, we have the chance to engage with young collectors on multiple levels.


What appears to drive art collectors and curators to be passionate about their work?  

I think everyone is individual; for some collecting stems from a desire to surround themselves and their interior spaces with art that has great visual or emotional impact upon them, and for others the desire to preserve an artistic heritage of a country. For some, art is not only a source of aesthetic value but also a financial asset. Above all, collecting art is a passion of the heart.

Curating art, like collecting, is a passion of both heart and head. It is highly personal, and can stem from a connection with the artist, the impact a work has on the individual or on society, a shared visual language, as well as perhaps a thorough appreciation of that artist’s oeuvre.
Cover Graphic : Ketul Gamit


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