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11.06.10

The Sotheby's of India

Saffronart, Mumbai's fast-growing online auction house, is one part Christie's, one part eBay, and driving in millions of dollars as the company expands West. Claire Howorth talks to CEO Meena

Saffronart, Mumbai's fast-growing online auction house, is one part Christie's, one part eBay, and driving in millions of dollars as the company expands West. Claire Howorth talks to CEO Minal Vazirani.

India, for the next few days basking in President Obama’s presence, is one of the few countries in the world enjoying a robust economy while the bottom drops out everywhere else. Saffronart, a Mumbai-based online auction house, has soared in the good times. Minal Vazirani, who founded the company with her husband, Dinesh, 10 years ago next month, discussed her company’s unusual market, and the growing global appetite for modern and contemporary Indian art.

Vazirani marveled that the bulk of Saffronart’s transactions are high-ticket pieces, but sold to people who can place bids on their BlackBerries or iPhones or from a desktop—but never in a physical auction. “It’s like a two-day video game,” she said. “People bidding use very different strategies online.”

But they don’t spend a vastly different amount of money than they would at Christie’s or Sotheby’s the two major auction houses, which Vazirani cites as her main competition. (Like the other two mega-houses, Saffronart also separately sells real estate and jewelry.) Each of Saffronart’s auctions fetches around $5 million, and, “In the past five years, we’ve sold $125 million in art,” said Vazirani, speaking by telephone from Mumbai. (Saffronart also has offices in London and New York.)

“When we started in 2000, we had sales of $126,000. We thought that was amazing in four days. The largest sale we had was about $17 million [in 2006]. There was some contraction in 2008 and 2009,” said Vazirani. Saffronart’s business has mirrored the larger international art market, which—according to plenty of indicators, not least of which is Saffronart—is on the rebound again.

In September, Christie’s pulled in $3.9 million in an auction of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, which contained ancient works, while a South Asian Modern and Contemporary sale brought $8.9 million last spring. Neither was as niche as Saffronart’s sales.

The modern art scene in India is not without its scars, one them recent and deep: Neville Tuli, long a champion of his country’s creative talents, got into serious trouble when his fund, Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art, fell apart, exposing funny books and an inability to repay its debtors. According to Forbes India, Sotheby’s nearly sued Tuli for $8 million of art he never paid for.

Gallery: Saffronart’s major holdings and glittery jewelry

Nuli’s specter has not scared buyers from Saffronart, however. “About 80 percent [of the clients] are still of Indian origin, whether [in India] or diaspora,” said Vazirani of her customers. Twenty-five percent are American.

“They’ve gotten slightly younger over time. Initially, it was mostly long-term collectors, but now we have several buyers and bidders coming in at different price points. Typically, it’s someone who travels quite a bit, someone who is reasonably well informed about Indian art or jewelry.”

Though it might seem surprising, many of the buyers make their purchases sight unseen—at least half of Saffronart’s top 10 works were sold to people who had never physically been near their artwork.

“Our top sale, a piece by Francis Newton Souza, went for $1.5 million—the underbidder had seen, but the winner had not,” said Vazirani. Another piece, this time by Subodh Gupta, one of India’s hottest young artists, who shows around the world, “was purchased sight unseen, by someone who had never transacted with us before.”

“What’s been exciting for us,” said Vazirani, “is that it started out with a buyer’s or collector’s view of the art world, but we gave a lot of access to information, and we have an auction model that works very different online. We allowed viewers and buyers to compare information to learn more about artists. And that’s built an important level of trust.”

When Vazirani was asked to think of the drawbacks to having solely online auctions, she paused for a long moment, finally deciding that, “Physical interaction is an important part of engaging with art, and that goes without saying. It may be much more beneficial for someone to actually see the work.”

But, by and large, “There aren’t many drawbacks. There’s a great deal more information. And time is on your side.” Bidders have two days to enter the fray, but according to Vazirani, all the action happens in the last 10 to 15 minutes—just like on eBay. A three-minute post-auction grace period offers leeway on the final decision, and Saffronart does make proxy bids, which many clients opt to use.

The Vaziranis have yet to encounter fraud or dishonesty among their bidders. “We don’t give everyone access. You have to pre-register to bid. We also have controlled bidding—if someone puts through a huge bid, that raises an alarm.”

Next month, Saffronart will host its anniversary auction, featuring a $2 million work by Arpita Singh. The piece is not only the highest price on a single work that Saffronart has sold, but it will also be the highest-priced work by a female Indian artist, in any auction, ever.

Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at The Daily Beast.