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Christie's launches in India to tap growing wealth

MUMBAI, India (AP) — Christie's held its first art auction in India on Thursday, aiming to tap into a budding market for prestige purchasing among the country's fast-growing ranks of millionaires despite an economic slowdown.

The inaugural sale of 83 lots in the financial hub of Mumbai featured paintings from the private collection of one of India's first families of contemporary art as well as pieces from six of the nine Indian artists deemed "national treasures" whose works cannot leave the country. Total sales added up to $16.4 million, more than double the pre-auction estimates.

The top-selling work of the evening was a mustard-hued abstract oil on canvas by Vasudeo Gaitonde, bought by an anonymous U.S. telephone bidder who paid a total of 237 million rupees ($3.8 million) — a bid that drew audible gasps and cheers when the final gavel fell at the historic Taj Mahal Palace hotel. It was a world record price for a modern Indian work of art sold in the country.

"The result is beyond our wildest dreams," said Hugo Weihe, director of Asian art for Christie's. Christie's sees the relatively underdeveloped art market in Asia's third-largest economy as fertile ground for growth as part of its international expansion that has included recent auctions in China and the Middle East.

While overall Indian growth has been stalling, the number of people worth $1 million or more is expanding and they show no signs of slowing their spending, fueling double-digit growth in the luxury market for the past five years. London-based Christie's is betting that that wealth will increasingly go into investment in art, as it has in China, where the recent Shanghai auction drew $25 million.

"There is a need for us to be here," Christie's auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said. While China's wealthy have embraced art purchases and now rival the U.S. as the largest market in the world, India's elite have been slower to invest. China and the U.S. last year accounted for 25 percent and 33 percent, respectively, of the $58.7 billion global fine art and antiques market. India did not even make the top five, lumped together with "other countries" accounting together for 7 percent, according to a report by The European Annual Fine Art Foundation.

But Christie's is expecting that will change as India's rich — who are already eating up luxury brands in clothing, jewelry and automobiles — train their attention and bank accounts on fine art. India's overall economic growth has slowed to under 5 percent, compared with more than 8 percent in the previous decade. At the same time, the ranks of Indian millionaires reached 170,000, according to the research firm Euromonitor.

The survey declared India the most dynamic luxury goods market and forecast it to grow by 86 percent in value over the next five years, followed by China at 72 percent, Brazil at 31 percent and Russia at 28 percent.

Moving into prestige investments like art is the next natural step in luxury spending, said Euromonitor's Fflur Roberts. "The higher you go up in the scale of wealth, art is becoming increasingly more attractive," Roberts said. "It's an appreciation of art and that luxury of being able to buy art."

Indian buyers have been snapping up pieces at Christie's events in London and New York, and the auction house believed the time was ripe to hold its first sale inside India, where it has had a representative office for nearly two decades.

The inaugural auction included works from the personal collection of the late Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, who owned a Mumbai framing shop-turned-gallery and were personal friends with many of the giants of the modern art scene. Among their works for sale was a 1991 painting by the late Tyeb Mehta,

Mehta, a member of the mid-20th century Bombay Progressive Artists Group, is one of the best-known modern Indian artists. Another of his works Thursday evening sold for 197 million rupees or $3.1 million.

The sale also featured six of just nine Indian artists deemed so essential to Indian culture that they are illegal to export. While Thursday's auction consisted entirely of Indian art, auctioneer Pylkkanen said the hope is that as India's wealthy begin to get a taste for fine art, they will also move into buying rare objects from around the world.

"The market here will be very healthy," he said. "The key thing is whether we can introduce more collectors from the region to art from other parts of the world that Christie's sells."

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