Coloring off the lines: Minal and Dinesh Vazirani
The last crowded auction house Minal and Dinesh Vazirani saw dates back to March 5, 2020, when the co-founders of auction house Saffronart sold the 40 lots comprising properties that belonged to fugitive businessman Nirav Modi. .
The Mumbai auction house has been tasked by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to auction off the seized goods, ranging from works of art to a Rolls Royce, in order to recover the money implicated in a fraud allegedly perpetrated by the diamond dealer on a public bank. .
It was a sweltering Thursday night in Mumbai. The room was packed with interested buyers. The offers arrived by phone and were also placed online, as Dinesh knocked the hammer down on each lot. Many sold well above their highest estimates and ED was able to recover a little more â¹51 crores. During the previous two days, Saffronart had lifted a little more â¹2 crore from the auction of 72 other lots from Modi’s property online. In total, the auction raised just over â¹53 crores.
Three weeks later, the country entered lockdown amid the global pandemic. When he got out of what was one of the toughest and longest lockdowns in the world, everything was different. Then, like today, large gatherings of all kinds had the potential to turn into mass-market events.
âIt was a time when we said, in this kind of situation, how to get through this industry, because it’s such a committed buy. How are we going to engage with customers? Is it even appropriate to reach out? Also internally, how to retain employees? The Nirav Modi sale had a live auction with a lot of people in the auction room. It was packed. That’s why physical engagement has become such a problem in our heads, âexplains Minal Vazirani, president and co-founder of the auction house.
Saffronart started in 2000 as an online auction house; it only started running physical or live auctions in 2013. It now has teams in four cities: Mumbai, Delhi, London and New York. Shortly after Modi’s real estate auction, the Vaziranis got back to work. Dinesh Vazirani, CEO and co-founder, led all the teams to photograph and catalog the shipments.
âRight after the Nirav Modi auction, we knew that some sort of foreclosure would occur. We told the teams we had about two or three weeks. “Take a picture of each shipment and place it where you can access it remotely.” The pre-planning as a team has been very helpful to us, âsays Dinesh.
From March 24, 2020, Saffronart started running short-format auctions twice a week: Absolute Tuesdays and Friday Five. In the first, a set of works are auctioned without a reserve price, and live auctions can be placed between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. IST. In the latter, five lots of works are put up for sale without an initial price and the auction is limited to five hours.
âWe had different people on the team responsible for different auctions: everyone had an auction. It was a risk we took. But we have seen that the number of people bidding, engaging and participating has increased, âsays Dinesh.
Minal was not initially convinced by the idea, but she quickly supported it. âThese are more frequent and much smaller auctions where people make decisions on impulse. They may not have to see the work physically, as it is not a very valuable expense. If the person couldn’t get a part this week, they know there will be another sale the following week, âshe said.
In addition, these sales allowed shippers to sell whenever they needed cash. âWhen you create these kinds of liquidity events, that’s when the prices start to go up. This reluctance to buy and acquire decreases because you know that at some point if you need it, you can resell. So, as an asset class, it takes on a much more real marketable value, âexplains Minal.
Going back to a purely online format was also not the same as it was 20 years ago. Back then, Dinesh pointed out, it was not the norm to buy things online; now even high value art sales are done online. The pandemic has deepened people’s engagement with the online world.
Saffronart has also started hosting webinars. Before the pandemic, auctions were preceded by previews and exhibitions. During the pandemic, the team hosted webinars such as the Dialogues in Art series, which brought together hundreds of people. In their usual auction schedule, they used what Minal calls a hybrid format in their auctions: the live sale only had Dinesh in the room, all bidders were either online or over the phone. It would be posted online and on the app. As with the Nirav Modi auction, Saffronart paired a live auction with an online one.
âFrom the confinement until now, we have sold â¹340 crore of art, âsays Dinesh. This includes two record-breaking sales from earlier this year: in March, an untitled oil on canvas by modernist VS Gaitonde became the most expensive Indian artwork sold at auction (it was sold â¹39.9 crore), and in July, a 1938 work by Amrita Sher-Gil sold for â¹37.8 crore, becoming the second most expensive Indian artwork sold at auction.
Globally, online sales have also become more popular over the past year. As the pandemic hit the global art market, causing art and antiques sales to drop 22% from FY2019 (even sales volume fell 23%), online sales have doubled in value over the same period. According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market report, of the $ 50.1 billion in art and antiques sold worldwide, 25% ($ 12.4 billion, a record) came from online sales. Public auctions of art and antiques (excluding private sales by auction houses) decreased by 30% compared to 2019. Private sales by auction houses, however, increased by 36% and were “conservatively estimated at over $ 3.2 billion,” according to the report. .
Closer to home, the Indian art auction market recorded a 57.3% jump in turnover in fiscal year 2020-21, compared to the previous one, according to the Artery State of the Art Market Report 2021.
The hybrid, pandemic-friendly version of a live auction – âto someone who sees it online, it may appear that there are bidders in the room. It’s like you’re participating in a physical auction, âMinal said. The Vaziranis thought about how to improve the viewer’s immersive experience. Dinesh finds inspiration in video games; Minal in the virtual reality headsets distributed by his daughter’s school.
âWhat it allowed the kids to do was be in a virtual environment with glasses on and feel like they were in a classroom. This is what I plan to happen with our company, where you can see art, see exhibitions, feel like you’re walking around a painting or sculpture, get a feel for the dimensions, density, volume, âexplains Minal. âThis experience will fundamentally transform the art world. But when do I see this happening? I am not sure.”
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