In India, the real action is at the auction
by John Elliott, FORTUNE Magazine contributor

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- Forget the stock market, or putting money into gold and property. The way to get ahead in India over the past decade has been to invest in contemporary art. Work by the country's top 51 artists, who account for 88% of auction sales, has had an average compound annual growth rate of 44% since 1997, according to an index compiled by Osian's, a Mumbai auctioneer. That beat the Mumbai stock market's Sensex index (up 18% before the current slide), gold (up 10%), and prime office space in Mumbai (up 6%). Even better: Prices are expected to more than double this year.

Until the end of the 1990s, contemporary Indian art attracted little attention abroad. Its bright colors and abstract images held little appeal. Even now, buyers are playing it safe by increasingly focusing on the work of a tiny group of well-known artists, including M. F. Husain, the prolific 90-year-old patriarch of modern Indian art, and F. N. Souza, who died in 2002.

The top ten Indian artists have accounted for 81% of public auction sales in the past six months, up from 61% in 2004. That suggests a "herd instinct and unsophisticated bandwagon approach," says Neville Tuli, founder of Osian's, which is launching a $25 million art-investment fund. The ten include Tyeb Mehta, whose painting of a mythical man-buffalo fetched $1.6 million - the highest figure ever paid for an Indian work - at a Christie's auction in New York City last September.

New wealth is driving the market, especially from status-conscious Indians living abroad. (The Mehta painting was bought by Rajiv Chaudhri, who heads Digital Century, a New York hedge fund.) Dinesh Vazirani, who runs Saffronart, India's largest Internet auction site, says that 60% of his buyers are outside India, 85% of them overseas Indians.  Top of page