Hugo Weihe: how Saffronart will grow the Indian market

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Hugo Weihe

For Hugo Weihe, his new role as CEO of auctioneer Saffronart is a chance to take the market for Indian art to the next level – primarily in India, but also internationally.

It’s a market he knows well: he previously spent 16 years at Christie’s, where he was instrumental in building the market for Indian art, starting the department of Indian and Southeast Asian art from scratch.

“The American market was very important in getting it all moving, in terms of contemporary and modern art in particular and of course classical sculpture, which has always been collected around the world,” he says.

“We’ve seen the market grow, particularly in India, so the obvious next step is to be on the ground and expand and build the market there, rather than from outside.”

He plans to use his experience gained at Christie’s, and before that at Sotheby’s, to build Saffronart’s position as a market leader in Indian art. The company was founded by Dinesh and Minal Vazirani in 2000, and was a pioneer of online art sales before starting to hold live auctions.

“Deciding to hold online auctions was a brilliant step: instead of always having to move the art to one location but, they put the buyer and seller together first and then moved the art. Then they shifted to offer live sales as well, so they could also offer the magic experience of the live sale.”

Weihe is especially excited about developing the market within India, where the appetite for native art and antiquities, and the discernment of the buyers, is developing at a pace.

He sees the rapid growth of the Indian market as a reflection of growing economic strength within the country.

“Once the economic power is there, people want to buy back their heritage, they want to buy into their art. With India, the market has developed very fast over 10- 15 years. It has come to be a very intelligent market already.”

He believes much of Saffronart’s success will hinge on presenting art – and particularly antiquities – in such a way that the buyers gain knowledge and understanding of their rich cultural heritage. The market for antiquities will by necessity stay within India because no item over 100 years old is allowed to leave the country.

“India is really a wide open field still, it’s the last frontier. It is a few years behind China, but there is a huge opportunity to reconnect to the past. India has 5000 years of culture behind it. The aim is to source antiquities and present them properly – to educate a whole market. There is a huge indigenous market to develop in India.”

Outside of India lies another important market, largely for modern and contemporary Indian art. This has largely developed through the interests of NRIs (Non Resident Indians) – ex-pats who went to the US to study at its top universities and have built successful careers there, leading them to have disposable income to spend on art.

“They were the first to buy into Indian modern art – they are proud of their heritage. As they communicate with their relatives in India, this effect has fed back to India too. I think that axis, especially between Mumbai and New York, is going to be very important.”

As the appetite for art grows within India, Weihe has high hopes for the domestic market.

“Typically, analysing the results after any auction, we can see the greatest activity is coming out of India – that’s why the next step is to deepen and broaden the market in India and educate a much larger audience so the extraordinary cultural achievements of India really can shine.

“I think it’s a great moment for India on so many fronts. Art always acts as an ambassador for any culture, any nation, so that’s another function it is performing now.”

Saffronart’s role in this will include strengthening its Indian presence with a flagship space in Mumbai and also in Delhi. The company will also explore other Asian markets – in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as well as holding sales in New York and London as appropriate.

“I’m very excited to shape a business with a very intelligent, smart team that has already established a fantastic platform and be really smart about evolving the business in what is still quite virgin territory.”