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Billionaires' demand for art to jewels in India lures Sotheby's

[MUMBAI] More than a year after Christie's decided to end its annual sales of fine art in India, rival Sotheby's is entering the market as it seeks to tap the increasing affluence in the world's fastest-growing major economy.

Sotheby's first Indian auction will be held in Mumbai in December with one of modern master Tyeb Mehta's most important works "Durga Mahisasur Mardini." Mehta's work - a painting commissioned directly from the artist in 1993 - is expected to exceed his previous auction record of US$3.6 million, according to Sotheby's.

Well-to-do Indians, traditionally known to hoard gold and buy real estate to park their wealth, are steadily expanding into financial instruments like stocks and bonds with art sales also picking up of late. The number of billionaires in India grew 15 per cent last year, making them the largest group after the U.S. and China, according to Forbes.

There's "an increasingly vibrant domestic Indian art market," said Jan Prasens, Sotheby's managing director for Europe, Middle East, Russia and India. Given the projected economic growth for India, it is the right time for Sotheby's to bring the auctions directly to the doorstep of the collectors, he said in a statement.

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India's economic growth is expected to outpace China's this year. The Reserve Bank of India forecasts the US$2.3 trillion economy will expand 7.4 per cent in the financial year to March 2019, faster than a 6.5 per cent expansion projected for China in 2018.

The Indian art market, valued at US$223 million, is just a fraction of the nearly US$56 billion global one. With assets of high-net worth individuals in India expected to reach US$2.3 trillion by 2020, the potential is huge, according to a report by KPMG-FICCI.

Christie's, which discontinued annual sales in India to focus on live auctions in key global cities, still has a presence in the country's art market through the digital space, according to a report by the Financial Express. Other major auction houses are Saffronart, Pundole's, AstaGuru, and Bonhams.