Mumbai-based auction house Prinseps will be holding two NFT auctions: of 1950s artist Gobardhan Ash’s artworks, and Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya’s fashion sketches.
July promises to be a busy – and interesting – time for Prinseps, a research-focused auction house based in Mumbai. Not only will this month be witness to the Modern Art Auction, featuring works by MF Husain, Bhuppen Khakhar and Manjit Bawa, but also two non-fungible token (NFT) auctions: of 1950s artist Gobardhan Ash’s artworks, and Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya’s fashion sketches.
Accompanied by a sale of Ash’s estate and rare saris from Athaiya’s collection, respectively, these elements make Prinseps the first auction house in India to embrace NFTs. Though NFT marketplaces for art (even the physical sort) have emerged and shows have taken place on blockchain platforms, auction houses in the country known for sales of traditional art have not yet engaged with crypto art in a big way. “We don’t see any other auction house doing anything in this direction – the technology can be a bit cumbersome and is not everyone’s cup of tea,” Prinseps’ founder Indrajit Chatterjee says.
I ask Chatterjee about what prompted the auction house to explore NFTs – whether it was a sense of curiosity, a need to innovate, or keep up with trends. He says he would hardly describe it as being a fad in the art world. “I think it is safe to say that digital art, i.e. art on digital screens, is legitimate. Video art for example has been an established medium since the ’90s (this was art sold using VHS tapes)… The issue is with ownership and control of digital art. Unlike a canvas where the owner of the art work has physical custody of the art work, a digital work of art can be shared as it is in the form of a jpeg or tiff file. Blockchains and tokens essentially identify ownership and facilitate trading of the digital art. Most people confuse the two. Digital art has existed way before NFTs and any crypto infrastructure,” he adds.
Countless commentators, especially those in the West, have termed the frenzy caused by NFT art sales and the sky-high prices that some pieces have commanded a “bubble”. Chatterjee’s response to such assumptions takes a wider view. “Bubbles come and go. Even in the traditional art space, by which I mean the Indian contemporary art market. I do believe as long as we behave as collectors – buying good ‘art’ with advice of independent curators and researchers and not just as speculators or flippers – we are fine. Art has clearly established itself as an alternative asset in the long run and there can be little doubt about this,” he says.
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Athaiya and Ash’s works will be showcased on a digital medium as is; the works’ rich colours and avant-garde nature meant that a transformation or re-imagination was not needed. “The Bhanu Athaiya sketches have never been exhibited before. The Gobardhan Ash works were, on the other hand, last exhibited in the 1950s. Needless to say, there is a lot of excitement around these two. We visualise a preview with a slew of large TV panels each showcasing an NFT,” Chatterjee says.
Are there overlaps between the profiles of the traditional art buyer, and the potential buyer of an artwork’s NFT? Or are these profiles considerably different? Chatterjee says the answer is both yes, and no. “Prinseps prides itself as a flag bearer of art history and research, more so than any other auction house…. However, we realise the need to build on art history and the critical role of digital art going forward. This has led us to focus particularly on the auctioning of these pieces to the same audience that buys the older, traditional art works. On the other hand – the millennials are far more comfortable with technology and possibly with the concept of digital art (versus say an oil on canvas) – we do expect, therefore, the NFTs will attract a slightly more tech savvy and younger mix while not eliminating the traditional art collector,” he says.
Thirty-five works which showcase Ash’s experiments with primitivism and 35 tokens are featured in the upcoming sale. The curation of the Athaiya sale includes century-old sarees, which she inherited from her mother and grandmother. These auctions represent a coming-together of the past and present: the idea of crypto punks – pixel art characters – which have garnered attention recently, juxtaposed with portrait studies or avatars created by Ash; sarees from Athaiya’s estate being showcased alongside NFTs of her fashion sketches, made in a modern, contemporary era.
Some in the art world have raised questions about the legitimacy of art owned in the form of an NFT, especially since the same artwork can be sold many times over, or even released online and circulated free of cost. The value, then, is derived from having a legitimate, artist-assigned NFT. Chatterjee is of the opinion that NFTs actually make ownership easy and precise, while also facilitating easy transferability. “Any art can be photographed and released as prints or other mediums many times over – this is not particular to NFTs,” he remarks.
Chatterjee is optimistic not just about the market for NFTs in India, but also the way in which they could potentially democratise art, to some extent. “The young are way more comfortable with digital art than traditional oil on canvases. Easy transferability will further add to its growth,” he says.
Responding to a question about whether selling their art as NFTs will allow artists, especially those who operate digitally mainly, to be paid fairly for their labour, Chatterjee says he predicts the success trajectory of digital artists will be similar to traditional ones. “Curators and art critics will get to see new exhibits (referred to as NFT drops) and see the growth in an artist’s oeuvre in coming to an assessment. This process took decades for traditional art. I have a feeling that the timelines for digital art will be much narrower, as artists are able to make faster drops (have more exhibits in a shorter period of time). This will potentially lead to talent being recognised faster, and with quicker commercial success,” he says.