India's thriving rich are set to invade the collectibles markets

While Britain may currently preside over the world's sixth largest economy, and a good share of the current collectibles market, the balance of economic power has been shifting in recent years.

As China continues to develop a growing interest in collectibles the last decade has also seen India begin to emerge as a new global force in the world of alternative investment.

According to figures published by Merrill Lynch, 2009 alone saw the number of dollar millionaires residing in India rise to 126,700, an increase of 51% in just 12 months.

As the number of millionaires increases, so too does the number of Indians looking for the next investment opportunity.

And many are beginning to turn to the profitable world of rare collectibles.

Tipu Sultan's Famous Sword

Most notably, wealthy individuals like Vijay Mallya.

Having already heavily invested in Indian sports teams, Mallya made news headlines in the collectibles market with the purchase of a rare sword belonging to 18th century Indian ruler Tipu Sultan, also known as the "Tiger of Mysore."

The auction, taking place in April in London in 2004, saw Vijya Mallya buy the unique and culturally important piece for £175,000 ($262,500).

Historically, Tipu's sword was confiscated after his defeat and death in 1799 at the battle of Seringapatam and Mallya explained the purchase as an opportunity to bring the priceless piece back to India where it belongs.

A few years later, Vijya Mallya's interest in historical Indian collectibles hit international news headlines again, with the auction of a selection of Mahatma Gandhi's personal effects in New York in March 2009.

The collection featured Gandhi's beloved Zenith pocket watch and the iconic circular glasses he wore.

Owner James Otis faced protest from Indian politicians and the public alike, but the collection did eventually sell to Mallya, who paid £1,200,000($1,800,000). Unbelievably, the original auction estimate for the collection had been just £20,000 ($30,000). After the sale, Mallya pledged to return the items to India for public display:

"I am a proud Indian. Gandhi is the father of our nation, the nation that has made me who I am today, so I felt a sense of responsibility. This will be my gift to the government of India."

Aside from Mallya, the growing interest in culturally significant Indian collectibles has continued. 

In April 2009, Bonhams saw three other rare Tipu Sultan pieces sell to private collectors at an auction of Islamic and Indian art.

The Head from Tipu Sultan's
Famous Throne

Amongst the collectibles on show was a sporting gun dating back to 1794 and selling for £24,000 ($36,000) and a painting by William Daniel RA of the Jumma Masjid temple, which sold for £90,000 ($135,000).

But the top piece was a gem encrusted gold finial from the octagonal gold throne of Tipu Sultan.

Thought to be one of three bejewelled tiger head finials that adorned Tipu's throne, the rare piece sold for £389,600 ($584,400) to a private collector.

As Claire Penhallurick of Bonhams Indian and Islamic Department commented, the pieces had significant historical value:

"It is, without a doubt, of the greatest historical significance ... It holds huge fascination for both India and Britain as it is part of our shared history."

The growing fascination in India surrounding culturally significant collectibles has also seen huge changes in the fine art market.

According to statistics produced by Sotheby's, up until around September 2006, 90-95% of art investors from India were ex pats.

However, the growing number of dollar millionaires has had a gradual impact on this figure, with around 45% of India collectors now based in the Middle East or their home nation.

And many collectors are investing in modern Indian art, which has started to see world record prices for pieces of its kind.

In 2006, Christie's saw a 1975 untitled gold toned abstract painting by Vasudeo Gaitonde sell for £660,000 ($1,000,000) at auction, while elsewhere, at Sotheby's a 1972 abstract piece by Syed Haider Raza sold for £980,000 ($1,470,000).

Numerous more modern Indian pieces have sold at auction for more than double their estimated price.

And Indian art remains relatively undervalued in comparison to traditional fine art prices, creating increasing interest from Western collectors.

Syed Raza's 1972 Abstract Piece sold for £980,000

Investing now has the potential to reap significant financial rewards in the future.  With Indians becoming more affluent and increasingly interested in collecting as a form of asset diversification, many could turn to these culturally significant collectibles.

The growing interest from a wealthy Indian market could also see other collectibles relating to their culture sell for even more at auction.

Gandhi is yet to appear on the PFC40 Autograph Index, the definitive list of the 40 most sought after autographs, but demand is rising as Indian collectors seek this treasured autograph.

The PFC40 autograph index, does list Winston Churchill's autograph at £5,950 ($9,100), up 128.8% in the last decade. With a population of One Billion in India it's clear that Gandhi's autograph could increase substantially in value in the mid-to-long term.

The market has already started to move; a Christie's auction in London in December 2002 saw a collection of documents autographed by Mohandas Gandhi sell for £18,800 ($29,554). In comparison, a collection of manuscript notes came up for auction in July 2007, with a similar estimated sale price of £25,000, yet sold for £45,600.

Photographs too, have seen a remarkable upward shift, with a collection taken by Henri Cartier Bresson of Gandhi at his Birla house in Delhi in 1948 selling for $8,125 off an estimate of $4,000, at a Christie's auction in February 2008.   

Elsewhere, the rare stamp market could soon see increasing interest in stamps relating to the famous Princely states like "Rajasthan", "Faridkot" and "Barwani" in much the same way that China has seen increasing prices, thanks to its growing interest in rare stamps.

Relatively inexpensive rare Indian stamps, like a block of 1948-49 SG13 8a Ultramarine Rajasthan stamps, can be bought for £350 ($525) today but could double in price over the next twenty years.

The jewellery market could also see impressive auction prices, with many ceremonial pieces still in private hands, each highly valuable thanks to their gold and diamond content.

And the number of collectors underpinning this market could be set to rise even further. Some reports have projected that India's economic growth could soon surpass even China's with an estimated 240 million Indians entering the labour force by 2030 and earning surplus cash.

The next twenty years could see the number of collectors globally double, making collectibles an investment with huge potential for the future.


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