Investing in India's Art; Entrepreneur Amit Judge Opens a Huge New Gallery in New York to Showcase Works from His Homeland

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Byline: Vibhuti Patel

When Tyeb Mehta's painting "Mahishasura" sold at Christie's New York auction house last year for $1.6 million, artists and art dealers were stunned. In five years, Indian art prices had skyrocketed a thousand percent. Savvy Indian businessmen wanted a piece of the market. But one New Delhi entrepreneur had them beat: Amit Judge opened Bodhi art gallery in Singapore in 2004 because "there was no awareness of Indian art in Asia," he says. Bodhi galleries in Delhi and Mumbai followed. This month his flagship opens in the world's art capital, New York: with 560 square meters of prime space in Chelsea, Bodhi will stand alongside the prestigious Gagosian gallery.

At 48, Judge is an unlikely art-world visionary. The son of a navy man, he worked small jobs through college in Kolkata, then moved to Delhi to join a cousin's garment business. Frustrated with the family company, he struck out on his own, using his father's $200 pension as startup capital for a clothing company in 1987. Today his interests include construction, chemicals, investment, real estate, and Barista, a coffee chain that started as a tiny cafe. His ventures stretch from Mumbai to China. Last year, he sold Barista to the giant Tata conglomerate. Now "I spend most of my time on art," he says. "I find it exciting and enriching--the business opportunity's huge in Indian art because it's still nascent."

Judge ascribes his passion for art to his late wife, Nandita, whose family--owners of the Times of India--first invited Sotheby's to Mumbai in 1988 to auction modern art. That marked a turning point for Indian art by generating record prices. Judge got to know the top artists, and began collecting, even commissioning works; Mehta's "Celebration" hung in his office until a Japanese collector bought it in 2003. Though he sold many works after his wife's death in a helicopter crash in 2001, Judge retains a large collection of India's finest contemporary artists: Mehta, V. S. Gaitonde, F. N. Souza and Arpita Singh. Eventually he established Bodhi because "India's art is very good but our infrastructure is poor," he says. "The pipeline connecting the art and the artist to the collector--the gallery system--is weak. …