How this CA and ex-EY Investment Banker co-founded a thriving Art Dealing and Infrastructure solution venture 

  • I am Rishiraj Sethi, a Chartered Accountant turned entrepreneur – building a leading institution to expand the Indian art market.
  • Growing up, I loved Finance but CA was not on the radar. As destiny would have it, I ended up pursuing CA and started my career at Andersen/ EY.
  • In 2008, I quit my job to join my Father and Brother to build Aura Art, at the height of the economic exuberance, followed by meltdown - in order to organise the art market and fill the gaps that existed in the system.
  • Today we cover the entire spectrum - assisting new and evolved collectors build and manage their wealth in art, with art from USD 3,000 to USD 300,000.
  • Here is my story.

CA was not on the radar

While still in college, I was involved in the family's investment activities, besides taking a keen interest in family tax compliance and I looked forward to the interaction with our family CA.

Unlike many of my friends who were studying for the CA course, I decided to pursue a Diploma in Business Finance and eventually be a part of the larger wealth management space. (I was keen to graduate and start working!)

As destiny would have it, a couple of my closest friends dragged me into a presentation by Andersen (a leading CA firm back then). As a 21-year old, I was completely enamoured and went all out for joining Andersen. 

I was keen to build my career with the Firm, for which CA was a pre-requisite! So with the greatest trepidation, I went on leave for my Inter-CA and the rest as they say is history.

Forging my career path at a Big 4 Firm

Fortunately, I was able to clear the Final CA also in the first attempt in 2000 and continued my career at Andersen.

Given my continued interest on the wealth side, I kept dabbling in the stock market, besides engaging with family real estate portfolio and simultaneously pursued US CFA.

After completing my CFA (2003), I went for a couple of interviews/meetings in the wealth space but did not find a culture to suit my aspirations.

My career at Andersen was progressing well and I was on a steep learning curve, so I decided to continue.

By now Andersen India merged with EY and given that I had done my CFA and developed a significant focus on the Pharma space, and had been involved in structuring and executing a couple of transactions, in 2005, I got the rare opportunity to migrate laterally to the Investing Banking side of EY. 

Later I even worked in other exciting sectors like Real Estate and Healthcare...I was on a roll!

 

 

QAPITA

Understanding Art from a different perspective

Over the decades, my father Mr. Daljit Singh Sethi, and brother Harmeet had developed significant expertise in art - having studied thousands of artists, built a formidable collection, and shortlisted the key artists for promotion.

As a CA, I was quite insulated from all this except the occasional annoyance of sharing the dinner table with artists at unearthly hours with their works strewn all over the house.

However, with Aura Art being envisaged in 2006, to promote artists as well as art collection culture, during my work travels, I would take time out and visit galleries, museums and auctions (both within and outside India) and interact with various stakeholders. This exercise was an eye-opener into the wealth potential of art.

Being an Investment Banker, I realised that my understanding of Art helped me connect better with promoters.

To add, as soon as word spread in my corporate network of my family’s interest in art, I started getting calls from EY colleagues and other professionals across the country to get pointers for client meetings (there was a sudden frenzy in the art market at that time).

As a CA and someone with a keen interest in the wealth industry, I soon recognized Art as an Asset class.

 

QAPITA

Entrepreneurial leap after an 11-year corporate stint

Fast forward to 2008, the year started on a high note, with the Aura Art launch show in January 2008. My involvement in the show, albeit limited, was very enriching. Besides, the show was very well received by the art market.

At the same time, while Investment Banking was an exciting profile, on account of specific factors, I was beginning to feel that I am not able to add incremental value to myself. 

Hence, I actively started considering setting up a vehicle to service HNIs and their advisors - with a focus on alternate assets - real estate, early-stage investing, Art, and other collectibles.

For this purpose, I met a host of professional contacts and well-wishers and the resounding advice from them was – ‘to actually leverage the family's art strength and set-up a focussed ‘Art platform’ for promoting art as well as servicing wealth needs.’ 

Taking all this into consideration, I moved on from EY at the age of 32 after an 11-year stint…and here started an interesting journey that is still continuing.

Building the Art business - One step at a time

In 2008, we started our journey as a venture capital company - researching artists, investing in their works, incubating and promoting them to gradually ride the growth in value.  While the initial intent was to collaborate with other art market players, we soon realised that we will have to roll up our sleeves ourselves and organise art shows and the like to promote art. 

Having done that successfully in the most testing of times, we migrated to a dealing business in 2015.

Also, given that our core model to work towards the ‘expansion of the art market’ we always believed that an online presence is vital. Hence, in 2016, we setup www.auraart.in, as India's leading and probably first curated online marketplace for fine art, wherein artists, galleries, dealers and collectors sell and acquire works.

We do our best to maintain the quality of the listing - both in terms of the artist, their work as well as its attributes (data points, pricing, etc).

Gradually we introduced the Art Services Business documenting and valuing collections, valuation assistance for transactions / re-organizations/ compliance, insurance advisory, restoration, estate planning, etc.

Recently we partnered with Amazon India for the launch of its art vertical in India. We conduct various thought leadership initiatives and talks at various forums which has ensured that we become the preferred partners for Wealth Advisors and Family Offices.

We also increased the propensity of our shows and started exhibiting across the country. The 7-year-old partnership to set-up and manage The Art Enclave at Index Fairs has assisted the participants and us to forge strong working alliances with architects and designers.

Tackling challenges

My transition from EY to a full-time Entrepreneur was quite smooth as my previous roles were very entrepreneurial. However, the big challenge was that just within one month of formally transitioning into my new role, we had the Global Financial Crisis, in September 2008.

Imagine the impact of widespread wealth destruction on a business hinging on wealth creation.

Nothing was going to prepare me or anyone for that matter for what was to follow, somehow we kept going and all went fine.

The other self-imposed challenge which we faced early on was deciding not to go for any External Funding or Partnerships.

(We were approached by a prominent International auction house and later by a leader in Art Infrastructure Solutions to be their Indian Partner, even many HNIs wanted to partner for setting up a Gallery….but we had a deep conviction on our plans and ability to achieve them on our own grit and turned down several such opportunities!)

Besides these, we continue facing the routine challenges of scaling up, but the biggest challenge that drives me crazy is the extent of fakes in the art market! 

 

QAPITA

What is your advice to your 2 year old self?

Client base

Our clients can broadly be segregated into 5 categories - and are located across India as well as other parts of t

  1. Evolved collectors: Have been patronising art for decades and have also inherited art.
  2. New collectors: Who are now beginning their journey towards building a collection.
  3. Consumption buyers: Besides collection, there is also an increasing trend towards consuming more and better art. On a lighter note, while lawyers are adept in building massive art collections and displaying them with pride in their offices, CA firms are just warming up to this idea.
  4. Institutional Buyers: Increasingly, hotels, hospitals, corporate parks, and government establishments are becoming more conscious of the need to display quality art to liven the decor, besides reflecting the organisation's ethos. Also, there is a growing interest in large installations and sculptures, by realty developers for their projects.
  5. International Market: Last but not the least, the increasing socio-politico-economic importance of India has led to an increase in interest for Indian art outside India (from Indians and foreigners).

 

 

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Wrapping Up...

Running Aura Art for more than a decade, my sole purpose is creating a world-class institution that furthers the cause of Indian Art.

 

My research suggests that the Indian art market is highly under-represented and there are significant gaps in the Art ecosystem. It is set to grow as we see more and more Indian collectors emerging (inside and outside India) as well as global collectors adding Indian art to their collections.

My two cents to other CAs? I recollect after one talk, I was complimented by an international family office professional for the rare distinction of being probably the only CA, CFA involved in the art world, with professional knowledge and experience of tax, finance and art.

My only reason to mention this is - The art infrastructure solutions opportunity is even more interesting, particularly for CAs. It is estimated that HNWIs hold art of US$3 trillion and if we assume the annual cost of servicing a collection to be 1-1.5%, the addressable Global Art Infrastructure Market is pegged at $ 30-45bn annually. This is again a very nascent area in India, with huge catch-up potential.

(Video edited by Ankit Lodhi)

 

Dealing with Criticism

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