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Home > Business > Special

From fashionable to serious

Nitin Bhayana | September 03, 2003

It was the dawn of the last decade of the millennium. Art collecting was just about becoming fashionable even though awareness was fairly limited.

The Illustrated Weekly carried art market articles every fortnight pitching artists as stocks.

Few galleries, fewer books and very few collectors ensured that the market was highly illiquid. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for a select group of eloquent, media-savvy artists who ruled the roost.

Thanks to scarcity of art dealers, artists became their own dealers and used a gullible media to make themselves collectable. Courting moneyed diplomats, hectic socialising, and PR contacts became vehicles for image enhancement and desirability.

The more serious artists such as V S Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, K G Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh and Rameshwar Broota were completely ignored by the "keeping up with the Joneses" buyers at a time when Husain, Anjolie Ela Menon, Manjit Bawa, Satish Gujral were the darlings of the press.

This is not to say that the fashionable artists weren't important.

Husain was and will continue to be the most important artist in India. Gujral and Bawa too have made serious contributions to Indian art.

However, they are not the only popular artists today.

A look at the CNBC-IIFA Art exhibition more than a decade later shows that the media continues to be fascinated by artists who look sexy on the idiot box.

One journalist confessed that he prefers an eloquent Anjolie Menon and a plum-in-the-mouth Sabavala to the barely audible Tyeb Mehta or simpleton Arpita.

But times are a changin' and the rapid maturity of the art market has put the latter bunch of artists far above the fashionable.

Today a Tyeb Mehta is much more expensive than a Husain and a Gaitonde much more sought-after than a Gujral.

A study of the last decade's published data on art prices reveals a startling but inevitable shift from the sheikh to the serious.

Tyeb Mehta, Gaitonde, Ram Kumar and Swaminathan are setting new world records for Indian contemporary pictures and not the artists that the public believes are the bluest of the blue chips.

Column centimetre space in newspapers is no longer the influencing factor to determine prices.

Ganesh Pyne's inaccessibility, Arpita Singh's naivete, Tyeb Mehta's seriousness and Broota's technique excite the market in more ways than one. Page three does and society magazine covers don't. The lesson for collectors here is that in the art market one can only influence the short run (though the short run was longer than we thought) but in a liquid and maturing market there is only so much you can manipulate.

A look at the carefully chosen collection for the upcoming Christie's sale later this month shows that high estimates are placed on the artists who had a limited appeal few years ago.

So, was buying the fashionable a comedy of errors? Although there are always those who will collect the obvious but then the world is made up of those who prefer Picabias to Picassos.

Tempestuous escalation in prices awaits those artists who have yet to be reassessed and revalued, as has been the case from Van Gogh to Ravi Varma. To buy them or not to buy them, that is the question.

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