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From graveyard to collectors' homes

Kishore Singh | September 27, 2003

Collectors, as a breed, tend not to be flamboyant. Therefore, it is difficult to map what is moving in the market, since noisy collectors are often not serious ones, or are in any case a small minority among a very large community.

Nor are collectors as eclectic as the trade often presumes. Many may buy eclectically, but at least some of it is meant for trade, or investment.

More recently, there has been a more-than-usual stirring of interest in marble statuary.

This has been a neglected area in India, since the Indian eye has been schooled in the Asian form, and is largely unappreciative of Western statues.

There has also been a snob value attached to the collecting of figurines -- while Oriental porcelain, ceramic, jade and cloisonné have been given their due, less has been made of occidental statuary that was once part of the aristocratic Englishman's home and garden.

Much of the resistance arises from the fact that these statues are largely figures that have been plucked from European mythology, and other obscure sources, so there is little knowledge in the market about them.

Also, since they were once imported into the country in indiscriminate volumes by maharajas, nawabs and rich businessmen, they were not always picked for quality.

Therefore, for every rare piece that can be found in, for example, the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad (the Veiled Rebecca is a masterpiece), there are others that fetch a price more on account of aging than inherent value.

Also of some concern is the fact that the quality of stone, in many cases, was of poor quality, and so these statues have aged poorly.

Abandoned in leaky storehouses, or in gardens, they have been stained beyond any measure of cleaning, and suffered from cracks and chipping in the bargain.

Alabaster, in particular, has suffered from exposure to a greater extent than marble.

And yet, there has always been a steady market for these statues, and they are often sold in bulk, with offers of bargain prices.

They can also pop up in some unexpected places, so spreading the word around can help. People loathe to sell bronzes, for example, are more likely to want to spring clean their homes of marble or other stone statuary.

In recent times, collectors have pointed with concern to the disappearance of Raj statuary, removed from public spaces and dumped in some courtyard or garden without any security.

Not only does it do little by way of documenting history, these works were usually paid for through public funds, and their theft should be a matter of national concern.

Most sales for marble statuary are privately executed. Perhaps the money is not sufficient to attract the auctioneer, or maybe the historicity can prove a problem.

Often, establishing provenance of all but the finest pieces can be impossible, since they were bought from stores all over London and Paris in bulk.

The Marble Palace in Kolkata has one such collection where the very fine sit beside the very ordinary, an indicator of the way Indians would hoard these works of art: some priceless, others not.

Prices are not high, even for those intact in their original condition. It is possible to pick up basic indoor pieces for an entrance hall, or corridors, at around Rs 15,000-20,000 per foot of height (multiply by two for animal figures that tend to have more width than height).

Purists might balk at this manner of calculating price (akin to Husain selling canvases by the square foot), but the system does have merit. This does not include the price for the pedestal, which is often more likely to be damaged.

Either pedestals are priced separately and often quite reasonably in comparison, or if purchasing as a package deal, than the total value of the height is reduced by half.

While the theft of busts and statues of the Empire's rulers, and their representatives in India, is grave enough, collectors need to be much more concerned about the source of pieces such as the Pieta, or other angels and gods and goddesses, that are now reportedly being stolen from cemeteries.

Nor are they safe when it comes to marble statues of, for examples, dogs, for even man's faithful companion may have been plucked from the memorial stone of his or her master's grave.

Antiquity is all very well, but buying someone else's history quite literally from the grave is likely to stick in the craw.

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