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Art collection not for faint hearted

December 10, 2003 10:56 IST

Art collecting is no longer for the faint-hearted. Chasing quality works, dealers and even artists is now a full-time job.

As the art community insiders have decided who the superstars of tomorrow are, there is a mad rush to acquire works of these artists before prices escalate further, regardless of quality, condition and provenance.

The problem has become increasingly complicated with the arrival of the new brash NRI collectors who treat art as an alternate asset category. They buy works from dealers and auctions and promptly dump them back rather quickly in the market for profit.

This has led to a market that is becoming increasingly speculative and predictably dangerous. Last week's sale of 110 lots by Saffronart.com reflects this phenomenon.

After the exit of Bowring's, the auction market has quite evenly been divided into three. First is Christie's, which holds two sales a year with increasingly high value lots, mostly of progressives. Saffron, which does pretty much the same, but with lesser values and Osian which struggles regularly in an effort to sell Bengal school works, among others.

The interesting thing to note in these sales is that the ones that relied mostly on progressive artists succeeded (Christie's and Saffron) and Osian's experiment with Bengal together with younger artists sank without a trace.

Noveau collectors who are dabbling in art as an investment are basically concentrating on less than a dozen tried and tested artists as art in their view should be bankable and re-saleable. As a result, works of these artists continue to come back at auctions at a pace faster than ever before, almost certainly at higher estimates.

Amrita Jhaveri, in her article in the last issue of Art India, says that if we take a look at the past season's sales, it reveals that many works in current sales have in fact been on offer at dealers and auction houses not very long ago. Ganesh Pyne's Mask, a still life by Ara and an untitled work by Swaminathan that were on offer at Christie's September sale were previously available on Saffronart.com.

Similarly the only interesting lot at Osian's, an untitled Atul Dodiya watercolour was also in a previous Saffron sale. On the other hand, in the Saffron sale, Ara's Still Life In a Landscape, nearly all the Souzas, and canvases by Arpita Singh and Swaminathan were either with dealers or at auctions in the last two years. And the buoyant market ensured profits.

For instance, a 1982 untitled work of Arpita Singh which sold at a Christie's sale in 2001 for $5,000, successfully made thrice that at Saffron!

This brings us to the most important question that if prices for these select artists are rising so effortlessly then is art an investment? The answer is a definitive no, as there has been no great collection that has been successfully built on financial rather than aesthetic considerations.

Visionary collectors have always bought what they liked and enjoyed and have been rewarded in time with higher prices. But what then about the Arpita or other such works?

Taking 10-12 artists in a sample is no way of judging the art market's health.

Unlike the Sensex, we have no barometer to judge the entire state of the art market. Thus we often end up quoting examples of only the best performing artists forgetting the hundreds and thousands of artists whose pieces haven't risen at all since they were purchased.

The art world's speculators, too, are having a field day as the incestuous nexus between some dealers, collectors and auction houses continues to strengthen. With the new entrants becoming more and more conservative in their choice of artists, the boom is getting restricted to a select few.

Unfortunately, till this nexus is exposed, speculation shall reign supreme. Caveat Emptor!

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