While India is going ballistic over Tyeb Mehta and his Rs 7 crore benchmark as the highest-ever price for a work of contemporary Indian art, there are a handful of collectors who're chortling all the way to the bank.
These collectors had banked on Mehta long before he became the flavour of the season, seeing him as a better investment than M F Husain at the height of his career (a position he still hasn't relinquished, though a large number of artists have raced past him to the turnstiles).
The Mumbai-based Mehta's works have always been consistent with his approach to art, honed by the Progressive Artists Group and constant exposure to European masters and peers.
The 80-year-old artist has never veered too far from his Expressionist oeuvre, perfecting the minimalism of his outlines, staying within the ambit of a strong subjectivity. His works have been comments, indictments, even complete stories in themselves.
But the current buzz is about his price. Can the market sustain such hype? "Yes and no," says a gallerist, "it all depends on the bankability of Indian masters. For now, it seems the joyride will continue, though it might be difficult to breach the Mehta barrier of Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million) at least for some time." Meanwhile, the works of other contemporaries will continue to rise in the bargain.
For most part, Tyeb Mehta (think rickshaw puller, think the goddess Durga/Kali, think the rampaging bull, and you've got him down pat) has remained away from the glare of the limelight, even though his contribution has been valued (and collected), most works fetching between Rs 5-20 lakh (Rs 500,000-2 million) for acrylics on canvas, and Rs 250,000-500,000 for works on paper.
Museums around the world have borrowed his works from collectors when showing Indian retrospectives. Amazingly, he became an icon among cult collectors when a canvas fetched Rs 1.2 crore (Rs 12 million) at a Saffronart auction in May. Already, that seems like kidstuff compared to the Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million) his Mahishasura picked up on a telephone bid at the Christie's auction in New York last month.
Only a day before, an untitled work by Ram Kumar had briefly held the highest price for an Indian artist at Rs 1.66 crore (Rs 16 million), but all it took was a day to topple that record. To be fair though, the Mehta canvas had an estimated value that was twice what the Ram Kumar fetched, though few punters had thought it would live up to the hype.
At 80, Mehta -- even though he continues to paint -- is less active than before, but there's still a lot of his canvases in the market. A couple of gallerists in Mumbai warn that for those who want to buy his work, this is not the best time with prices being quoted at abnormal highs. Will the prices settle down? Probably, they say.But another gallerist in Delhi says far from stabilising, his prices will continue to rise ("Okay," he says, "they won't break the record any time soon, but overall his base price is bound to rise sharply"). The best of times and the worst of times? It just depends on whether you're a buyer or a seller.