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Art, the great new investment option

By Kishore Singh
Last updated on: September 30, 2006 13:47 IST
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Sceptics doubted it, but here's confirmation that seven auctions of Indian art notched up sales equivalent to Rs 220 crore (Rs 2.20 billion) this month alone  --  one in India, two online, and four in London and New York. And that's not counting gallery sales in India and abroad.

"Indian art worth Rs 1,100-1,200 crore (Rs 11-12 billion) will have been traded by the end of this year," says Ashish Anand of the Delhi Art Gallery, and though this is still a minuscule percentage of global art, it's no longer to be sneered at.

In fact, the happy thing about art collecting is that you can enjoy being surrounded by works you admire even as their value multiplies.

"Art has always been a valuable resource, so why have Indians been sceptical about it?" asks a puzzled Neville Tuli of Osian's. It's just that there has been a perceptible shift from extraordinary works from our past  --  Chola bronzes, carved ivory (now banned), rare textiles, miniature paintings  --  to modern and contemporary art, and it is here that there has been a spurt of economic activity that is propelling the excitement.

"Today's trigger is economics," confirms Tuli, "tomorrow it could be educational. It's all part of the process with indications for a major boom." Really? "For now, less than 1 per cent of the Indian population understands art," he says, "when they start understanding it better, bang!"

September was actually key to understanding the art market from the point of view of collectors who had started getting jittery about the way prices had been spiralling. Though no new records were created at all seven sales, it is interesting that the price index for individual artists stabilised at higher averages than before.

"The New York auctions in particular showed surprising strength even though there were so many lots," said a spokesperson for Bodhi Art Gallery, which has consolidated its position in NYC with a permanent gallery there. "They did better than I expected."

So, if you're either a collector, or an investor in art, here are some interesting trends that have emerged from these auctions that should be a pointer to the manner in which art prices and collectibles are likely to move over the next few months.

  • Such sales are going to be rarer. Most of the big collections have already entered the auction space and many have found buyers in strong collectors or as institutional investment. As a result, fewer works by the masters will be seen in the market, and prices could consolidate further.
  • "Collectors are no longer looking at an Indian context," points out Tuli. If your spends are $1 million or more, it isn't just the F N Souzas or S H Razas or Tyeb Mehtas you'd be looking at, but the international line-up of artists whose smaller works would fit well into that budget.
  • By that same measure, non-Indians are starting to pick up Indian art. "The Souza that got the highest price at the Sotheby's sale was a Chinese collector," says Ashish Anand. That means global prices are entering the art market, so if you have to buy, do it now.
  • This one's critical: paintings entering the secondary market should be handled by auctioneers, those that are fresh off the block belong with galleries. The blurring of lines between primary gallery sales and secondary auction sales will probably de-link as galleries play a stronger, more significant role in nurturing younger artists.
  • It has been said before, but the trend became all too evident at these auctions where top quality works by an artist got better prices while the same artist failed to measure up to the reserve estimates in the case of poorer works. "Now you can't get away by just putting your signature on a canvas," says a prominent New Delhi gallerist.
  • Younger contemporary artists have been cheered on by the media but analysts feel this market may have grown too fast already. "The market isn't sustainable," says Anand. "For these artists to blossom, these artists need an atmosphere where they are free to think," adds Tuli. So don't get carried away by the hype  --  a proven track record of 50 years can't be upstaged by someone with barely a decade as an artist.
  • There is a growing market for second-tier artists like G R Santosh, Avinash Chandra or Sohan Qadri "who're getting very strong" says Anand. "Artists who have been underrated will find their prices going up."


For many, many years, Indian art and M F Husain were synonymous, but over-exposure and a brittle content have moved the country's favourite artist several notches below others. And even though he may not have commanded the highest prices for Indian art yet (that credit rests with Amrita Sher-gil and Tyeb Mehta), "F N Souza is without doubt India's greatest artist", says Neville Tuli.

Certainly, his works were on the catalogues of all three major international auctions in September -- Bonham's, Christie's and Sotheby's. And he dominates the Indian art market, responsible for over 16 per cent of the total trading in art, says Tuli.

At the Christie's auction Souza's "Man and Woman" fetched the top price of $1,360,000, bought by an Indian hedge fund manager.

Other Souzas that did well were "Nyasa Negress with Flowers and Thorns" for $856,000, an untitled Spanish landscape for $688,000 and "Row of Red Houses with Trees" sold for $374,000. The works were from the collection of British collector and businessman Robin Howard.

Coincidentally, the highest Souza at the Sotheby's auction, "Man with Monstrance", also commanded $1,360,000, or Rs 6.12 crore (Rs billion). Other high prices for his works were $408,000, S240,000, $228,000, $192,000, $180,000, and several drawings for $24,000 and less.

Bonhams boasted 17 Souzas at its London auction, but these didn't manages the prices of the New York auctions because of "its weak marketing", according to a collector.

The highest prices there were commanded by two works that each sold for £150,000 or $282,990 each. Earlier, at the Osian's auction in Mumbai, three works by Souza commanded Rs 2.04 crore (Rs 204 million), Rs 1.68 crore (Rs 168 million) and Rs 1.56 crore (Rs 156 million) at the drop of the gavel.

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Kishore Singh
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