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Baby Steps To Collecting

A collector is someone who brings interest, knowledge, and a desire to acquire works of a certain period, or genre, or ‘school’ for reasons best known to themselves

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Art collectors are notoriously fickle with their taste and money. Here, I use the term “collector” advisedly as someone with a budget and a mandate to collect art as a thought out strategy, not merely someone with a few paintings on the walls boasting the signatures of well-known artists as nothing more than decorative props. A collector is someone who brings interest, knowledge, and a desire to acquire works of a certain period, or genre, or ‘school’ for reasons best known to themselves. Or, at least, that is the intention, but any collector, no matter his or her budget, soon finds the exercise heady and overpowering as artists, gallerists and auction houses begin to seduce them with their offerings. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll begin to add artists to their repertoire that did not have a place in the original collecting plans. It is not my case that collecting should not be joyous or spontaneous, but here it is the power of patronage that is intoxicating. No matter. The focus might be diluted a bit, but heck, they, at least, realise that collecting — unlike investing — is living life passionately, and intelligently. And that intention is to be envied.

Still, I was surprised when my son, a lawyer, wanted to know “how to collect” art. “You mean invest?” I asked, for I knew he was looking to put some of his savings in unconventional silos. It turns out, while he was not chary of making a little money by way of the investment angle, he was genuinely interested in collecting because of the leverage it gave him among his peer group as someone who “understood” art. That’s an intellectual cache beyond knowing the trendiest café in the neighbourhood, or wearing a Zegna suit, and is extremely powerful. As I’ve pointed out often to art audiences, while there can be many collectors who might own a work by Raza, each painting is still unique and allows for a dialogue on whose is better on account of its quality, or period, or other attribute — a banter (and camaraderie) without end.

But guiding your own children is more difficult than addressing a room full of strangers on the merits of collecting because they aren’t likely to make rude assessments about how an art writer is probably just a failed collector. Mostly, I argue with my son on the premise that a collection, however eclectic, must have a focus. “Collect abstract artists from the 1960s,” I suggest to him, “or paperworks from the Bengal School, or landscapes by the Progressives, or lithograph prints.”

Initially, my son was not impressed. He wanted to learn more about artists who were less well known than the established masters, but with the potential “to become the next Husain”, a sentiment I have heard expressed several times in conversations around contemporary artists, but he appeared more interested in the senior generation because of the larger body of work they had to their credit. I agreed that there was a risk when it came to emerging artists, but it might be worth taking as long as you liked someone’s work. I also explained the traditional touchstones of collecting: quality, rarity, historicity, and liquidity.

But my son persisted in his demand for names of artists he could study, so, to get him off my back, I shared a list of those whose work I thought was excellent, but who had not got the attention they deserved. “Look at what other collectors, or museums, are acquiring,” I cautioned him. Fortunately, the Internet has made the task of researching easy, and so, in between law suits and filing injunctions or winning appeals, my son began to piece together information on the careers and influences of these artists, who had patronised them, searching out national awards, museums acquisitions, important exhibitions and drawing up price comparisons based on gallery hearsay and auction results. He sent me comparisons heavy with details of works on canvas or paper with price estimates, and just when I thought he might weary of such pursuit, he surprised me by choosing an artist’s work that most people would hesitate over, asking if he thought it might make a good collecting debut.

That is how he came to acquire a painting by Rabin Mondal. Titled Magician, it is a work of great authority, but not something an unseasoned collector might desire. The test of any serious collecting is to avoid the pitfalls of what critics disparage as decorative art, something that reeks of beauty for its own sake. Here, the contribution of the Bengal modernists — Mandal among them — has not been without merit. Their work is a commentary on the dark and maudlin, communicated with skill: whether Sunil Das’s Prostitute series, Bikash Bhattacharjee’s realistically rendered, sinister (and eyeless) inhabitants of ominous habitats, Ganesh Pyne’s sombre watercolours, or Somnath Hore’s laments to violence. The fortunes of these artists have fluctuated like the Sensex, but their importance has not dimmed as a result of it.

Impressed, I indulged my son a little more by way of art historical backgrounds. We talked of catalytic art movements while he continued to aspire to find a collecting foothold among a list of artists he had come to admire. True, he knew a contemporary artist who was making a name for herself for her technique and materials, so he “commissioned” her to make him a couple of works as a friendly gesture. But he also continued to work with information and Excel sheets of prices, sending me urgent text messages ahead of any forthcoming auction.

“We should hedge our bets on Rajendra Dhawan and Bimal Dasgupta,” he SMSed. Both are abstract artists, itself a genre that is difficult for collectors to reconcile with. Dhawan lived and worked in Paris, and though he worked with dark colours, there is a haiku-like lyricism about his brushstrokes. Bimal Dasgupta began his career working in thickly impastoed oils on canvas, but moved on to acrylics in a brighter palette. “He became allergic to oil paints,” my son informed me, impressing me with his ability to tell the works and their periods apart.

We acquired their works, a few each. “It’s better than buying all over the place,” he advised me. My son was alluding to restricting the portfolio — my initial premise — which had begun to suffer from a hope to have some well-entrenched names in the basket even if their quality was not the best: Husain, for instance, or Raza. Because when it came to the crunch, I was less sure of weighing in on only a few artists instead of spreading our risk and including the masters in the portfolio, even if the works were weak. My son was unmoved by such pretentions. “Let’s look to G.R. Santosh,” he told me, pointing out that while we had representations from his best known figurative and tantra periods during which his styles differed one from the other, there was a lacuna when it came to his narrow abstract period during which he painted distorted landscapes. We closed in on one such representation. I loved the work but was less sure of the popularity of its period. “It’s rare, right?” he asked me. I nodded in affirmation. “Then it’s at least a good investment,” he assured me. Didn’t I already know that?

He’s now begun to behave the way serious collectors should. He asks for better pictures, if the work is not physically on view and he’s bidding online. He requests condition reports, though this is tricky territory, and I think I should organise a tête-à-tête with a conservator to help him better understand the nuances of restoration done or required. He is not satisfied with most provenances that tend to be skimpy with actual information.

In between, he keeps sending pictures of works by artists he has begun to show an interest in. Some of them are by contemporaries, whose market hasn’t picked up since 2008, and I tell him so. “Just let me know what you think of the work,” he persists. I tell him some of them are good. “That’s what we should worry about,” he says, “the market will follow quality.”

Which is why we are also collecting that quintessential modernist, Jamini Roy. In an area where the fear of fakes is strong, my son looks to me to provide him the assurance of their authenticity, and then points out how “ordinary works” by Roy are beginning to fetch stronger prices at auctions. That’s because, despite his prolific output, the artist’s works are increasingly to be seen only at auction sales and are becoming more difficult to acquire through galleries. We were fortunate to chance upon some at a private sale that laid the foundation for collecting a variety of Roy’s works, and he now wants to look at more such “deals”. People do want to sell properties either because they no longer like them, or because they’ve inherited them from their parents but have more interest in money than art. But whatever the reason, where private sales may offer great value, one must proceed cautiously to avoid being sold lemons.

Meanwhile, the courier daily brings catalogues and invitations to sales, openings and previews. Relationship managers call home wondering if my son is interested in putting in an advance bid, wanting to know if there is additional information they can share with him, even though his fiscal reach, so far, has been modest. Given the late hours he works, he misses most openings, the champagne and the conversations that are such an interesting part of collecting. He’s still honing his skills on how to collect, something those who’re passionate will do all their lives, but at least he’s set his sights on the seriousness it involves. And focus or not, I know he wants a Souza “from the 1960s, his greatest period”, sometime before this decade runs out. Of course, if there’s a deal on an Amrita Sher-Gil drawing or sketch — he knows he can’t afford her paintings — you know where to call. A collector is being born. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Art Curator art collector Magazine 28 October 2017

Kishore Singh

The author is art writer and curator

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