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The Art Of Picking A Winner

The country has an absurd rule, that anything over a 100 years turns into something precious, a legacy that needs protection

Photo Credit : Akbar Padamsee’s painting Greek Landscape

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Last year was a year of records of sorts when, first, F.N. Souza’s Man and Woman Laughing sold for a breathtaking price of Rs 16.8 crore in September, to be bested, a month later, with the artist’s Birth changing hands from Tina Ambani’s Harmony Foundation to Kiran Nadar’s eponymously named Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, for Rs 27 crore. Souza flirted with the record for most expensive Indian painting sold only briefly, beaten by V.S. Gaitonde’s untitled work which, in December, fetched Rs 29.3 crore. Peak prices push up overall values, so when Akbar Padamsee’s ambitious Greek Landscape managed Rs 19.2 crore in the fall of this year, creating a new record well over his previous Rs 9.3 crore for Grey Nude and Cityscape, it was a matter of time before other peers firmed up the market with a strong parallel thrust. Already, in a very short period, Amrita Sher-Gil and S.H. Raza have seen records set by them fall as newer records continue to set benchmarks for a wider range of artists than have before entered a cautiously buoyant auction market. Buyer intent is warming up as prices are becoming a talking point once again, so if you have an interest in art, whether as a collector or as an investor, you might want to keep the following considerations in mind.

It Isn’t A Blitz As Yet
So, alright, a Raza might fetch a high Rs 10 crore in a sale. That does not mean that all paintings of a similar size by the artist will have a similar value. Determining the price of any painting is governed by certain key factors, and these include the following: (i) the painting must be of unimpeachable quality, or at least belong to the top 10 per cent of the artist’s oeuvre defined as his best; (ii) such works are usually done during a period when the artist is in peak form, and it helps if the painting, or sculpture, under consideration belongs to this time, or series; (iii) that it has an impeccable provenance, i.e., it has been in an important collection, and comes from a reputed source, because, as we all know, with rising values, not all works that come in the market are kosher.

Beware The F Word
Yes, there are fakes, and the more values increase, the more such works will flood the market. Unless you’re a seasoned buyer — and even if you are one — you could be fooled by the increasing proficiency and beguiling confidence of the fakes market. Till recently, the wary buyer could overcome his fears by getting works authenticated by the artist’s family, or better still, by a trust, or foundation, that looks after his estate. But rumours are now doing the rounds of estates and foundations authenticating fake works for a lucrative fee. With no regulatory board, who do you turn to? The obvious answer is, find the expert, someone who has no axe to grind, and is familiar with the artist’s work. Difficult, but not impossible.

The Tax Man Watcheth, So Pay By Cheque

All of it. Like the luxury business, art was considered a haven for black money. Deals wholly or partly in cash weren’t unheard of. Nobody thought the tax authorities would bother with art till artists started setting records and appearing on the front pages of newspapers. Raids on galleries put the fear of the tax man’s wrath, forcing them to clear up their act. If auction houses got their money transparently and in white, why couldn’t the rest of the business clean up? It’s taken time, but galleries have understood their responsibility and are determined to walk the fine line between a legitimate business and greed. It would help if buyers would both resist deals that involve cash, or offer cash themselves. It might seem like an oddity, but how else will you determine the real value of art in what is already a subjective market?

You’ll Regret Undervaluing Your Art
You buy a suite of terracotta sculptures for Rs 1 crore, say, but you under-invoice it for the sake of insurance. Then, should the inevitable happen — and I’ve seen it happen, the whole crash! bang! poof! of it — you’ll find yourself out of pocket simply because you didn’t want to pay a little higher premium for insurance. Just see what a good monsoon and a flooded basement can do to your art collection. Art is fragile and vulnerable to damage on many accounts — theft, natural calamities, household neglect — so, if you care for your art and want to treat it as an asset, invoice its full value, and sleep better.

Valuing Your Worth

Nobody gives you an estimate you can trust because everyone is an interested party when it comes to buying, or selling, art. Auction estimates are an indication, but who decides whether the works you own can be classified as excellent or mediocre? And unless you’re thoroughly knowledgeable about art, don’t go by your gut instinct. There’s nothing more unreliable. Instead, read up to see which artists are getting major retrospectives: in galleries, museums, overseas. Is more interest developing in their work, is there more research, are curators featuring them in high quality shows? If yes, you are on an upswing with those artists; if not, wait it out a little longer — that day may, yet, come.

Today’s Masterpieces, Tomorrow’s Antiques
The country has an absurd rule, that anything over a 100 years turns automatically into something precious, a legacy that needs protection. Even as you read this, some of the leading artists of the Bengal School are turning into 100-year-old antiques. A quarter of a century from now, some of India’s most high-value art of the Progressives will have to start queueing up before the Archaeological Survey of India to get its registration papers in order. If the logistics is painful, its intent is more so. You can own the works, you can register them, you can even keep them – but only in your home in India. So, if you’re seeing them as investments for your children, remember they’ll be unable to take these registered works of art outside the country, even to their homes elsewhere in the world, unless the legislation changes. So, it’s time to build that platform to lobby with the government for a change in such archaic rules, starting now. (But what a hoot to think that Souza’s provocative art, or Husain who lived in asylum outside the country in his last years will soon get state protection and be deemed works of national heritage!)

Building New Art Warriors
With the collapse of the contemporary art market, valuations hit a miserable low, causing punters to stay away from them. Today’s contemporaries may be in the doldrums, but they will be tomorrow’s moderns, so careful editing and elimination of their work, and identifying these artists for their longevity, will result in creating greater value for your future. This may take a little while, since the current churn means no serious collector is looking at them with any level of gravity, but it also means that prices are low and, therefore attractive. There’s no time better than the present to jimmy up on the best and worthiest.

Your Identikit
Contemporary art is difficult to “get”, or understand. If you’re struggling, do as your forebears did with the moderns — read up everything you can about them, see as much of their work as you can, seek them out and hear them speak about their work, and you’ll find they’re not from la-la land but seriously driven, with points of view that are a commentary on our times and social and political mores. If only their work had an easy aesthetic! But since it doesn’t, check to see the artists who are being invited to show at biennales around the world, have their works being acquired by other important collectors, and are in museum programmes.

Curators are at work behind the scenes, weighing in on what makes their work special alongside those of the global peers, and they have sharp minds and the ability to set the winners apart from the wannabes. I’d follow their example so that, in a few years, you can claim to have representations from the best artists from the contemporary generation — the new warlords with predatory pricing who will dominate the art records a couple of decades from now.

Don’t say you weren’t, ahem, nudged into seeing their value — right under your nose.

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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magazine 17 october 2016 art works painting lifestyle

Kishore Singh

The author is art writer and curator

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