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A Leaf From China

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It is easy to read into Edvard Munch’s The Scream, four renderings of which were made by the artist in his lifetime, and of which the 1895 pastel version was auctioned by Sotheby’s in May for Rs 600 crore. 
Whatever else critics, sociologists or analysts might say about the work, its focal point is uncontainable anguish. Yet, an anonymous bidder thought the pain and suffering deserved $120 million, making it the most expensive painting ever to be bought at the drop of a gavel. 
And yet, The Scream is not the highest-priced painting to be sold, since gallery sales are hardly ever reported, and certainly rarely recounted correctly. Still, Paul Gauguin’s The Card Players is believed to have been privately traded for a sum at least twice that of Munch’s The Scream, at anywhere between $250-300 million — alone the size of the entire Indian art market. 
This begs the question: what is it that drives collectors to spend vast fortunes on a piece of canvas and frame, or, say, a lump of bronze, which has absolutely no value of its own when compared with real-estate, bullion or diamonds, all of which are considered safe assets for their liquidity.

Ancient civilisations are identified as much by their art as medieval ones are by their promoters — the Medicis alone creating one of the largest such repositories across Europe — and art formed part of the secret shipments out of Europe at the height of the World Wars. Patronage was established in the US under such collectors as the Guggenheims and the Rothschilds, and the Amercians were at the forefront of collecting for several decades of the last century, followed closely by the UK — which, as one of the most important art trading destinations in the world, has traditionally included other Europeans as well as wealthy Asians who are now establishing massive collections of their own, so much that in a few years all we’ll have to do to view works from the Louvre and the Guggenheim is to take a flight out of India to Abu Dhabi. But the big surprise is that the Chinese are now leading the market as art collectors, spending huge fortunes not just on Chinese artists — which would be natural — but also on well-known international artists such as the Manets and Monets and Van Goghs. Pablo Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust which, at Rs 550 crore, was acquired by a Chinese collector at an auction, is a pointer to that interest and ability to spend.
By comparison, Indian collectors are still a modest lot. Except for a handful of them. For most others, Brand Art exists as an extension of the current desirables: an Hermes Birkin ‘It’ bag, Bvlgari baubles, Ferragamo suits, a Porsche in the garage and part-ownership of a business jet. The few serious collectors may be driven by a different passion, but India is yet to arrive at the global stage as far as art is concerned. 
Even when the art market was not hit by recession — and it is in its fourth successive year now — the rise and rise of art prices that the financial media focused on to the detriment of actual art 
criticism was hardly spectacular by global standards, even as the crore club became the sole 
benchmark for an artist’s merit in popular perception.
The rising but lopsided interest in moderns and contemporaries ignored an important aspect of India’s art class — its Renaissance equivalent, the miniature tradition of painting, as, indeed, the whole gamut of its antiquities — which have continued to suffer because of moribund regulations. Generations after these were taken out of the country, they are now regularly traded at international auctions at a fraction of the cost they might command should the government allow free movement of such works in and out of India. 
While it is true that a relaxation in rules might result in some “loss” as paintings, statues, manuscripts and other collectables are sold overseas, there is a greater chance of acquiring and bringing back to India much that was moved out earlier, or smuggled later. 
India’s collecting base is as yet minuscule, and the focus is still on Indian artists — a pattern common to developing markets which seek to validate their roots in a nod to nationalism. For all its jingoism, though, India’s artists are simply not known enough internationally, however much we might believe otherwise. Nor should this be surprising — how many Chinese artists can Indians even name? And yet, in the Western markets, Chinese artists have made their mark, helped to some extent by state support, which has turned them into an international asset class. 
India’s rich need to pay attention not just to the husains and razas but to artists beyond our borders

For now, few of those international collectors have an interest in Indian art, but this too is likely to change — and it is this that will bring about a surge in their values, making the current highs for S.H. Raza (Rs 16.5 crore), Tyeb Mehta (Rs 12-14 crore), Subodh Gupta (Rs 14 crore), F.N. Souza (Rs 10.5 crore) M.F. Husain (Rs 8-10 crore) or Arpita Singh (Rs 9.5 crore) seem like petty change. But India will have turned into a collecting market when its billionaires turn their attention not just to the Husains and Razas but to artists who are not defined, or confined, by borders — whether they be American or European, Iranian or Chinese. 
That will happen only when India’s Lakshmi Mittals and Narayan Murthys gain enough confidence to see that art has the ability to transform as well as transcend civilisations. While that might appear like sentimental chauvinism, there is a greater chance that Indian collectors, like their Chinese counterparts, will invest in global art because, like them, they will have realised that when it comes to instant recognition, or instant liquidity, Pablo Picasso at Rs 500 crore is rather more likely to find a buyer than a Souza at Rs 5 crore — at least for now.

Kishore Singh is the head of publications and exhibitions, Delhi art gallery

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 24-09-2012)