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Collectibles: Make Space On Your Wall

The art market is often difficult to manoeuvre for first-time collectors. Here's a ready reckoner on what to look out for

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You have just got that long awaited performance bonus. Not a very large sum. But tidy enough. And for years you’ve dreamt of starting an art collection. Well, your time has come.

Is there a starters’ guide to collecting art? Not really. Some of it is experience, some of it is experiential. None of it is taught; all of it is learnt. Largely, self-learnt. We ourselves started collecting art in a serious kind of way only 3-4 years ago. We are happy to share here some of our own experiences, and hope they will help other first time collectors get started.

Step one in starting a collection, is actually knowing who’s who. While Hussain, S H Raza, F N Souza and Gaitonde have entered the social lexicon with the stratospheric prices reported in media for their works at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, most of these artists, while being very famous, are just beyond the realms of common affordability. So, getting familiar with the better known names (perhaps lesser known outside art circles) is a mandatory. In today’s market a Paresh Maity, his wife Jayshree Burman, her uncle Sakti Burman (all of whom are current market ‘flavourites’) and senior artists like Jogen Chowdhury, Anjolie Ela Menon, Himmat Shah, Laxma Goud, Thota Vaikuntam, A Ramachandran, L P Shaw, Jatin Das, Prabhakar Kolte … are worth knowing, and understanding.

The next step in the collector’s journey is to start going to the ‘openings’. Especially in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, big artists are normally hosted by leading galleries to a ‘cheese-and-wine’ opening of their shows. Art openings are a good way to mingle with the art fraternity, and a good way to get to know them. It is good to have an invite, but most openings are an open-house. More than anything else, at the ‘opening’ you always get to meet the artist in person, and interact with him or her. Plus, most likely there would be other seniors attending. We were at Delhi artist Seema Kohli’s opening at Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery recently. Besides getting to hug-and-kiss Seema, we also got to meet Brinda Miller, Vinod Sharma, Subhash Awchat and Charan Sharma. Quite a line-up for an evening!

Frequenting the galleries is a necessary habit one needs to develop when becoming an art collector. There are seasoned collectors we know who make it a point to visit Jehangir almost every weekend, without fail. Jehangir is a great place to see both masters, as also to be introduced to emerging artists. The Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), also in the Kala Ghoda precinct in Mumbai is another art destination, especially for artists from the Santiniketan school. Pundole’s at Tanna House, not far away, is another must-visit for top-end art. Art Musings further down in Colaba; Gallery Art & Soul and Tao Art Gallery in Worli; and Cymroza near Breach Candy are all good to get onto the mailing lists of. India Habitat and Triveni are the epicentre of art in Delhi, while Vadhera in Defence Colony, Art Alive in Panchsheel and the likes of Dhoomimal are well regarded too.

Art auctions are a good learning ground for budding art collectors. The catalogues are a good source for understanding the contemporary art landscape, as also the broad range of prices. Some rare works often come up on offer. At the recent Pundole’s auction at the NCPA Mumbai, many nice works of Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and Nasreen Mohamedi came under the hammer. Auctions are also a good barometer of which artists are sought after. Plus, you can strike it lucky sometimes. At the Art for Concern auction at the Imperial, New Delhi a few months back, we managed to bid for, and buy, a Ram Kumar masterpiece far below the market because there were no other serious bidders.

Once you get into the circuit, you will realise the value of being an ‘early bird’ as a collector. Previews are better than ‘openings’ because you get to make the first choice out of a collection. You also get to put a red bindi in comparative peace, without being jostled by other collectors. We were late for a Sujata Bajaj showing of ‘Ganeshas’ last month as we were travelling. By the time we finally got to Jehangir, the best of the collection were gone.

We learnt over the years that to be a good collector, you have to cultivate not just the eyes, but your ears and nose too. Once you start collecting, you not only need to start understanding the aesthetics and the beauty of the works, but also need to keep your ears open. For instance, we hadn’t actually heard of Amit Bhar till we heard his name mentioned more than once at different occasions. We sought him out, saw his works, and today one of his Benares series proudly adorns our walls. Similarly, you need to develop a nose for collecting. You need to smell opportunities that come your way. An old collector was trying to sell some masters.

A friend recommended us to him. We are now negotiating a Krishen Khanna of 40-years vintage which no gallery would have on offer.

Another aspect one learns as one starts to collect art is that there are no rules, only deals. Art is still a very one-to-one business in India. Especially, right now, when the art market is down, good deals are abundantly available. It is just that you have to be careful. We were offered a Jamini Roy by a Kolkata dealer recently. He said the provenance would be provided by the artist’s family. The artwork is a beauty but one can really not be sure about the painting’s authenticity. It has been more than a couple of months since we have been discussing the deal. The rule is never to rush it, till you are sure of origin and price.

Another dimension in the art quest is to know that the best price may not always be the lowest price. Sunil Das, best known for his charcoals of horses and bulls passed away a few months ago. Suddenly there is a huge demand for his works. Because there will be no more supply. So, if you want a Sunil Das in your collection, you cannot really bank on getting the lowest price. The trade-off is not about price many times: it is about having the artist in your collection, or not.

Now to practical investing in art. Our cardinal rule is to invest in known artists. While there is much merit in ‘investing’ in emerging artists, we tend to veer towards more recognised talent. Known artists are safer. Emerging artists are like penny stocks; known-but-less-famous artists are like mid-caps. We believe mid-caps have a better chance to hit upper circuits in the future. We do buy from newer artists. We picked up two absolutely fabulous, sinewy bulls in bronze from sculptor Elanchezhiyan last year, but a K S Radhakrishnan work would any day have been a safer bet.

Last piece of advice. Never be afraid to ask. For a better price. For a discount. For authentication. For provenance. For the philosophy behind a painting. For a meeting with the painter. Even to pay in installments. We had planned to buy one of Arzaan Khambatta’s famous horse heads. During a visit to his studio we had already chosen the horse, but persisted in asking if he had any other interesting pieces. Within our budget. He showed us a ‘smiling bull’. We fell in love with it. Today it welcomes guests at the entrance of our Delhi home.

Art has to become an obsession if you have to enjoy collecting it. You have to not just imbibe art, you have to live it. For, art is beautiful. Sensuous. Alive. And not always measurable. Or quantifiable.

With inputs from Carol Goyal

The authors run the Kailasham Trust that endeavours to help promote the arts by providing a platform to emerging artists

Disclaimer: Works of most of the artists mentioned in this article are part of the private collection of the authors , under the aegis of The Kailasham Trust

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.

Tanya Goyal

The author is chaiperson and trustee of The Kailasham Trust

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