Changing hues

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Jul 30 2006, 05:30am hrs
I had predicted that just as the last two years saw a sudden spurt in the price of Indian contemporary art, one could, in the near future, see a flattening of the graph. This happened at the Osians auction in Delhi, but for all the wrong reasons. From those who were present at the auction and observed its process loosely, a fair number of works were withdrawn. After such a debacle, the loss of confidence that occurred was enough to put paid to the success of the auction.

The Indian contemporary art establishment, from the market angle, consists of artist-entrepreneurs who actually spin money for the galleries they patronise (and they may even own them). They even tout their works to auction houses and also indulge in direct studio sales.

Such artists suffer in the long run. The time they should spend on producing first-class art is squandered away on cocktail parties (where most of them dutifully present themselves as the supporters of a promoter or are crowd-pullers for them). This group is generally of two kinds: the crowd-pullers and the crowd. The first category comprises those who are already on the investors list and are really no longer producing their best work, but are basking in its glory. The second group is not worth investing in as they will never make the grade being half-hearted in their productive efforts.

The second rung of the ladder are dealers. It is through them that the galleries access good art. Art dealers are really the kingpins of the sales of contemporary art as both the collector and the gallery owner depend on them. It is not surprising then that most temptations come their way. Being the scourers of the secondary market with a knowledge of what works are where and with whom, they are also aware that a quick buck can be made by buying cheap and selling dear. And once that principle becomes the uppermost, the door is opened to selling fakes and even getting them produced. Such dealing naturally affects the confidence of the buyer with devastating effect.

Then there is the gallery owner. It is here that the system concentrates all its interconnections. The gallery owner keeps a large stock handy, keeps a record of the provenance of different works, gives notes of authentication and keeps lists of collectors.

Now with art being recognised as an investment, a new situation has arisen. Dealers have become art consultants and with gallery owners have floated art investment funds. The problem is that the interests of a gallery owner or dealer may be to increase their profits but that of the consultant is to protect those of the contributors.

The two often do not converge. And the extent to which they do not lead to a flight of confidence from a particular institution. This ought to be avoided at all costs as it affects an emerging market whose norms and practices are still fluid.