Contemporary Aesthetics For Investment Assessment

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Oct 27 2002, 05:30am hrs
Some time back, in this column on September 8, before the Christies New York sale of September 19, we took up the question of pricing antiquities in accordance with modern aesthetic principles. We made a number of comparisons. Now with the prices with us, we can test our hypotheses.

A 15th century woven silk Tangkha sold for over Rs 3 lakh
The first was the grey schist sculpture of a young man as the Buddha (lot 26), which was expected to fetch Rs 30-40 lakh ($60,000-$80,000). It did. It fetched Rs 35,13,300 ($71,700). The other sculpture was a conventional symbolic image (lot 5), which was expected to fetch Rs 5-7.5 lakh. It fetched Rs 7.6 lakh ($15,535). The second comparison was between lot 62, featuring the symbolic avatars of Vishnu and two fighting soldiers (lot 54). The former was expected to fetch between Rs 3-4 lakh. It was bid for up to only Rs 2,04,967 approximately. One suspect it was bought in, was not sold, or sold well below the expected price. In comparison, the relief of two warriors fighting (lot 54) which was expected to fetch between Rs 6-9 lakh, did not sell at all. The third was between the formal statuette of Arhat Pindola Bharadvaja (lot 96) which was expected to fetch Rs 1.5-2.5 lakh and a lively bronze Virupa (lot 93) which was expected to fetch between Rs 7.5-10 lakh. The former did not sell at all, while the Virupa statuette sold for Rs 7,02,660.

Thus, by and large, our reading that contemporary aesthetic values affect the buying of antiques as well, is sound enough. It stood the test of placing realism above conventional representation and of the gesture as superior to a mere formal representation. But we cannot say the same for the symbolic or realistic narrative. This is, perhaps, because the bidders were not able to relate to the day-to-day events of life in medieval India even though the relief (lot 54) reminds one of the Elgin marbles as easily as to the timeless symbolism of its epics. In other words, the appreciation of ancient and medieval Indian art still relies heavily on concepts like the timeless image which are definitely out-dated and belong to a conventional and pass art criticism.

Time, rarity and its assessment, are equally important in the pricing of antiques, as was evident from the sale of an important Kesi woven silk Thangka of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi, belonging to the excellent technical production of the Yongle and Xuande period (1461-1435) of the imperial ateliers, for Rs 3.6 crore, when its expected price range was Rs 3.2 crore to Rs 3.7 crore. It is interesting to see how the work sold far more accurately in the case of antiquities than for contemporary Indian art where Tyeb Mehtas Celebration was expected to fetch between Rs 88.2 lakh and Rs 98 lakh, but went for no less than Rs 1.6 crore. This was not the only work of Indian contemporary art that went over the top. There were a number of others that did.

What do we conclude from these figures First, the global auction houses are more at home with Indian and Central Asian antiquities, and can price them accurately enough. But where Indian contemporary art is concerned, they still underprice it considerably that is why so many of the works put up for sale on September 19 went at prices well above those expected by the auctioneers. This, of course, ties up with the colonial view that ancient Indian art belonged to a golden age and its present day art is inferior. The market thinks otherwise.

That is why contemporary Indian art commands far higher prices than our ancient ones and medieval art, in general. It is, in fact, far more expressive, and as such, superior to the art produced by artists dependent on feudal patronage. But a prejudiced imperial outlook cannot appreciate it, as the Bauhaus artists or Picasso could. So, given this reality, the price of our contemporary art still makes it one of the best investments we can find in the market today, as its worth is at least double the price it sells at.