Dont kill the goose that lays golden eggs

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Feb 10 2002, 05:30am hrs
It is generally wise to ignore storms in tea cups, but if the tea threatens to spill on ones shirt front, then some ways and means must be evolved to control them. The issue I wish to address this week is precisely of that sort.

Of late, a number of my friends have come to me complaining that a few of our eminent artists have taken to declaring works of theirs gifted away by them or sold cheaply before they became well-known as fakes. This is obviously upsetting for someone hoping to benefit from a wise choice at the right time.

On the face of it, this is incomprehensible. But as a short-term profiteering tactic, it is quite clear as it does away with the secondary market, so that the buyer is forced to access new works either directly from the artists or from a gallery to which he is attached. A corollary of this is that any secondary market that exists can also be controlled by such artists and gallery owners who then declare only those works to be genuine that are sold to them at prices they dictate. This is not a very unusual tactic for monopolies.

This manoeuvre hits at the very heart of the golden goose that our contemporary art is today as a form of investment. Once the secondary market becomes the monopoly of the artist-gallery owner nexus, the confidence that Indian contemporary art has instilled in the buyer is likely to be lost and it will never be able to command the price it should at the world level. And these profit hungry artists and gallery owners will find the prices of such art declining as investors will not touch them. This has already happened to a leading artist. Now it is likely to happen to others.

I have always felt that the primary responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the artist. And Indian artists of our times have done sterling work in bringing contemporary Indian art to the forefront in the global art market. But now some of them appear to be back-tracking and digging their heels in. So they want to ensure that their immediate sales through their monopolist gallery owners are not to be allowed to face any competition even from the sales of their early works in the secondary market.

In the art market, as in any market, competition is a weapon in the hands of the consumer. It not only prevents prices being charged arbitrarily, but ensures greater variety and inventiveness. The whole phenomenon of accessible art, ranging from wood-cuts to lithographs, silk-screen and computer graphics, as well as pop and op art, not to speak of the innovative forays of Picasso and Dali, are fruits of the competitive market. And one would not want to wish them away at any cost.

Steps must therefore be taken to keep competition alive and well in the art world. And indeed, a number of the smaller galleries should take the initiative and come forward. And they have to. Art Konsult runs an art magazine, while galleries such as the Village, Delhi Gallery, Arushi Arts and Art Alive are cataloguing all the works of their major shows. These catalogues can serve as documents of authentication with a sale deed from the gallery concerned and a statement in the catalogue that every work is authentic and should any work be proved a fake, the gallery will return the money paid for it. To make the procedure fool-proof, each gallery can evolve a stamp, which can be put on each major work so that its history from sale to sale can easily be monitored by a prospective buyer, should he wish to do so. This should put an end to the business of arbitrarily saying particular works are fakes or genuine.

Gallery owners, too, must take care to evolve proper inter-gallery ethics. Recently, I saw an appalling lack of these when one gallery owner rang up anothers client offering a certain artists work at lower prices when this particular gallery owner had no such work to offer. Moreover, the price was so ridiculous that the artist refused to give any work at all to the gallery owner concerned. Ultimately, the client bought the work from the original gallery, but the ploy only served to create so much confusion that the sale was nearly not made! This is what I mean by killing the golden goose. This is not just competition, but fraud. And it can never be countenanced by anyone who is at all committed to building up a market for any product. In this way, our little storm in the tea cup ought to subside if artists and gallery owners both admit to themselves that fraudulent practices are neither competition nor good business, but just plain crime.