First, go for the big picture

Updated: Feb 1 2006, 05:30am hrs
It is a common belief that investing in art is only viable for those with large amounts of surplus income. While extra capital does allow buyers a certain amount of leeway with their purchases, it would be incorrect to say that those on a smaller budget would make a poor return should they choose to invest.

Over the past few years, Indian art has performed exceptionally well. The most recent example of this was Saffronarts winter auction, where sales broke all previous records by crossing the $12 million mark.

Today, the situation of the Indian art market is comparable to other emerging ones, such as those in China, Russia and Latin America, where a booming economy is giving birth to a number of wealthy individuals.

Initially a savings-driven economy, there has been a visible shift in the Indian mindset towards spending. This, coupled with the surplus available to the individual as a result of mortgages and loans, has allowed Indians to aspire for luxury goods, such as fashion accessories and cultural objects, like art.

Apart from the interest shown by domestic collectors, the opening of the Indian economy has further facilitated trade. A movement of Indian art has started, with works travelling all over the world. However, like all other assets, one needs a large amount of information on this market to make a profit.

Before even considering investing in art, it is paramount for a buyer to be aware of the work and the trends that are prevalent at the time. To do this, a buyer would have to visit galleries regularly, learn about the art being exhibited and research its price. This will not only increase his/her understanding of the market, but also allow a buyer to identify and develop his/her own likes and dislikes.

The next step would be for an investor to try and discover a sector of the market that has been overlooked and has the potential to develop further. As the Indian art market is newly developing, it has focused its attention almost wholly on paintings. However, many areas within the market have stayed under-valued and fairly unnoticed. These include sculpture, prints, installations, video and photography. As the market matures, these areas are likely to grow and a purchase made in these fields would stand a good chance of appreciating.

At this point, it may be wise to keep in mind the fact that the history of art investment spans a period of approximately 55 years and there is little empirical data on the advantages of such an investment. While record prices induce one into investing, it is probably useful to consider that it is usually only the record prices that are remembered, with examples of failed sales getting quickly forgotten, reinforcing the danger of buying only very expensive pieces.

For the average buyer, I would suggest a safer route of investing only a portion of ones income in art. Again, I would have to stress on the need for a buyer to have a detailed understanding of the market with sufficient knowledge of the artists and their work.

At present, players in the market seem optimistic, with some dealers so convinced of the profitability of Indian art that they price work by per square inch exactly the manner in which the Japanese did in the late 80s.

Although recommendations for buying art are far and wide, it is ultimately the buyers decision that matters. While referring to the Greek epigram, The image of a collector is a donkey before a lyre, Maurice Rheims, the French art critic, suggests that collectors have too many external influences telling them what to buy, making it necessary for them to be able to distinguish between what the eye sees and what it reads.

Thus, though the temptation to invest exists, the best situation is one in which a buyer genuinely enjoys a work for its visual beauty, for, that may well be the only surety an investor has.

The writer is art coordinator for the gallery, Bodhi Art, Delhi