Look before you sign that cheque

Written by Suman Tarafdar | Updated: Aug 27 2009, 03:22am hrs
If it is about the money, this aint the market for you. You might as well feel cheated, as do many eager converts of recent years. There were no warnings when prices, which could up thousand folds within days, went in the opposite direction. That was how Dalal Street went, not art, you had been assured by friendly art consultants next door as you collected small pieces of canvas or an oddly shaped object. You had been promised never-ending returns, and rightly felt aggrieved in these difficult times in which aesthetics provides little succour.

For more than half a century, Indian art was the preserve of art college types and a few masters who promptly went abroad to find true appreciators and pots of money. The rule about exceptions holds ground here too, of course. Then, in the last decade, Indian art went designer, complete with launches dominated by collaterals and crystals, which are often all you see of the actual work of art.

And the returnsmultiplying wealth manifoldhave come only in the second half of this decade. Indian art has gone from being worth about Rs 50 million in 2001 to its present valuation at about Rs 1,500 million. These are all estimates. Thats how the commerce of art operates in India, unlike in markets where books are far more transparent.

There is no denying that at least in this decade, the monetary value of Indian art has multiplied manifold. Modern legends of Indian artMF Hussain, SH Raza, FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta and otherswere reaching peak prices when the economic crisis hit. Prices dropped by about 30-40% from 2006 peaks, established at distant auctions by Christies and Sothebys among others. But they are expected to revive and go further as new audiences come in to buy Indian art. For others, especially Contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta, whose works jumped in value by more than 50 times in about four years between 2005-08, before crashing again to about 15-20% of the peak figure, the graph is less certain to go constantly upwards. An artists passion and ability to resonate with the buyers will be far more crucial.

Where does this leave the collector/investor and the gallerists/auction houses Actually that depends on which side of the ampersand you fall. Those collecting art for more than half a decade have experienced the indignities of having to wait for works they wanted as artists and galleries rushed to meet abundant demandan unimaginable situation earlier. And now they are making merry againas they are the ones still enjoying liquidity, and the knowledge to distinguish quality from mass. Meanwhile some galleries have folded, and auction-funded activities are postponed.

And you are waking up to the fact that ordering 10 Hussain canvasses is not the same as buying 10 shares or indeed 10% of a company. One Hussain work can be quite unlike another, and what your consultant had failed to bring to your notice is that the one you are stuck with is not going to fetch even a hundredth of the $1.6 million his large diptych, Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, fetched at Christies early last year. Only now are you realising that artists and indices do not go together, and those clichd, much abused words quality and discernment actually have a role to play in the way you select what to buy, even if for purely investment purposes.

Well, the worst seems to be over. For now. The free fall, which saw prices for Indian art crash by up to 70% in recent months, seems to have ended. Proof positive was found last week, when the art community breathed a sigh of relief at the return of the buyer to the India Art Summit, which even in its first, experimental year was celebrated for pushing the boundaries of Indian art infrastructure.

The downturn, which started at the beginning of last years high season (which in art begins post monsoon), saw galleries gradually sink into stupor. Unlike most other sectors combating the economic downturn, the first seven months of 2009 have hardly seen any constructive efforts made by the galleries. Many have decried this, pointing out that art infrastructure in India, which never went beyond art colleges and tokenism in the name of museums and galleries, needs to get off the ground, and participation from the private sector is just beginning in this for long public sector space. The top prices of Indian art are nowhere the levels of Western, or indeed even Chinese art, though the latter too began its search for global markets just a few decades ago.

Instead of expanding the horizons, Indian art galleries have been limited to poaching artists from each other and, as recent months showed, lying low when the going got toughnot the long-term way ahead at all. Art will also have to move beyond the canvasand everything from the much vaunted installations to jewellery, utensils, mirrors to the humble embroidery will escalate in value as global sensibilities become familiar with Indian arts myriad forms. India will move from being source to sink, from supplying local talent to marketing global works. How much of the latter will be home grown will depend on the quality of Indian works.

Prices for Indian art are expected to revive soon. For Modern, it could be as soon as next year, while Contemporary may take a little while longer. How the Indian art community carries forward the lessons of its brief, if unexpected, period of introspection is what will count. Till then, look before you sign that cheque.