Sunday, November 23, 2003

Buzzing with zeroes
Abhay Desai

Artists are today tripping over zeroes as auctions fetch them fortunes
Artists are today tripping over zeroes as auctions fetch them fortunes

Last year, a set of four water-colour paintings on paper by the late Francis Newton Souza was sold for Rs 3,25,000. The same set was resold in September, this year, for Rs 25,00,000 ó a figure that the bearded Paris-based painter could never have dreamt of in his lifetime.

Likewise, so long as the Baroda-based Bhupen Khakkar was alive, his paintings rarely crossed the Rs 500,000 mark. Most actually sold for less than Rs 200,000. But recently, soon after his death, Khakkarís In a Boatbagged a record bid of Rs 30,25,000!

Dead artists are not the only ones to be tripping over zeroes. The other day, M.F. Husainís oil-on-canvas, Mahabali fetched Rs 53,00,000 at an auction. It fell significantly short of Tyeb Mehtaís famous triptych, Celebration, which went for Rs 1,60,00,000 to a Japanese collector. Before long, Husain topped it off with another triptych Bijli, that sold for a phenomenal Rs 2,00,00,000.

"The bidding boom is peaking," observes Sunil Sipilani, a film producer-turned-art investor. "Works of Indian painters have hit an all time high. Name the artist and you will find his price crashing through the ceiling. Never before have artists had it so good."

While people like Sipilani attribute this boom to a feel-good state of economic revival worldwide, there are others who are skeptical about its long-term effects. Many collectors and art lovers in fact, point out that the prices of Indian painters fall woefully short of what their contemporaries overseas command.

Moreover, it is not as though all Husains and Mehtas go for astronomical prices. Their figurative works of recent origin hold limited appeal. Others like Ganesh Pyne, Jahangir Sabavala, Krishen Khanna and abstractionist H.A. Raza are much more niche and never make it to the noisy league. Even the ever-so-popular Anjolie Ela Menons scarcely appreciate in the market.

Neville Tuli, founder-chairman of the Osian Auction House in Mumbai places the contradictions in perspective: "Since 1997, the base of artists with a credible international financial market has increased significantly, what with exhibitions, residencies and, yes, auction houses driving home the point in New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and London."

On the other hand, collectors of yore who could spot young, emerging talent and had a decisive say on market trends, are nowhere to be seen today. They include Rudy Von Layden who promoted the Bombay Progressive and M.A. Greenberg, who first encouraged exhibitions abroad.

Besides, the younger generation of artists like Atul Dodiya, Laxman Sreshta, Bose Krishnamachari and Jitesh Kallat are over-pricing themselves. As Tuli puts it: "Many young artists are damaging their careers by pricing their works high, without context or care."

Galleries, however, do have a sobering effect as they tend to peg prices down at more realistic levels. "Artists may rejoice at high sales in auctions, but the prices are not always real," says Usha Mirchandani of the Fine Art Resource gallery in Mumbai. "There arenít any queues for contemporary artists that I know of. But auctions create a demand and the prices are always higher than that of a gallery."

It is tricky business. Top billing often comes from superiority of an artistís earlier works. So it does not matter what Husain paints today, it is on the strength of his famous horses of yesteryear that he is able to ride the market. Any other artist with a similar track record could pip Husain at the post.

Secondly, rarity sells. This explains why the prices of Souza, Khakkar and Gaitonde multiplied manifold soon after their demise. A Menon does not appreciate because almost everybody who collects art, today possesses her painting. But the stakes of a Mehta triptych are high because there are known to be only two triptychs in existence, done by the artist!

"It would be foolish of Mehta to make another triptych," comments Sipilani. "The day he does it, he knows the value of his Celebration will crash. It is in such subtle ways that the market forces influences the working of the best of our artists."

But eventually, it is the buyer who has the last word. Here too, things can get dicey. For what may appeal to one buyer might not move another. So everyone falls back on art dealers for a consensus. And these market players, notorious for playing favourities, can make or mar the fate of any artist, no matter how big or small he or she is. The merits of paintings are clearly of no consequence. MF