There’s an untapped market in antiquities, provided the government brings legitimacy and transparency to it
Collectors have varied interests, but why is it that in terms of investment, we rarely think beyond art when the collecting universe consists of so much more? There’s furniture, for example, or carpets, textiles, tiles, pottery, manuscripts and even jewellery. Yet, if none of them pitches in at the same level as art, it is perhaps because no one sees a corresponding rise in value based on uniqueness and perceives these as items of utility rather than collectability.
Take furniture. We have never had a tradition of fine furniture, with unique (and patented) designs that are catalogued so you have the equivalent, say, of a Louis IV chair or a Le Corbusier cabinet. And because stores, too, do not have a policy of buying back furniture at a premium, or helping their customers pick up versions from the secondary market, they are treated as second-hand and considered hugely devalued. Also, given that most Indians consider anything that is old as inauspicious, you can hardly blame them for rejecting it in favour of the shiny and the new.
This is pretty much true of many other things as well. In the West, an old carpet (provided it is of good quality and design) is treated like a treasure, in India it’s rarely considered more than a dust trap. Though there are collectors of old textiles, they rarely rise in value to their historicity, or even the count of their threads or the quantity of gold or silver used in their embroideries. Silver objets d’art are, again, equated with the value of the silver, almost never the craftsmanship. While there is some nostalgia for old tiles, and porcelain (we do love those ye olde English designs), they are only perceived as curiosities.
Jewellery is usually considered an investment, but more in terms of the value of the gold, or the carats of the stones, not for the craftsmanship of “fine” or “magnificent” jewellery, as in the West. This, again, has to do with the lack of design-led jewellery stores, and because Indians prefer large (stones and settings) over the actual worth of gemstones, as a result of which you get current market value (minus the mandatory industry discount) but rarely anything more. It is for this reason that auctions in India of jewellery and furniture or indeed other collectibles have had a harder task in creating value than was the case for art.
If there is one area where Indians would pay handsomely for something that is old, it would be antiquities, but this is an area that is currently fraught with uncertainties. Clarity in the field of antiques is difficult to come by, most sales are illegal and underhand and, in the absence of proper paperwork, the trade is hugely undervalued.
There is a strong reason to monitor such trade as it deals with our heritage. But mostly people remain wary of government legislation, suspicious of the need to register their treasures, unsure of how to go about it, unclear about what makes an antique, and prefer status-quo to the apprehension of getting caught in bureaucratic red-tape. Far from salvaging trade in antiquities, it has resulted in a parallel, black economy from which the exchequer earns no cess and smuggling thrives.
If the government were to properly legislate and make their policies transparent, there is every chance that legitimate trade in antiquities via antique stores with the required certification, or auction houses, would create an opportunity, which would result in a market far in excess of that for modern and contemporary art. It would have to allow for antiquities to be taken out – or brought back – to the country, with appropriate taxes. Far from causing a loss of treasures, it would end smuggling and encourage our collectors to bring back to India what goes under the hammer in the West, and also cause a resurgence in prices.
The art market today has a value of anywhere between Rs 1,500 crore and Rs 2,000 crore, which would appear insignificant before an antiquities market that could start at ten times that value. Even as collectors are hopeful of policy changes over time, they aren’t holding their breath on any reprieves any time soon, alas.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.