My daughter recently bought a small new car. She covered nearly half the cost of its purchase by selling an ordinary bazaar kite, a small patchwork square of brightly coloured paper. Its sole distinction was that it had been painted over by M F Husain. For years it lay grounded and forgotten, but suddenly it flew back into view, set afloat into cyberspace by a sharp-eyed online art auctioneer.
Fragile plaything, decorative memento or valued artwork — the digital revolution has transformed the way we look at, appreciate, evaluate, buy and sell art. Anyone with two pictures hanging on their wall now knows that the story doesn’t end there — images must be inventoried on computer files with essential cataloguing details.
The Husain kite never made it to our walls; it belonged to a more innocent if careless age. More than 20 years ago, performing a fatherly duty, I dragged a grumpy four-year-old to some sort of art event in aid of a children’s charity. There was no cake and ice cream; but, sitting in a garden, M F Husain was painting a bunch of paper-and-stick patangs (kites) from Nizamuddin basti and handing them out to kids. Ever the artful showman, he signed each with a flourish. As I recall, he said, “Arre, bitiya, apna naam to batao”, double-signed the kite with a dedication and date. This, my daughter discovered the other day, fulfilled an artwork’s selling credentials of proving “authentication” and “provenance”.
Buried in a portfolio with some old maps and engravings, the kite was accidentally photographed by a footloose artist friend who offered to prepare an e-catalogue for me. I had hoped to sell a couple of crumbling miniatures — but it was the kite that the auction house wanted. “What about that Husain kite in the images? Do you still have it?” their representative emailed.
In a fiercely competitive buyer-driven business, where all kinds of art and artists are extensively archived, priced and available online, the art market is no longer presided over by gifted amateurs. It is increasingly dominated by serious specialists and scholars. (The auction house representative I dealt with was a self-assured young mother working towards her PhD in ancient sculpture.) Many now come armed with impressive CVs and formidable training. Well-mannered and unobtrusive, they prefer to deal on email; meetings or physical artwork inspections are handled with brisk efficiency.
Not long ago, I needed the services of an art restorer. Some years ago, this was an underexplored field — the choice was limited, and dealings often disorganised and time-consuming. But the young woman recommended by a friend who arrived for an inspection by appointment was a surprise in every respect: disarmingly pretty in red pants, gold hoops and a track record that stretched from Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Tate Museum in London. She was also five minutes early, and punctiliously explained the damage — to the artworks as well as to my pocket. Packing the works to take away, she said she would soon be sending me the condition reports. “Ailing artworks are like patients in need of medical diagnosis and attention,” she helpfully explained.
The reports she mailed me some days later were like those slightly terrifying and extended hospital discharge summaries; they included precise description and condition of the works consigned, the exact repair and restoration procedures undertaken down to every solvent, adhesive and acid-free mount used. They were accompanied by detailed before-and-after images.
Buying, selling or preserving art is no longer a case of kite-flying. I felt a twinge of regret that I had sold a small piece of my daughter’s childhood. Children, however, can be as sanguine at 24 as they are at four years old. “I’m too old to fly kites. I had no sense of ownership because I don’t really remember it. Besides, I love my new car.” After a pause, she asked, “Tell me — what was M F Husain like? I don’t remember meeting him either.”