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Back on its feet

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

ArtTactic’s market confidence report for Indian modern art gets a thumbs-up, but it’s cautious about the contemporaries

For some time till the economy – and the art market – crashed in late 2008, drawing room conversations tended to centre not so much on art as much as investment in art. Though there was nothing intrinsically wrong if a set of investors wanted to treat it like any other tradable commodity, media attention focused unfortunately only on prospective returns, leading to a sprint in which galleries began to promote younger artists with potential but not yet the ability to command those markets. Which is why when the economy went into a tailspin, not only were careers destroyed, the fragility of the art industry and its alarming lack of resilience also showed up.

Now that the economy is back on track, investor confidence in the art market is still nervous but the interest has returned — and this time investors (and collectors) are asking the right questions: What are its long-term prospects? How much should one invest annually, and who can be impartial guides in the process? What about short-term liquidity? How do you enhance the value of your portfolio, getting rid of weak assets to buy into blue-chip artists?

The answers haven’t changed all that much – plan your portfolio to control a segment of the market instead of spreading resources thinly, buy at low price points, invest in content not quantity – but what’s interesting is that investors aren’t rushing in to buy with the herd-like mentality typical of the pre-2008 era. As a result, art funds are being given short shrift. Both investors and collectors who are drifting back into the market seem determined to control their investment rather than leave it in the hands of fly-by-night opportunists.

Against this background, the biannual Indian art market confidence survey is interesting for the trends it throws up. Conducted by international art analysis company ArtTactic, it highlights the overall mood of optimism in the Indian art market. Although it has given an overall thumbs-up to the Indian modern art market, its analysis of the contemporary market remains somewhat gloomy.

In art industry parlance, modern art is defined as works by artists born before 1947, and contemporary art includes the realm of artists born post-1947, a somewhat flawed division. Insiders, instead, tend to view it subjectively, preferring form and content as the separator between the modern and the contemporary. For lay-people, a better prescription might be to qualify modern artists as those in the prime of their careers till the early eighties, with contemporary artists as those who started coming into their own after the mid-eighties. For purposes of illustration, Husain, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Jehangir Sabavala and J Swaminathan are modern painters while Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Shibu Natesan, Riyas Komu and their ilk form the mixed bag of contemporaries. It was this segment that suffered the most when the market crashed, and is having the harder time recovering.

Since the last ArtTactic report in May 2010, the November 2010 report shows a further drop of 10.8 per cent, suggestive of the contemporary art market’s struggle to rid itself of the lasso of unrealistic prices that lead to a fall in valuations by 60-70 per cent. With the market for modern art having recovered, the confidence gap between modern and contemporary art now stands at 78.2 per cent.

Still, fear of speculation in Indian art in general is down by 7.9 per cent, and 53 per cent of the respondents felt that the art market has now rebounded. Fifty-one per cent believe it will go up in the next six months — already this year has seen record prices for both moderns (S H Raza) and contemporaries (Bharti Kher), and the upcoming Arpita Singh mural estimated at Rs8-10 crore at the Saffronart auction is likely to take this further.

With the confidence indicator for Indian modern art up by 5.2 per cent, it’s unlikely that the Arpita Singh work will fail to find a buyer even at that steep valuation. Yet, before we set up a cheer, the recovery of Chinese contemporary art at 27 per cent (since December 2009) is a bit of a party pooper. Analysts, though, believe the slower Indian recovery remains on stronger ground.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated. 

First Published: Wed, November 24 2010. 00:36 IST