Watch out for new records in art but don’t go holding your breath for the artists just yet.
The artists that collectors support are often an indication of the way in which markets will swing, yet in India this has proved somewhat more elusive because of the stranglehold that just three of them have over it. These three, in whatever order, consist of the irreverent F N Souza, the exiled M F Husain and the crown-holder S H Raza. It isn’t just the big boys of collecting who are chasing these artists but also emerging collectors who know that they, along with other Progressive artists, continue to dominate the market in terms of valuations.
So what happens when a collector such as Religare’s Malvinder Singh is willing to bet on Arpita Singh’s Wish Dream, which fetched an extraordinary Rs 9.56 crore at the Saffronart auction that ended on December 9? There’s no doubt it will impact Arpita Singh’s prices and crack open the door to the next generation of senior artists finding their rightful place in terms of both hierarchy and values, but does it mark a shift away from the masters? The answers are all, interestingly enough, to be found in the results of the Saffronart auction.
With the exception of Arpita Singh’s top grosser and Subodh Gupta’s Idol Thief I (Rs 1.08 crore), the top five slots were predictably reserved for Souza (Disintegrated Head, Rs 1.43 crore), Raza (Oasis, Rs 1.30 crore) and Husain (Untitled, Rs 1.23 crore). Importantly, in terms of values, the next lots too were commanded by three works each by Souza (Rs 98 lakh, Rs 93 lakh and Rs 86 lakh respectively) and Husain (Rs 77 lakh, Rs 74 lakh andRs 70 lakh) and two Razas (Rs 61 lakh and Rs 56 lakh). What does this say about the state of the markets but that the younger contemporaries who were dealt a crippling blow on account of the recession have yet to recover from its severity?
With few exceptions (N S Harsha managed Rs 46 lakh for his Running around the Nectars of Time, Shibu Natesan’s Jha-Love fetched Rs 49.7 lakh, Rameshwar Broota’s characteristic Untitled sold for Rs 32 lakh against their counterparts Ram Kumar’s Untitled,Rs 40 lakh, Jehangir Sabavala’s The Thundercloud, Rs 36 lakh, and N S Bendre’s Untitled, Rs 39 lakh), the valuations for Atul and Anju Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Sudhir Patwardhan and T V Santhosh were more modest than extraordinary. In part, this is because collectors who’d put their wealth behind the contemporaries and burned their fingers during the economic meltdown are now not trusting themselves too far beyond the tested Souza & Co.
Yet, at the bottom of that pyramid, some artists made strides that were somewhat unexpected. Thota Vaikuntam, often dismissed by serious collectors for being too “decorative”, fetched Rs 30 lakh – his highest yet – which means that the collecting market is sometimes swayed by beauty over pragmatism. The other telling example is that of the artist K G Subramanyam who had two works in gouache and oils, both with an estimated value of Rs 4-5 lakh, which sold respectively for Rs 20 and Rs 22 lakh. Is there a bewitched Subramanyam collector out there, or is the artist’s work seeing a surge that reflects an emerging environment for artists whose established stature will now buck the trend to form the next layer under the bedrock of the moderns?
It is this volatility and the twists and turns in the art market that keep analysts on their toes. Issues of safeguarding their investments aside, no one is able to second-guess the way collectors will turn. Some years back Malvinder Singh had brought a painting by Atul Dodiya at a Christie’s auction which had resulted in a huge interest in the artist — at least till the collapse of the market. Surendran Nair, who was feted in recent times for being positioned as a bridge between the masters and the contemporaries, failed to find a buyer at the recent Saffronart auction — whether because of a high valuation of Rs 40-50 lakh, or the tongue-twister name, Further Adventures of Zeus: Nemesis’ Whispering Shudder — The Doctrine of the Forest (Cuckoonebulopolis), analysts aren’t holding their breath for him or any others, apart from the masters, just yet.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.