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Vanity references

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

You should piggyback on professional collectors when it comes to choosing artists to invest in or discard.

Now that the contemporary art market is in doldrums, a relevant question that many collectors are asking is how to navigate the minefield of choosing from among established but younger artists when it comes to buying art. While there is some merit in acquiring what one responds to or likes, art is not so inexpensive as to lend itself to impulse buys. Then, as one matures one’s tastes too becomes increasingly sophisticated, making it important to choose at least the right artists (if not the right art) at the outset.

In the last six months, we have seen an interesting rise in the number of as galleries are battling the blues to find a niche among collectors. There is greater experimentation, a good deal of recycling and several ambitious shows — and affordability was never better. But collectors find themselves having to overcome their wariness when it comes to spending lakhs of rupees on works which could decrease rather than increase in value over the years. There are very few independent analysts in the market who can be hired, galleries obviously need to protect their turf and interests. So, as buyers how can you ensure that the works on which you’re putting down considerable amounts of money remain depreciation-proof?

It hardly needs stressing that when a museum acquires works for its galleries, it is based on the expert recommendations of either analysts or committees, or both. And so, if a museum acquires the works of, say, Sunil Gawde, it believes in his work and relevance as an artist today, but is also investing in his ability to stay relevant in the future. The term “museum quality” invests a work with value, and there is no gainsaying that being part of a museum collection helps enhance an artist’s reputation.

It is just as relevant to see the collections an artist’s work finds place in. would not have found success without the patronage of Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda. In the forties and fifties, it was critics and collectors Rudy von Laden and Emmanuel Schlesinger who started amassing the works of the early modernists in India. Later, expatriate collectors such as Charles Herwitz or Kito de Boer made a great contribution in lending their support to Indian artists. Being a part of the Jehangir Nicholson collection in Bombay was a form of recognition for the artists of the sixties and seventies, just as it is important to see whether Ashok Alexander, Rajiv Savara, Harsh Goenka, Kiran Nadar or Malvinder Singh are among the elite circles of an artist’s collectors today. Even more niche collectors like Rajshree Pathy or Anupam Poddar lend recognition to an artist, and even if the market for artists collected by them takes a downturn (as in the present recession), chances are these artists will weather the long-term better than those whose works are not in such well-known collections.

For this reason, it is important to seek information not just on the works that important collectors are acquiring, but also the works they are quietly discarding. Such derostered artists, you can be sure, will not even make the footnotes of art history in a couple of decades. In London, collector Charles Saatchi makes news every time he buys an artist’s work (and he’s hot on some Indian contemporaries right now) but hits the headlines whenever he discards artists he’s collected — thereby setting off a panic reaction in the market.

It is for this reason that galleries make a mention in catalogues of who has collected an artist’s works. Amateur collectors, however, rarely look at these sections, considering them little more than vanity reference. Yet, it is probably the most important clue to how an artist’s importance is measured — though young collectors might need expert advice on the hierarchical measure of art museums around the world. While most would know the merits of such well-established artists as F N Souza, Akbar Padamsee or Bhupen Khakhar, it becomes essential to take into account when attempting to compare the popularity of today’s major artists who will be tomorrow’s masters and stars.

These artists — whether or Satish Gupta, or Surendran Nair, or Vilas Shinde, Nilima Sheikh or Jayasri Burman, Anju Dodiya or Bharti Kher — find themselves constantly being pitched against each other, but from their pecking order to their international collectability to their ability to survive a future age is all written into the collections they belong to. And it isn’t just the National Gallery of Modern Art, but international museums and galleries as well as private collections that will help you decide where your money is safest — and all at the flip of a page.

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

First Published: Wed, March 17 2010. 00:40 IST