Saturday, February 16, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Will art offer good investment opportunities in 2002?

Illustration by Gaurav SoodThe year 2001 was overcast with the clouds of fear, terrorism and uncertainty. But the art galleries of Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai continued to hold major shows of well-known artists as well as newcomers. Collectors thronged to the sales and private showings and bought art as if all was well with the world. Vimla Patil asks whether art will continue to be an investment of real value in 2002.

WITH upmarket, powerful corporates becoming major patrons of art, the connection between art and finance is now well established. No more are leading artists considered to be weird rebels of society, poor and living and working in some remote suburban studio covered with junk and cobwebs. They are savvy page three celebrities who earn excellent money, who are as business-minded as any manufacturer of consumer goods and as acquisitive of property and collectibles as any successful professional. Their paintings and sculptures can now command good prices in the international markets and feature in auctions conducted by world-renowned auctioneers like Sotheby’s or Christi’s. Art has become a trendy business and therefore investing in it is seen as an accepted way of enhancing one’s status among those who have dispensable funds as well as those who understand its true worth.


The art market in India has steadily become really big in the last few decades. Any one who has earned big or new money, has rushed to auctions or art galleries and bought paintings, sincerely believing that they would appreciate in time and fetch higher sums for the buyer. In accordance with the law of demand and supply, innumerable galleries and art consultants have come to dot the cityscape not only in Mumbai, but also in Delhi and Chennai. Not surprisingly, most prominent gallery owners or dealers are women who have an uncanny ability to judge which artist will make it to the top.

Says one art exhibition organiser, "Rich merchants or overseas Indians, who had never heard any artist’s name earlier, walk into galleries, put down their bundles of notes and demand to buy any art which can be termed ‘an investment’. This is often done without any previous knowledge about the background of the artist or the mood of the painting." A market buzz that certain painters are ‘good buys’ send corporate officials rushing to art shows to buy investment pieces for their companies or even their bosses.

When a powerful business house like Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd invited Christi’s to auction paintings at a high level social event during their 150th anniversary, ‘art investor’ became a term common to Indian parlance and Indian artists turned their hopeful eyes in good faith towards international markets.

This beginning made by the art market in India to become global has offered growing investment potential to many around the world. Auctions by Christi’s have become routine in places like London, Singapore and Hong Kong. "The reason for modern Indian art becoming popular world-wide is apparent. Apart from China, no other country offers such a fantastic growth and proliferation in art as India. Especially Mumbai, with its early-Independence art movements such as the Bombay Art Society, founded by stalwarts like K.H. Ara, Gaitonde, M.F. Husain and their contemporaries, became a major centre for promoting modern Indian art." New styles came into being and the Western influence from France, Italy and other countries diminished steadily to give way to indigenous inspiration. Art schools attracted many talented students and artists like B.Prabha, B.Vithal, Lakshman Shreshtha and others began to exhibit work on a regular basis. "When we started, we used to sell our work for as little as Rs 200 for a painting," the late B. Prabha used to laugh, "Only with the passing of time our work gathered importance and we earned good money." This was true of others too.

Today, there are more artists than one can easily count. With buyers and business circles poised to pick up the best works of top artists as also the works of newcomers on a more selective basis, the art market has been booming in the last two decades. Artists like Lakshman Shreshtha can proudly say that their works are booked even before the paintings are ready. Such successful artists have no opportunity to exhibit their work except once in a while because of the heavy demand for their work. Most often their works are sold to Indian collectors in Indian and abroad. In recent years some facts about the global market for Indian art have come to light.

Modern Indian paintings sell in foreign markets because NRIs and foreigners who are familiar with India buy them. Some prominent painters have a resale value at auctions but a buyer has often to consider that a painting is more an ‘emotional investment’ than a financial one because it gives increasing pleasure over the years. The reason given by many buyers for this situation is that there are hardly any resale outlets in India. Galleries or dealers only sell paintings; they do not accept them at higher prices for resale, except in rare cases. If several years have passed after the buying of a painting, dealers want to authenticate it before they will even consider a resale. Moreover, say gallery owners and show organisers, there are now almost 4000 painters in the market. Only seven to ten among them have earned a national name due partly to media hype, and mainly because of the number of years they have spent working steadfastly. These chosen few fetch high prices in the sale and resale market. The others are new kids on the block and can’t expect to be ‘investments’.

As on many controversial topics, here too we have contrary views from various segments. Shanti Chopra, a prominent art dealer, feels that the top ten painters do have an investment value. "Painters like Bendre produced just eight canvases a year. These were sold easily and are now reselling for good prices. Husain’s selected pieces appreciate with each year. But the painter who finds the best rate in the resale market in my experience is B. Prabha. She is simple in style, yet original and her paintings are always pleasant to have around. She had over 50 exhibitions in her lifetime and each was a success. People feel comfortable buying her work and no piece of hers stays with me for more than a few days. But I will still say that most people do not buy art for resale. They buy it for status, for their own satisfaction and collect art like they would collect rare crystal or China. People in India always had handicrafts and folk art as integral aspects of their lives. Now these aspects have been upgraded into fine arts because people have more money and higher awareness of a savvy lifestyle. They don’t want to resell the paintings they have bought but preserve them for their children. They would rather call them heirlooms. So sales are up but resale? I don’t think so."

Conversely, J. Mehta, an inveterate collector, says emphatically that art is good investment. Qualifying this statement, he adds "Old masters like Jamini Roy, Ara, or Ravi Varma are selling today at museum prices. In time, today’s big names will also become investments. May be not all, but a few artists certainly will. A buyer will just have to show patience. There are very few instant investments in life. Art is not sold in the share bazaar. Its value grows slowly and steadily. There are resale problems just now but the Indian art market is very young and the infrastructure for business has yet to come. But inevitably this will come in time as it has in the West. I have personally bought Husain, Shreshtha and other artists some years ago and the prices now are already up by 30 to 40 per cent. However, buying art is not just a money business. One has to live with the painting for years and look at it every day. So even out of ten pieces created by one artist, only one may suit you. Only one may have a touch of genius."

Dr Mukesh Batra, like many, buys art for the love of it. As one buyer says, "Few people buy paintings for profit," she says, "I buy art because I love a particular painting or admire a particular artist. Corporate bodies, institutions like NCPA or TIFR buy art because collecting and encouraging art is their duty by their directive policies. The founders of such institutions were visionaries. Those who want to make a business of selling art may not find themselves really rich. However, in cities like Mumbai, several art dealers —some of whom are socialite women — do dabble in resale of paintings of a few artists who fetch value." Varsha Desai, one of India’s top interior designers thinks differently. "I always encourage my clients to buy art," she says, has to be watchful and know which artist to invest in. Every painting does not appreciate."

But the art market has one thing in common with commodity or property markets. When there is a money crunch, the demand for art and paintings, like that for other goods, also suffers. The present threat of war, too, has caused a shrinking of money available to the art market. But, say pundits, this, like any other, is a passing phase. Mani Narayan, who had an extremely successful show of sculptures recently says, "By April, things will normalise again. If the new budget is a reasonable, there will be cause to celebrate in the art market too. It will be back to business for all artists and art dealers." Even with the clouds of war, they have continued to make efforts to enhance the art market. Within a short time, the scene will be rich and buzzing with activity again. Art lovers may not buy paintings and sculptures for resale. But they will certainly add to their collections by buying more works of art in 2002!