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Be curious, ask questions, buy art you love

If you're starting an art collection, buy what you love, and invest in young artists, the current generation's work

A painting by Pavan Kavitkar.

By Manju Sara Rajan

LAST PUBLISHED 21.01.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

There’s less than two weeks left for the India Art Fair in Delhi, so I am thinking about the “art" side of the Art Decor column today. In 2007, while I was the deputy editor of this very paper, the art market was, to use current lingo, “blowing up".

Beginning from 2000, art had become this fascinating, ambiguous but seemingly lucrative industry. A clutch of new galleries upended the existing on-good-faith relationships between galleries and artists. Saffron Art, then a relatively new auction house, reached new benchmarks in sales, and things seemed so optimistic that the erstwhile Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art, a multi-hyphenate art organisation that included a publishing arm and an auction house, set up the Osian’s Art Fund with a corpus of 120 crore, and promised investors up to 20% in returns. Artists suddenly became celebrities, courted by competitive galleries. The general public was so overtaken by the escalation that during the 2006 Diwali season, someone remarked to me that people were buying art like it was candy. There was 100% annual growth in the market.

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Things got so heated that the Union finance ministry finally announced a capital gains tax on the sale of art in the 2007 Budget. With an ambiguous pricing structure and the potential for cash transactions, investment in art seemed illogically lucrative. I must also admit that part of the reason why the art market began to seem foolproof is that those of us covering it were constantly highlighting the big-ticket numbers from auction sales, making the buying and selling of art seem like an iron-clad investment plan. Of course, it isn’t, and never was.

In the years following that initial burst of energy and the economic crisis of 2008, the art market lost its steam. Osian’s was forcibly shut down by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in 2010 after a series of lawsuits were filed against it for non-payment of dues. Bodhi, a trendy gallery for Indian contemporary art, born in 2004, with spaces in New York, Mumbai, Delhi, Berlin and Singapore—which aggressively and successfully managed to wine and dine artists away from their existing galleries that it was said artists were being “Bodhified"—shut down in 2009. And so the market crash claimed many victims, large and small.

In the years following that moment when the art market flowered in India, things have consistently risen and waned. Most of the old, vanguard galleries of the market have remained intact, while new ones have come up. Institutional support has increased and public events such as biennales have become popular. With Instagram, Pinterest and the explosion of design media platforms, there’s more awareness and interest in art once again. Having said that, a majority of consumers still remain sceptical of buying art, and I often wonder if this is a result of being intimidated by galleries and museums, or whether most of us are simply uninterested in the effort it takes to understand what we like.

Interior designers now use stylists to prop projects for photoshoots and these props lists inevitably include borrowed artwork. Similarly, I heard a story recently that some women on the Delhi kitty party scene borrow artworks to display at their events and return them once a high-stakes lunch is over. I assume it’s the same sense of one-upmanship a person may get from carrying a fake bag or watch when they can afford the real thing. That sense of not having wasted money on a high-ticket item when you can carry something that looks the same at half the cost. Maybe people like the lustre that artworks lend to their space but perhaps not the ticket price attached? But what is 65,000 for an artwork when a Louis Vuitton satchel costs 1,75,000?

I was sheepishly reminded of my own role in the coverage of the art market while speaking recently with Farah Siddiqui, of CultivateArt, an international platform dedicated to promoting emerging artists, and the Young Collectors Weekend Global (YCWG). YCWG aims to make art approachable for aspiring collectors. One unfortunate hangover of the boldface auction headlines of 2006-07 is that for many, art is still seen as a route for investment, and they want to be sure what they are buying will accrue value over time, perhaps be good enough to send a child to college.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that aspiration but let’s face it, contemporary art is not a sure-fire investment. For one thing, selling art is not a simple process. “Buying for investment means you are not looking at anything hanging on your wall," says Siddiqui. “If your goal is investing, then hire a consultant and we will make your portfolio so that you have artists who are bankable. But buyers have to remember that an M.F. Husain painting from the 2000s will not find the same value as one from the 1960s, which were his best years. Serious collectors need an expert to assess the works, judge the entry and exit price, understand how to sell, and think about factors like capital gains tax. Every generation will have few artists whose prices will outshine the others and many will remain stagnant."

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So, what is a new collector to do? First: buy for love. Buy what you can live with and look at without tiring of it, or wondering where you will hide it till it’s worthy of an auction block. Second: forget about moderns and masters; instead buy young artists, and invest in your own generation’s practice. You will be putting resources behind someone’s career, essentially acting as a contemporary patron. Increase your understanding of the kinds of practices and media out there; with emerging artists there’s always the promise that someone can hit the big time. Either way, it is better to buy into the beginning stages of a working artist’s career than buy a paper F.N. Souza for three times the price.

I have been collecting works for many years now and with expensive works, I always ask the gallery or artist for a flexible payment plan. This isn’t an unusual or even especially unique tactic. Siddiqui says her platform offers this service all the time. “I first read about this in an old article in Galerie magazine, in which collector Czaee Shah said she bought a (S.H.) Raza from Chemould Gallery and she agreed with the late gallerist Kekoo Gandhy to pay for it over the period of a year. And that was 20 years ago." There are ways to get beyond the intimidation of buying art. You just have to be curious, ask questions, and always, always, buy what you love.

Manju Sara Rajan is an editor, arts manager and author who divides her time between Kottayam and Bengaluru.

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