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The collector’s guide to the art galaxy

  • For the uninitiated, here are a few rules that will help you make informed decisions if collecting art is on your agenda this year
  • Unless you are putting in enough money, chances are that you’re probably not buying the best work by a reputed artist, says expert

‘Setu Bandhan’ (1850), artist unknown. An episode from the Ramayan, showing an army of monkeys led by Hanuman building the stone bridge to reach Lanka. Courtesy Map: Bengaluru
‘Setu Bandhan’ (1850), artist unknown. An episode from the Ramayan, showing an army of monkeys led by Hanuman building the stone bridge to reach Lanka. Courtesy Map: Bengaluru

From multihued canvases to vertiginous sculptures, larger-than-life installations to miniatures, for those who are yet to be initiated into the practice of collecting art, the experience may seem daunting and perhaps even esoteric. While provenance, planned visits to gallery exhibitions and staying on top of art news are cornerstones to building an empire of artworks at your home, there are other factors one must be cognizant of. Lounge spoke to a selection of leading collectors, gallerists and art specialists to get a sense of how one can intelligently wade through the deluge of contemporary and modern art in 2019.

Scour galleries, pore over books

One rule many experts who’ve been rooted in the field for decades will dole out is to go and experience art. Attend gallery events, museum shows and art fairs to discover new names. Speaking to gallerists too, for instance, helps in making an informed decision while investing in art. “Gallerists are resident experts on the works they’re exhibiting and will always be delighted to answer any queries regarding the artwork, from the logistics of the sale—like framing, installation and transport—to details of the artist’s practice and background," says India Art Fair director, Jagdip Jagpal. “It is also not uncommon to often find the artist in the gallery, which is an added bonus!" This is one way to slowly familiarize yourself with the giant art universe that exists. In addition, if you intend to become an astute collector, do your homework. You have to proactively work towards “educating yourself", says Abhishek Poddar, founder of Tasveer art gallery and the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru. “Spend more time with art, go to more shows, speak to more people, read about art, speak to the artist, study the painting. Because the more you know about anything, the better informed you are of the nuances—as we know, nuances are usually caught rather than taught," he explains.

Art isn’t classist

Natasha Jeyasingh, co-founder of Mumbai-based Carpe Arte and independent art consultant, bought her first piece of art in 2006. It was a lithograph by the then up-and-coming artist Rohini Devasher. “I remember the piece was priced at 25,000, and at that time I used to earn the same amount in a month. Clearly, I did not have the liberty of giving away an entire month’s salary for a piece of art," she recalls. Devasher agreed to be paid the total sum over a period of six months. Collectors who don’t have a substantial financial backing, can’t compete at auctions and don’t wish to settle for rip-offs should remain undeterred. “Many galleries are very much interested in helping new collectors buy and collect art. And so, they are willing to allow you to pay in instalments and there is usually no interest on it. It’s something that many people don’t know," says Jeyasingh. In addition, Saffronart’s co-founder and president, Minal Vazirani, recommends starting with a small budget rather than making an over-ambitious first-time purchase. “I would suggest acquiring works on paper or smaller works by artists to start building a collection," she says.

What’s in a name?

If you have budget constraints and often find yourself entangled in a conundrum: should you purchase a painting by an emerging artist—a visually powerful artwork by an artist who you know nothing about—or write the cheque to a veteran, while settling for a small, insipid sketch by them? Experts advise you to err with caution. Unless you are putting in enough money, chances are that you’re probably not buying the best work by a reputed artist. “One should be careful about buying mediocre work by established artists," warns Poddar. “It is better to buy an exceptional painting by an unknown, or younger, artist than buy a weak work by a better-known artist. Only collect quality work, rather than just going for a name." The other advantage of buying younger, upcoming artists, says Poddar, is that nobody will bother to fake their work. “In this day and age, one needs to be careful about established artists, because of the number of forgeries and copies that there are in the market. Some of these forgeries even leave experts a little dumbfounded," he says.

Take risks

Art must speak to you; it must stimulate you, but that does not necessarily mean that it must be pleasing to the eye. Art that is defiantly unsettling or outlandish could compel you to reflect on issues you’d possibly never consider nor confront. Think Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which is a disturbing portrait of the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. “Even if a certain artwork disgusts you or makes you feel uncomfortable, you should ask yourself, ‘Why?’" says Jeyasingh. “It’s not just about buying art that you feel comfortable with, but you should go out there and look at art that makes you uncomfortable, because that will make you discover other aspects of yourself which you probably weren’t aware of." She alludes to the work of Vidha Saumya, who makes bold drawings (using ballpoint pens) of large and almost grotesque women. “When you look at those works, they really make you feel uncomfortable, because we have a strong prejudiced view of what beauty should look like. But the images are still so powerful that you can’t stop looking at them, and that is the beauty in them," she says.

Home is where the art is?

You may be ready to take an artwork home, but is your home ready? While it is important to follow your heart while making your purchase, you need to be realistic about logistics. Access is crucial. “You have to ensure that you can get things up the stairwells and into the door of your apartment," underscores Jhaveri Contemporary gallery’s co-founder, Amrita Jhaveri. Sometimes, certain works come with their own idiosyncrasies. In a Christie’s interview featured on their website, Lekha Poddar of the erstwhile Devi Art Foundation cites an incident when her son, Anupam Poddar, bought Subodh Gupta’s My Mother And Me (2006) installation for their home. Made with cow dung patties and ash, the installation had to be prepared on site. “(The patties) had to be made fresh at home," she says. “There were 20-30 women from the village roaming around the house with cow dung patties...The whole house was stinking for about 10 days till the cow dung dried. Meanwhile, we had mice running around because they wanted to nip at the cow dung!" While buying art, Jhaveri advises that the following questions are crucial: “Are the walls and floors strong enough to take heavy work? If not, you may think twice before buying a stone sculpture. Is the home flooded with light? If yes, think before buying photographic works. Do you live by the sea? If so, this kind of environment is really challenging for paintings, so you may want to rethink about buying material media. Do you have young children or pets? Perhaps ceramic sculptures are not for you then."


Records of ownership citing accurate provenance is imperative to ensure that the work you own is authentic and of quality. While buying a work of art, “remember to collect all the right paperwork—whether it is an invoice from the seller or any document relating to provenance," advises Jagpal. Without a proper record or documentation, the market value of your purchased artwork (which may have cost you a fortune), may quickly be dwarfed to something insubstantial, due to lack of paperwork vouching for its genuineness. BBC’s Fake Or Fortune, a series which investigates whether an artwork has authentic authorship or is a master counterfeit, hinges on the very trail of invoices, exhibition records and gallery labels. “In an ideal scenario, a clear trail from the artist’s studio to the current owner should be available, accompanied by documents that validate all milestones along the journey," explains Arvind Vijaymohan, Artery India’s CEO, a financial data centre focused on Indian art sales globally. “If represented by a gallery, or sold in an exhibition, the sales invoice and exhibition catalogue, along with a letter from the current and previous owners establishing their role should be on record," he adds.

Head or heart?

“The first response or a ‘gut feeling’ towards a work is a very powerful guide when making a decision to buy a work," says Vazirani. The artwork should speak to you. However, before you sign the cheque, it is helpful to have a theme in mind and imagine how each piece will complement the other. Think of the artworks as large pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together in your living room. “The decision to acquire a work has to be supplemented with understanding pricing and how it will be the best fit into my collection," Vazirani continues. Then of course, there is the legacy to think about. “This criterion is the serious thinking part, since this is loaded with the historical and personal value for any collector," says Vazirani. The bought artwork—and by extension the overall personal collection—should tell your story. It should reflect your personality, ambitions, interests and, “in the long term, a legacy".

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