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Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising

It's expensive—and now you know why

Published: Nov 6, 2014 06:54:07 AM IST
Updated: Nov 6, 2014 02:54:05 PM IST
Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Untitled (Figure on a Rickshaw) by Tyeb Mehta He was fastidious about quality, and the rarity of available works is one reason for the sharp increase in his prices Price: Rs 19.7 cr

On October 7 in London, auction house Sotheby’s brought the paddle down on its cover lot, ‘Blue Painting’ by Tyeb Mehta, for a little over Rs 11 crore. Twelve years ago, the same artist had breached what was then considered a psychological benchmark, with Rs 1 crore for his ‘Celebration’, a triptych depicting festivities in Santiniketan. A similar triptych hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Though ‘Blue Painting’ made almost twice its lower estimate of Rs 6 crore, it is by no means the artist’s most expensive painting; that honour rests with his ‘Untitled’ (Figure on a Rickshaw) that was auctioned in 2011 for Rs 19.75 crore (minus the buyer’s premium). More recently, his ‘Mahisasura’ claimed a similar value at another Christie’s auction. His ‘Kali’ paintings have routinely commanded high values.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices since that critical breakthrough in 2002 have been rising—and not just for Tyeb Mehta. More records have been set over the last decade than in any other time previously, with artists in the top layer playing hop-scotch about reigning over the rostrum. However, there’s no way of knowing whether these are, in fact, their top prices because private sales rarely garner the publicity of auctions, and galleries never share such information.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising

Untitled by VS Gaitonde
His record breaking painting may have notched an Indian record, but if analysts are right, it’s the start of a sharper spurt to come following his retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York
Price: Rs 23.4 cr

Even so, it would seem doubtful that any artist has commanded more than VS Gaitonde’s current claim to that sweet spot with an astounding Rs 23.4 crore for an ‘Untitled’ work at the downing of a Christie’s gavel last December in Mumbai. If Gaitonde has been a dark horse whose spurt to the winning post in recent times has been astronomical, it is because Indians have been reluctant to embrace the abstract (or “non-representational”, as the artist himself preferred to call his work) genre. A retrospective of his work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in October and a continuing affair with his luminescent nothingness at auctions (a painting was on the cover of a recent Bonham’s catalogue) will ensure that his prices can only rise. Famously, both Mehta and Gaitonde painted sparsely, one reason that might be spurring the current index in their favour.
Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
The Birth by FN Souza
This work is a sublime example of various subjects that he painted separately, but which are congruent in this painting: A nude, landscape, still-life and the clergy
Price: Rs 10.5 cr

These headline-grabbing prices do serve a purpose, however altruistic. While critics rue the fact that the media seems to focus on value to the detriment and exclusion of quality and appreciation, it is an unfortunate truism that it has at least made people sit up and take notice of a subject that has been for the most part neglected in India. And patronage, even if by default, is worth savouring—whatever the cost.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Village Scene by Amrita Sher-Gil
Sher-Gil is deserving of a value far higher than what she has got, due to a government policy on nine artists considered National Treasures
Price: Rs 6.9 cr

The deleterious side is that talking solely about prices in the absence of adequate enquiry has brought about false buoyancy in the market. Art analysts, collectors and connoisseurs peg 10 percent of any artist’s output as his best, which means that interest in prices is falsely built around a small percentage of an artist’s works. So, what is it about these works that set them apart from others that, if not mediocre, are at least not at par with that considered excellent?

The measure of quality is captive to subjectivity to some extent; so what are the weathervane factors that influence price? Rarity would be key, in which case artists such as Mehta and Gaitonde come out tops over those such as MF Husain, FN Souza and, even, to an extent, SH Raza, all of whom have been more prolific. Strangely, collections too have an impact on pricing, whether of museums, institutions or important collectors. When these organisations buy into artists, it increases their worth. Retrospectives and important exhibitions add value, as do international airings at premium fora.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Saurashtra by SH Raza
He ruled the roost for many years as India’s most expensive artist, and his quality and connect is one reason for his bankable quality
Price: Rs 21 cr

Souza’s art practice, for instance, was built around painting distorted nudes, still-lifes, landscapes and somewhat tortured scenes of the clergy. Many of his paintings were prurient, and some were downright misogynistic. His career in London was particularly productive, and is considered the hallmark of his painting years, which is why works from this period are highly sought-after. And though a painting called ‘The Butcher’ that sold last year for Rs 10 crore is a significant work, it is ‘The Birth’ that has remained his most expensive painting, combining as it does all his characteristic elements and painted at the height of his critical success. ‘The Birth’ was auctioned in 2008 for Rs 10.5 crore.

By comparison, Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Village Scene’ comes off niggardly at under Rs 7 crore. Considered one of the leading voices of modernism in India, and the first recognised woman artist of significance, critics have applauded her short-lived career for its amazing virtuosity. The NGMA has a sizeable body of her work. Her prolific writings have left a fascinating commentary on her practice as well as her articulation of Indian modern art. Analysts agree that her prices would spiral sharply if a ban on the export of her paintings is lifted. As one of the nine National Treasures, her paintings are subject to government rules that forbid owners to export or ship her paintings outside India, thereby subduing her prices.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
The Skin Speaks A language Not Its Own by  Bharti Kher
Her fallen elephant with a skin of sperm-shaped bindis is a comment on society that has ramifications beyond just any local context
Price: Rs 6.9 cr

For several years, it was Raza who had reigned as the numero uno of Indian art. One of the founding members of the Progressive Artists’ Group along with Souza and Husain, he had shifted to work and live in Paris, where he spent six decades of an eventful career before returning in his late age to New Delhi. His work from the ’50s through the ’70s has been described as “gestural abstraction”, while he reverted to a familiar Indian trope with his Bindu and Mandala series from the ’80s onwards. It is works from the cusp period—where the abstract language had been influenced by the Basohli miniatures and his visits to India—that have commanded some of the highest prices, most noticeably ‘Saurashtra’, with a tag of Rs 21 crore. His works continue to enjoy a huge premium, and Raza remains one of India’s most bankable artists, despite turning 93 this December.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Battle Between Ganga and Yamuna by MF Husain
Husain is one artist whose gallery prices are far higher than his gains at auctions, and demand for his work remains high
Price: Rs 5.5 cr

But what of Husain? Arguably India’s most popular artist, he was for decades also India’s most expensive artist. Competitive by nature, he would make alternative news whenever his peers bested him publicly, such as when he announced a Rs 100-crore commission for a series of paintings for Guru Swaroop Srivastava. Some paintings in Our Planet Called Earth series materialised, but the commission wasn’t completed. He undertook extremely lucrative commissions for the royal family of Qatar on the Arabic Civilisation, and for steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal on the Indus Valley Civilisation—only a part of the latter was finished by the time of Husain’s death.

His highest recorded auction price is Rs 6.5 crore for ‘Battle Between Ganga and Jamuna’ from part of his Mahabharata series, but one could argue that in his case galleries have sold his paintings for far more in private sales. I know of a few paintings where the asking price is almost twice as much, even though these may be less significant as paintings. Almost certainly, his “controversial” works and nudes in private collections would ha ve got him a value considerably higher than the one that was auctioned in 2008.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Untitled (Reclining Nude) by Akbar Padamsee
His haunting nudes have fascinated collectors, and just when one thought his landscapes would get him the top prize, he surprised everyone with this brilliant work
Price: Rs 8.7 cr

Jehangir Sabavala was the other modernist whose trajectory had taken off in this century, but his fellow-artist Akbar Padamsee snatched the lead from him when, in 2011, his ‘Reclining Nude’ fetched Rs 8.7 crore at a Sotheby’s auction.

Padamsee’s nudes have always found buyers, and he is known also for his abstract landscapes (called metascapes) and paintings of mostly male heads. Other associates of the Progressives who have fared well in the market are Ram Kumar and Krishen Khanna. More recently, works by Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi have also been finding favour among collectors.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Untitled by Subodh  Gupta
While his installations would certainly be more expensive, in auctions it is this painting that fi gures as his record so far
price: Rs 7.3 cr

No one thought Arpita Singh would join this select group of luminaries because she tends to work in a small format, and her paintings concern less portentous issues than those of her peers. Singh’s is the world of everyday domesticity lined by a suggestion of terror, a reflection of the disquiet of our times.

An important artist, it was the mural-sized work—all of 24 feet—that fetched her a record-breaking high of Rs 9.5 crore. With few works close to that size, it will be a long time before she equals that benchmark, but prices for even her paper works remain strong. Another woman artist, Anjolie Ela Menon, is considered meritorious, though her prices are nowhere at par with Singh’s big win.

Despite a perceived slowdown in the art market, prices have been rising
Wish Dream by Arpita Singh
Arpita Singh’s mural grapples with the immediate environment of middle class concerns and fetched the artist a record for its size
Price: Rs 9.5 cr

There was a time around the turn of this century that the younger group of contemporary artists seemed to be outperforming their modern seniors, powered by a resurgent economy and overseas collectors. That collapsed in 2008, and hasn’t recovered.

Their prices may have been arrested, but artist couple Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher remain prominent voices on India’s art firmament. Gupta claimed top honours with his ‘Untitled’ oil on canvas, valued at Rs 7.3 crore, while Kher’s ‘The Skin Speaks A Language Not Its Own’, a fibreglass sculpture covered with her trademark bindis, fetched Rs 6.9 crore.

There is the certainty that museum and private commissions of Gupta’s installations have fetched far higher prices—‘LOC’, for instance, at the Kiran Nadar Museum, would certainly have bested that, as would other installations that came together for public viewing at the NGMA that celebrated his retrospective earlier this year.

While aesthetics and, to an extent, promotion and marketing establish an artist, eventually it is the longevity of the art, its potential to survive this and several lifetimes that is central to the creation of value. That and the uniqueness of an artist’s output are the reasons for establishing artistic merit that makes some works treasures in an ocean of mediocrity.

(This story appears in the 14 November, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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