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In pursuit of art

Mansi Kapur | October 08, 2003

A businessman, a trader and a retailer -- with an aesthetic responsibility. That's how Ashish Balram Nagpal defines an art dealer. He should know. With an annual turnover of close to Rs 7.5 crore (Rs 75 million), he's been in the art market for over 13 years.

Well-known among the country's artists and collectors, Nagpal is opening his second outlet in Mumbai soon. The new gallery will come up in Colaba.

"Over the years, Mumbai has expanded. Besides, there is demand for more," says Nagpal explaining the reason for his second outlet.

Though he's cagey about details of his new projects, he admits setting up a third gallery in Delhi in a couple of months.

"The art market in Mumbai is far more mature than in Delhi," he observes but is willing to invest in the latter to push growth.

Nagpal has clearly done well for himself and expects to double his turnover from the new outlets.

"Art is probably the only form of investment where prices don't come down," he says. Art industry figures indicate that works of certain artists have witnessed nearly 1,000 per cent jump in terms of value in a span of 10 years.

"You could get one square foot at Nariman Point for Rs 15,000 to Rs 30,000. But a square foot of Husain will cost you Rs 350,000," says Nagpal.

Yet, he feels that compared to Europe, the art dealership market in India is still in its infancy.

"In India, dealers get only about 33-40 per cent share of a sale. In developed markets, dealers call the shots. There, it is the artists who get about 33-40 per cent of the sales with the remaining going to the dealer," he says.

However, he expects the Indian art market to evolve. The Rs 250-crore (Rs 2.5 billion) art industry is estimated to grow around 35 per cent per annum.

"There is a phenomenal scope for growth as, internationally, there has been a lot of attention on Indian art. I don't see why, in five years, we shouldn't be dealing in dollars," says Nagpal.

A computer graduate, Nagpal plunged into art dealership in 1990 with the opening of the first Ashish Balram Nagpal gallery in Mumbai's Sophia College premises. After his 10-year lease in Sophia expired he moved his gallery to Juhu.

Nagpal does not believe that only big names sell and claims picking up artists on instinct. "Sure, there are artists who I can sell over the phone, but that does not restrain me from discovering new talent. All the same, I take a lot of time to zero in on a new artist," he adds.

Baiju Parthan and Nikhil Chaganlal, he claims, have been his contributions to the art world.

Talking about the changes in the composition of art collectors over the years, Nagpal says that earlier there were business tycoons, film stars, and bankers who were actively into buying art.

"But now there is a new breed of young, salaried professionals with hefty pay packets, who show keen interest in art as an investment."

About 90 per cent of his clientele are what he calls the "new maharajas", who do not hesitate to spend a lakh or two at one go.

"Most collectors have budgets and opt for works between Rs 100,000 and Rs 200,000." The collectors also have the option of deferred payments up to a year, if credibility is assured.

Preferences in painting styles have also undergone a modification over the decade. "People are more open to discussing bedroom paintings these days. Nudes have become quite popular, apart from the conventional, figurative and abstract styles," remarks Nagpal.

Clearly, interest in Indian art, within the country and outside, is growing. "It's commendable especially in the absence of support from the government. There are no insurance schemes nor any recognition from the government or from financial institutions for art as an investment," he complains. Is it time we included art in our asset portfolio?

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