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What's in a name?

Nitin Bhayana | October 06, 2004

Most collectors who believe that by merely buying a famous artist their investment will be safe, need to do a rethink. A recent article by art market writer Souren Melikian highlights the problems in buying bluechip artists.

In the review of the summer Impressionist auctions, the writer highlights that even in a mature Western market merely sticking to the well-known is hardly a safe strategy.

The strange thing is that even in a developing market like ours, the same holds true. The recent auctions of Indian contemporary art in New York by Sotheby's and Christie's corroborate this fact.

The art market and pricing in particular is a fairly complex beast to comprehend. Prices depend on a variety of factors of which the artist is merely one, but an important factor.

In addition, the genre or movement, for instance, Impressionism or the Progressives in India, is a very important component. Provenance, condition, medium, subject matter, size and rarity are some other factors that go in to ascertaining the prices. In these past auctions we saw that, by and large, good provenance does help in establishing good prices.

In the overseas market, the best example of this could very well be the sale of Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe" for $104 million. Earlier this work might not necessarily have fetched such a high value had it not been in the collection of the Whitneys for almost half a century.

In India, the closest equivalent could be Tyeb Mehta's "Celebration" and, more recently, a large Jagdish Swaminathan abstract that made over $100,000. Both the works belonged to the Times of India collection.

However, the one thing that requires a lot of understanding and connoisseurship is quality. The market in the West is extremely mature.

Ever since the Japanese speculation on the Impressionist during the late 1980s, works of Picasso, Cezanne, Monet and Alfred Sisley regularly fail to sell or sell for much less if the quality is not up to the mark.

In the June 21 Sotheby's Impressionist sale in London, a landscape by Sisley, which looked desirable initially, went unsold due to its uninspired composition and sketchiness. With an estimate of $1.4 million - $1.8 million, the work could not find a buyer even at $1.2 million.

In the Indian sales, a point to highlight is two Husains that went under the hammer at Sotheby's. "Earth", a recent work by Husain measuring 53"x53" sold for a modest $60,000. On the other hand, a superb 1950s work, titled "Woman", also by Husain measuring only 27"x15" sold for $65,000.

Similarly a rare non-canvas work by Arpita Singh made $15,000 as did two tiny exquisite Jogen Chowdhurys cross-hatches that made approximately $14,000 each. Jogen's new works measuring five times the same sell for less than these older works at galleries.

The press has been reporting the spectacular results of Indian auctions for quite some time now. However, a price for a specific work at an auction is not the norm. A slew of factors come into play when prices are determined at an auction.

What collectors and dealers need to understand is that even if they do have a work by the same artist, the auction prices, almost certainly, are not the benchmark. Quality of the work is what is of prime importance. And understanding quality takes time.

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