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Will M F Husain's market value drop?

Maitreyee Handique in New Delhi | September 15, 2004

The world of art is still coming to grips with the corporatisation of the Rs 100-crore (Rs 1 billion) deal for 125 of the painter M F Husain's works. While reactions to the Mumbai-based Swarup Group of Industries intent to establish a premium on Husain's works have ranged from "vulgar" to "excellent", art watchers would rather wait and watch to see if the sudden interest in art will last.

"The art market is buoyant but the real test will be the auctions where buyers will dictate the price levels," says Punya Nagpal of Saffronart, an online art auction company.

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Husain's ability to raise his base price has never been questioned, but the entry of a non-art collector into the fray, and the steep increase in price based on Husain's signature rather than the quality of each individual work, has raised many questions.

Will all Husain prices now rise, or might they actually fall with collectors wanting to dump his works in the market to cash in on the hyped high? And could that spiral into panic selling to offset prices if they begin to plummet?

The first test of this could be the Christie's and Sotheby's auctions, in New York on September 23 and 24 respectively, where a total of 17 Husains will fall to the hammer.

Rarely will auctions have been as avidly watched as these two, and they will indicate whether Guru Swarup Srivastava's controversial buy has been able to influence the price levels for art.

An immediate impact of the Rs 100-crore deal has been the "tremendous interest and excitement about art as an alternative form of investment," says Neville Tuli, chairman of Osian's.

"Husain has gone beyond art. While he has six decades of work behind him, only someone confident about his creativity will put a value to his work (that still remains to be done)."

In light of the recent partnership, Tuli, a great advocate of art as investment, cautions about the value of works with pre-fixed price tags.

"It's like a double edged sword. On the one hand it generates excitement, but on the other, we need to ask if it is such a good investment if the art pricing is not determined by its historical importance and knowledge."

Did Srivastava strike the right price for the deal? Arun Vadehra of Vadehra Art Gallery, consultant to Christie's and a Husain gallerist, thinks so.

"While there will definitely be a price differential among the 100 paintings, the new deal has given a huge confidence to collectors and buyers and will create new awareness in art."

Gallery owners like Uma Jain, director of Delhi-based Dhoomi Mal Gallery, are however worried about the impact it will have on art prices in general.

"We have to see how prices will stabilise after this deal. While I'm sure that Husain will be able to deliver what he has promised, there's a limit to what one can produce. It's not the number that will matter but how people will react to the paintings," she says.

Agrees Dadiba Pundole of Mumbai's Pundole Gallery, "While it will create a new benchmark for art pricing, we should not read too much into the amount but must concern ourselves with the paintings."

Husain's earlier high was when he sold 22 paintings of a series called Paris Suite to a London-based collector for $1 million. This year, Husain has bettered his own record with the Rs 100-crore deal.

"Husain is like a ringmaster who establishes his own yardstick," says Virendra Kumar Jain of Kumar Art Gallery.

"Twenty years ago, he had said his painting would sell for Rs 100,000, and they did. Two years ago he said they would touch the Rs 1-crore (Rs 10 million) mark, and they have."

The Rs 100-crore pact was also Husain's idea, according to Jain. Four months ago, he said as much when he expressed the hope of striking a deal to benchmark his works.

Two months later, he had told the press he was willing to pre-sell 100 works for Rs 100 crore. The 125-painting corporate partnership (100 from the Our Planet Called Earth series and 25 miscellaneous works) with the Swarup Group is, therefore, hardly surprising, though even Husain is believed to have admitted to a Mumbai-based gallery that he was surprised "the deal came through so soon". But the jury's still out on whether his price, hereafter, is going to rise -- or fall.

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