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Painting Green

October 2005
Painting Green

Indian artists and dealers are starting to see the color of money as global connoisseurs increasingly clamor for their art.


The horses thundered by on the Mumbai racetrack last summer, as Guru Swaroop Srivastava signed the check that was to make history. The amount was $21 million (approximately 1 billion rupees). The recipient was Maqbool Fida Husain, India's most prolific artist. The Mumbai businessman commissioned Husain to make 100 paintings on the theme ‘Our Planet called Earth.' It was the biggest deal in Indian art. The press had a field day! (The latest news, though, indicates that this deal is being cancelled because of the financial difficulties faced by Srivastava)

Nevertheless, Indian art has finally arrived. Srivastava, after all, is just one of the many corporate tycoons who, along with rich NRIs, are fast realizing that collecting Indian art is the in thing now. Not that Srivastava is an avid art lover; rather he was just looking for some "quick investment returns." He wasn't really off-track, mind you, considering the way art prices have been zooming up for the past few years. A new study by University of Georgia business professor Dr. Srinivas K. Reddy, a modest collector himself, shows that the value of older Indian artists went up by 600 percent in the last five years. And the value of younger artists (post-1950s) has gone up by 1800 percent in the same period.

"Only recently have the works of major Indian artists been routinely hitting the $100K mark. Based on their auction sales in 2004, three Indian artists will be ranked in the top 500 artists in the world," he says.

Consider these figures: the Christie's March sale in New York this year fetched a breath-taking $3.7 million. Interestingly, the summer auction of Saffronart, the biggest online auctioneer of Indian art, also garnered $3.7 million. Noteworthy in that auction was a painting of the goddess Kali by Tyeb Mehta, which went for $236,500. Arun Vadehra, Christie's India consultant and owner of Vadehra Gallery in Delhi, expected Christie's to sell $10 million worth of art in its four auctions this year. The latest auction results indicate that this estimate was surpassed by a couple million dollars. "Indian art is a sunrise industry," he says. "It will hit $1 billion in the next six years."

And it was last month's Modern Asian Art Auction in New York by Christie's and Sotheby's that turned out to be an astonishing milestone for Indian art in the West. As Dr. Reddy points out, new records have been set for no less than 58 Indian artists. "Tyeb Mehta's ‘Mahisasura' fetched 1.4 million at Christie's, becoming the first Indian painting to sell for over a million dollars at an auction," he notes.

Some of the other artists who set new records include the following: M.F. Husain ($420K), A. Padamsee ($360K), Ram Kumar ($340K), F.N. Souza ($240K), V.S. Gaitonde ($200K), S.H. Raza ($190K), Arpita Singh ($150K), and Manjit Bawa ($120K). An emerging artist like Atul Dodiya also established a new record ($150K).

The 175 bidders who took part in the earlier auctions this year consisted of Indians (40 percent), NRIs (34 percent) and non-Indians (26 percent). Why is there this sudden spurt of interest? Dr. Reddy, who has been studying these trends in the contemporary art market, gives his reasons: a growing population of collectors, the quality of the work itself, and the low value ? the prices have a long way to go before they will near those of European and American art. "The quality is on par with some of the best work you will see anywhere in the world," he adds. "It's also in the early stages of appreciation even though it's gone up tremendously in the past five years."

The booming economy in India, having increased the wealth of middle and upper-middle classes, has contributed to a growing demand for Indian art. Dr. Reddy also points out that Indian-American art lovers and buyers belong to an ethnic community that has the highest levels of education and median income in the U.S. Some major corporations are also showing a keen interest. Indian art, as noted earlier, is being seen as a good investment. One aficionado is listed as one of the top 100 collectors in the States.

The noticeable rise in the quality and visibility of Indian art can be attributed to many factors, not least of which are the excellent education and training facilities in India. As examples, Dr. Reddy mentions the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and Baroda, Shantiniketan near Kolkata, and the Government School of Art and Architecture in Hyderabad. Also, there are several well-known galleries in metropolitan centers. At Saffronart, the turnover last year was $4.2 million. And in the first half of 2005, its volume ($5.7 million) exceeded the combined total at Sotheby's and Christie's.

Buyers from all over the world are now showing an interest in Indian art. Six art galleries displaying modern Indian art have sprung up in New York alone. Japanese tinned-fish mogul Masanori Fukuoka, who has a personal collection of more than 5,000 paintings in Osaka, is a big buyer. Two years ago, he bought a triptych by Tyeb Mehta titled ‘Celebration' from Christie's for $317,500. Other international buyers are Hollywood director Roland Emmerich, and Christie's former chief executive Christopher Davidge.

The driving forces behind this art boom, however, are the wealthy and educated resident and non-resident Indians. Forbes magazine estimated the average net worth of the 40 richest Indians to be $1.5 billion. Robin Dean of Sotheby's describes the art buyers as "wealthy young entrepreneurs." He adds, "In the past 18 months, a lot of them have turned to art as an alternative investment. The boom has happened because Indian art has been undervalued for a long time."

So which artists are the most popular? The Progressive Artists Group has emerged as the market leader. This group of artists had come together in 1947, the year of India's independence, with the idea of breaking away from colonial and traditional influences, and wanting to "evolve a language for Indian contemporary art," in Husain's words. They were involved with European modernist styles, and dabbled in cubism, expressionism and pure abstraction. Maqbool Fida Husain was the de facto dean of this group, and its most visible face. Other Progressives were Syed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza, K. H. Ara, V. Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar and Akbar Padamsee.

Husain was the only Progressive who stayed in India. He has used a cubistic style to paint Indian themes like rural idylls, Hindu epics, Mother Teresa, horses and Bollywood actresses, particularly Madhuri Dixit. F. N. Souza is better known for his landscapes, cityscapes and images of women he painted in his London years. S. H. Raza leaned more towards abstraction. He started with landscapes, and gradually cut off the superfluous elements to focus on a purer geometric vocabulary with cosmic overtones. In spite of living in Paris, he used very bright Indian colours.

A more crucial outcome of this sudden popularity in Indian art, besides the more obvious financial one, is the interest on the part of several international art institutions. The seal of approval of these art authorities will do more for its global acceptance than the fickle market trends. This June, India participated in the prestigious Venice Biennale with its first unofficial pavilion. Also in June, in New York, the Asia Society and Queens Museum of Art co-sponsored ‘Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India,' billed as the ‘the first major US exhibition of Indian contemporary art.' The Tate Modern in London opened an exhibition of paintings by F. N. Souza. It is Tate's first solo show of a contemporary Indian artist. Other exhibitions featuring Indian artists are adding to the buzz.

This upward price graph is leading to dizzy investment fervor. Some canvases command serious money, making them as precious as stock market blue chips. Ashish Anand, Director of the Delhi Art Gallery, says, "Art enjoys a very high rate of appreciation that can sometimes go up to 100 or even 200 per cent. The work of the top 10 artists in India has already acquired a high value. The excitement now is in investing in the next 10 to 15 leading names in contemporary Indian art, because the prices of their works are not yet as high as they could reach in the years to come." Some of them ? such as Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya, Baiju Parthan and Shibu Natesan ? already have a good record of accomplishment.

Anand has a word of caution for the new investors. "I think one should treat art as investment only after one has trained one's eye to appreciate it properly," he says. The best way to get started is by visiting art galleries, museums and online art sites. Saffronart.com is the biggest website dealing with contemporary Indian art. Try to get familiar with the painters, their works and the prices they command.

Art buyers should study the factors that determine the value of a painting. The most important one is the value an individual is willing to pay for the painting. This is directly related to the artist's fame and availability of his works. The technique, composition and intellectual content of the painting are essential. This aspect, however, is taken for granted if the artist is a master in the field, but does play a part in grading paintings by the same artist. Every artist has a "golden period" in his or her career, and paintings from this time are quite often valued higher. In addition, the emotional attachment and the relevance of the painting to the artist itself play a role in value. All said and done, what you see in the painting and the emotions it conjures up within you are often the best determinants of its value. Finally, it is important to buy from a reputed gallery or dealer.

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