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Rediff.com  » Business » Invest in art, be a millionaire!

Invest in art, be a millionaire!

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August 22, 2005 08:52 IST

At his home studio in a vast, vacant plot of scrubland on the border of Mehrauli, artist Jagannath Panda is juggling with six different ideas on six different canvases. The proposed exhibition of his works at Delhi's Nature Morte Gallery in October is keeping him on tenterhooks.

"I am running out of time," says the artist who, technically speaking, is booked for shows till 2006-end. After Nature Morte, he'll consign his works to a Gayatri Sinha-curated show, and talks are on for shows in London and New York.

At another end of the town, in south Delhi, Ashish Anand, owner of Delhi Art Gallery, is suffering from insomnia. With his body of pre-independence art collection running into several thousands, and spilling from the gallery walls to bureaux to toilets, Anand is now drawing up a blueprint to move his booty to a new art gallery and resource centre.

Since 1991, Anand has bought over nearly four dozen studios, including past and current works of artists such as Chittoprosad, Robin Mondal, Himmat Shah and Gogi Saroj Pal, which he now plans to stock and exhibit at a 30,000 sq ft space in south Delhi next year.

Rajshree Pathy, chairman of Rajshree Sugars and Chemicals, is contemplating building an art museum and gallery. Pathy, who has been collecting works for the past 25 years and possesses several hundred canvases, sees it as a natural extension of her interest in art.

"It's still at a conceptual stage. I'm talking to people to thrash out the details. It is expected to come up in either Delhi, Coimbatore or Chennai," she says.

What is happening? The art market is blossoming. Fuelled by the interest generated by the high prices fetched by Indian artists at international auction houses, there is a frenzied drive to collect works in anticipation of price rises.

Collectors whose art has outgrown their homes and offices, are thinking of new ways to expand their interest. Collectors are turning into gallerists.

They're aspiring to become information banks on art. Collectors are becoming angel investors to generate returns on your art investment. Collectors are stocking for future profit.

Take Yogesh Jain, a stock market analyst. His art journey began as a passion for art. Today he and his son Rahul run the Rahul & Art gallery in Delhi's posh Golf Links colony and within four months of operation last year whisked sales worth Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million).

Neeraj Batra, head of Infinity Business School, who started collecting art with wife Radhika five years ago, has today put their personal collection on a Web site called Bigbanyantree.com and plans to start online auctions by 2007.

Collector Rakesh Agrawal, managing director of Lanxess ABS, is setting up the Uttarayan Art Centre on a 30-acre estate on the banks of Mahi, 20 km from Vadodara, with ambitions of stocking 5,000 works in five years. Amit Judge of the Turner Morisson group sold Barista Coffee to pursue art; he runs two galleries out of Delhi and Singapore. "At least 15 people who used to buy works from him have turned collectors," says Anand.

While Jagannath Panda may have fought hard to get his first break a few years ago, today the market has reached his studio's doorstep. He remembers travelling around Delhi by bus, lugging drawings and pictures of his sculptures to show to galleries.

"I was politely told to come back later. Those were the struggling days," recalls the 35-year-old artist.

These days, however, the opposite is true. Art galleries, dealers and auctioneers are struggling to get hold of his works. Since his "City Breeds" sold for Rs 11.2 lakh (Rs 1.12 million) at the May Saffronart auction this year, his cellphone hasn't stopped ringing from prospective buyers and art exhibitors. The painting had sold for five times the high estimate value of Rs 2.7 lakh (Rs 270,000).

Tanuj Berry, who runs a business school and is a fan of Panda's works, describes him as one of the "best prospects" of Indian art. "I don't believe there are too many like him but, in general, interest levels in younger artists are far greater today than three years ago," says Berry.

The story of Panda is really the reflection of India's robust economy.

Unlike the pre-Independence era when the main patrons of art were the aristocracy, or post-Independence, where the art collection drive was spearheaded by institution heads like Homi Bhabha at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, or later, Gurcharan Das of Procter & Gamble, the art hoarders of the mid-90s, driven by hype and high prices, are today's expanding class of businessmen, lawyers, doctors, educationists, real estate speculators and stockbrokers.

"Earlier, art was bought mainly as expense accounts by corporates. But as prices of art rise, today the buyers are individuals looking at investments," says gallerist Sharan Apparao, who also brings out a newsletter called Art Venture in partnership with Citibank.

Today, to be known as an art collector is to proclaim social status. When industrialist Guru Swarup Srivastava daringly offered Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) for 125 paintings of Maqbool Fida Husain's "Our Planet Called Earth" and other works even before he had laid eyes on them, he qualified the growing trend of art as an investible commodity for future returns.

Art has become like any other asset, whether equity, bonds or gold. As Srivastava, then four months into collecting art, declared in September after the mega-buck deal, "I bought the works more with financial vision than aesthetic sense."

Today, buyers are ready to shell out the money if they desperately want to own a piece of art. Good art is a brand. Puroshottam Bhageria, a stockbroker, says he started collecting Progressive artists a year-and-a-half ago to diversify his portfolio. "You can safely invest in art as it gives you good returns," he says.

Neville Tuli, chairman of Osian's Connoisseurs of Art, reckons there are nearly 300-350 serious Indian art collectors. "Typically, we have about 100-125 collectors who invest about Rs 1 crore a year and about 100 others who invest between Rs 50 lakh (Rs 5 million) and Rs 1 crore. About 350 investors put in between Rs 25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million) and 50 lakh on art," he says.

Nilesh Shah, director of Edelweiss Capital, who has been mandated to raise finances for India's first onshore art fund called Yatra, reckons the number to be even higher. He says there are nearly 3,000 art investors in India who invest above Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) a year.

With an eye on prospective new investors in art, Yatra, a four-year close-ended fund that promises 20 per cent compounded annual rate of growth, was floated by venture capitalist Pravin Gandhi, Sanjay Kumar of Synergy Art Foundation and Geeta Mehra of Sakshi Gallery.

"Art has become fashionable. International auctioneers like Christie's and Sotheby's have brought out the true value of art," says Shah. According to Gandhi, the fund has attracted Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) from 50 investors so far. "We will mainly buy, hold, trade and hold auctions," says Gandhi.

Gallerist Arun Vadehra should know. It took him nearly five years to convince Christie's to open their auction doors for Indian art a decade ago. "In 1995, Indian art was valued at $300,000, which was small change when the art world market was valued at $3 billion."

But the demand for Indian art is now setting new price records. An untitled work by V S Gaitonde sold for Rs 92 lakh (Rs 9.2 million) at Osian's, earlier this year. "Kali", a work by Tyeb Mehta, snapped Rs 1 crore at the Saffronart auction.

Akbar Padamsee's "Mirror Image" fetched $176,000 at Christie's New York auction. While Indian art connoisseurs such as Kito and Jane de Boer and Masanori of Fukuoka Museum are still paying the highest price for Indian works, and non resident Indians constitute a majority of the buyers, it is also setting a new trend: in 1995, 95 per cent of the auction buyers were NRIs.

Last year, this number fell to 70 per cent, says Vadehra, now a consultant at Christie's.

"The Indian art market, fuelled by domestic buyers, is growing at 30-40 per cent today as against the world art market that is growing at 3-4 per cent. It will become a Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) industry in the next five years," he predicts. This year, Christie's expect its Indian art sales to touch $10 million, while Saffronart is targeting $8 million. Osian's too expects its sales to cross Rs 16 crore (Rs 160 million) this year.

As the market expands, galleries such as Vadehra, Pallette, Art Alive and Nature Morte have expanded their premises to feed the growing interest in art. Artists are so much in demand today that some gallerists organise art camps in locales such as Cambodia, Turkey or Myanmar to acquire a work or two in exchange for the holiday.

Meanwhile, auction houses such as Christie's and Saffronart are scrambling to put fresher works at auctions to feed the ever-growing demand. Trading in art has picked up to the extent that at the Christie's auction in New York this year, seven fresh works were consigned for auctioning even before they had circulated in public venues, including those by S H Raza, Krishen Khanna, Ganesh Pyne and K M Adimoolam. At Saffronart's London auction, five of a total of 46 lots were only a few months old, including one of G R Iranna's untitled works that literally travelled from his studio to under the hammer.

This sudden price rise has created a flutter of concern about price rigging for certain artists. Fashion designer and art collector-turned-gallerist Rohit Gandhi says that even average works of artists are being sold at three to four times the value at which they'd be offered at galleries.

"This price rise is very unhealthy for artists," he says. Besides, some people report instances of dummy bids to scale up prices of works at auctions.

Thus, as the mad scramble to acquire art builds up and speculation comes to play a critical role, art has also become a dirty word. Art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta feels that while there is hype around art, there is not enough intellectual engagement with it.

She sees the attempts of galleries that bring out sleekly produced art journals and publications as an attempt at creating a "new kind of literacy". "There is a real poverty of art criticism in this country," she says.

Will the art price bubble burst? "With more art funds expected in the market, we are going to see the luxury of liquidity. Prices are going to snowball in a way we haven't seen before," says Tuli.

What price, art?

Venture capitalist Pravin Gandhi thinks there is one crucial structural difference between art and equity. "Unlike equity, art does not have a common standardised product," he says. But as art is increasingly viewed as a commodity and less as an individual's aesthetic response to a social and political commentary, a parallel concern is gripping the art world; the irrepressible increase in art prices -- especially among younger artists.

If a small work (3'x3') of G R Iranna fetched Rs 25,000 in 2002, today a similar sized work would command a price of Rs 1-3 lakh. Jitish Kallat's prices have shot up by over 65 per cent per cent within eight months -- from Rs 1.9 lakh (47"x60") in May 2004 to Rs 3.2 lakh (41"x60") in the year-end December sale.

These astounding increases in prices is dividing gallerists, collectors and art watchers alike. While some think this is good for the Indian art market as artists get a fraction of what their Western counterparts command, others say there is a fair amount of rigging involved in jacking up the prices at auctions, especially of younger artists, much as in the stock market.

While it is true that auction prices are not the final prices set by an artist, and prices of works in the secondary market are far higher, many say that auction prices have in a way opened up the true value of works.

In the past, even artists who consigned works to galleries had no way of knowing the prices at which the works finally sold. As a rule, gallerists charge 33 per cent commission on each painting sold, but there are increasing instances of gallerists taking only 10 per cent commission in a bid to undercut other galleries.

But what the public auction has done is bring more transparency to the art market so, unlike some years ago, galleries today are willing to accept cheques instead of cash. So, rigging or not, at least the art market is increasingly becoming part of the country's "white" economy.

Maitreyee Handique
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