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ARthoughts
Is Art Market Like Tulips of Yore
by
Viktor Vijay Kumar
 

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Tulips are so beautiful to look at. They come in different colours, shapes and designs. The Dutch love them and so does the rest of the world. But if you go back to 17th century tulips became a source of great speculative wealth creation. Prices rose by the hour to stupid heights. The prices were such that only the very rich could indulge in its trade. Then the bubble burst causing the ruin of many and a long depression in Dutch economy. In 70’s Hunt brothers manipulated/speculated in silver and raked in big profits. Their greed led them to large borrowings (100’s of million dollars) to finance their futures transactions. The bubble burst and they went bankrupt causing widespread economic disruption.

Is art market like tulips of yore? The question requires to be addressed specially for the newly baptised in the business of art collection. The size and the players in the market and the functioning of the art market have to be investigated to find an answer to it. Why this question is being raised now. Because a very short time back few cared about art and the art market was tiny. Mostly majority artists lived tight or in penury. There were seniors who had passed through the same mill of penury—Hussain included who painted cinema hoardings and made toys. Son of a very renowned artist D. D. Deolalikar who was Hussain’s first teacher would go around without money and his daily food was based on benevolence of someone in art fraternity. There is an art college named after Deolalikar in Indore! The son—he was always happy to paint. He had poetic expression in his paintings. He is no more God bless his soul. There was nothing to titillate.  Any way masses were not interested in poor bedraggled crankish artists. There was art, artists and art addict collectors. It was a small world of zealots.

But then India started arriving economically on the world scene. Cash registers/ credit card machines started working often and enough.  Prices started climbing and suddenly artists and art arrived, arrived because now art works were sold for tens of millions of rupees. A   new religion was born. It was exotic and sensual like the full bodied beauties on the last pages of newspapers. There is zing now. Arun Vadhera of Vadhera art gallery guesses Indian art market at about $350 million presently and expected to grow with economic growth.  New galleries, risqué dealers, media hype, and a lot of new artists make it more difficult to separate serious art. How there can not be drift wood afloat when the river is in spate? An artist along with some others was invited by a businessman to sign an exclusive contract to supply paintings. With great pride he told the gathering that he can sell anything! What would happen to those who buy from him. Unfortunately it is true in some cases. So there are tulip traders in 21st century also.

I don’t wish to scare you from art. This is one side of resurgence story of art. Good art, good galleries, serious collectors are also there. I will unfold for you the story of art

Choose your art at right prices

When you buy a standard product it has nearly a fixed price. But in art it is not so. An artist may be good or good for nothing. A good artist produces good works and bad works or not so good works at different times. Picasso’s paintings are not sold by square centimetre rate better and smaller works have higher prices than inferior bigger works. Collect good art and not the artists. It is a difficult proposition therefore to find good art at right prices. There are artists who have arrived at top price brackets. But to be at the top does not mean their prices are stable; they tumble as happened with some top names in Indian art recently. One must remember that in 1980’s and early 90’s the Japanese bought a lot of great art like Picassos, Van Gogh (paying then $82.5 million), Modigliani, Renoir etc. at mad prices and later as the Japanese economy speeded down hill plagued with losses and bankruptcies the works were sold at heavy losses. In contemporary art the high priced works may not protect you from losses when slide begins. The real manna is to choose good art (and artists) that has not ‘arrived’ in higher price brackets.  Therefore there is the need for fair eyed experts who do best what they can better than others. At what price a good work is bought will affect the financial return to the collector.

Second as an asset class art is unique. The owner of a particular work has a monopoly over it. Here I am not talking about limited edition prints.

An art work has a lower frequency of transactions. A painting may be brought to market after may be 5 years or 10 or 83 years as in the case of Jan Vermeer painting. (It sold for $30 million in 2004). Thus art is not a very liquid asset. As more and more quality art works enter museums availability of works in the market further goes down thereby pushing the prices through scarcity principle.

Let’s see the nature and structure of art market. Art market is of two types basically—primary and secondary.

 

The major participants of art market are –

1.Artists 2.Galleries, dealers 3.auction houses 4.Collectors 5.investment banks and art Funds 6 Museums 7. Art fairs, 8, curators, art critics, art advisers, evaluators, restorers. 8 State.

 

Artists are the fountain of the art market, and let’s be fair to admit that there are artists who have aesthetic, virgin imagination to impose new landmarks in creativity and there are those who do not have. Good art transcends the familiar. Art is not cerebral, it is celebration of timeless. It is the job of galleries, dealers and educated collectors in tandem with curators, art advisers, and art critics to cull wheat from the chaff in earnestness and honestly to position the good artists in the market place. To see what others pass by is their job. It requires poetic vision.

The State or Government has to be an important player by supporting art through state funding, state museums, art education, and art projects. Investment banks and art funds provide specialist services to collectors and advise them on art and artists. Art Funds issue units to the investors and manage portfolio of art assets. In India new laws for the safety of investors have slowed down the creation of Art Funds for the time being.

Market Friction and Inefficiencies

The structure of market alone will not determine the functioning of art markets. What is the state of competition and efficiency in price determination? About competition it has to be understood higher the price brackets fewer the competitors. In economics it is called oligopolistic competition. Presenting 2007 accounts William F. Ruprecht of Sotheby’s says, “And this is a business where your success is traditionally wed to a relatively small group of people who drive the business” Sotheby’s had $6 billion turnover in year 2007.

Mind it market is not able to value/price correctly all good art. Market inefficiency can be out of (a) nascent inability to judge art or (b) a conscious manipulation of the price mechanism.  The inability of the market to identify the visionary art of Van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Rembrandt was that they were rejected by the market. But you know how market treats their works now! So be a visionary leader to spot good art.

The conscious manipulation of prices is possible because as I said it is an oligopolistic market. Some dealers, collectors or even well heeled artists may bid high for a work in an auction because they have a high inventory of the said artists’ work. The bids help to create a higher bench mark for nearly all the works of the artist and as a corollary can also be used to take higher loans from banks using the artist’s works as collateral. Robert Hughes a great aesthete and art expert in his Art and Money says—

The art market can be set pitching and rolling by a single act, which is why it is so notoriously vulnerable to manipulation.  A ring of three of four promoters can bid up the price of a dubious young star painter at auction, and although the New York art world may know what’s going on, the collectors in Akron, Ohio, are not so likely to - all they see is the price, which was, after all, publicly bid and duly paid, and is henceforth true.

Indian market is substantially unorganised and is not free from the follies I have talked above. There is lack of data and research and at times aesthetic knowledge. A lot of buying is presently seen in low priced art works most of which do not stand aesthetic scrutiny. There is a tendency in India for new collectors to go for low price bargain hunting which may be disastrous by creating a junk collection. In time such works will find no place in the annals of art. The books/articles being written on artists who have yet to prove their artistic worth are often shameless eulogies rather than a fair analysis of their art. The aim in many cases is merely to sell rather than uncover creativity alongside where it exists.

Supply of paintings/art work at least in primary markets is controlled by some galleries and artists selling direct from studios and in West by Art Funds also. Taking out a monopoly contract with artists specially the young and upcoming is getting commonplace to build up prices through scarcity principle.

The funny thing is the artist/dealer/ collector may sell the work for lower price but want it to be shown at higher price in the market. Auctions are the best way to do it, scrupulously or otherwise.

One has to guard against these follies if one wishes to be a serious art collector.

Art as social capital

Why buy art only with money making objective? We all pass on from life to another dimension and paintings/artworks can’t be forwarded there. Likes of Solomon Guggenheim and Mr Henry Clay Frick left their finest collections for the people of this world to enjoy in Guggenheim Museum and Frick Collection. Persons with smaller gold chests have been known to gift works to museums so that our cultural lineage and memory does not lead to amnesia for our great grand children. Art gives more than the joy of increased asset value; it makes life more meaningful and joyous. It opens new vistas in your life. But it is for earning profits that in India art will be bought now on. It is a virgin field for many to collect art. As the dust settles art will be collected not for media impacted artists but for substance. Substance will bring higher returns—worldly and other worldly in many instances. I hope likes of Ratan Tata, Ambani brothers, Mittals and their ilk will bequeath to future India its art history in the form of their art collections and museums. This will also provide an impetus for others to learn to gift works to the museums. Mumbai is a classic example of art philanthropy and Parsis have whole heartedly contributed to make life culturally rich. Jehangir Art Gallery created by Cowasji Jehangir is a glowing testimony of such a singing patrimony of the city. Kolkota has its landmark Birla Akedemy while in Delhi Jindals have created Stainless Steel Art Gallery, and in Gurgaon Anupam Poddar has a private museum of art to showcase his and his mother’s collection, more must come. It is not cultural poverty that we suffer from rather it is the absence of will to synergize the sweet petals of art in a beautiful rose.   

Like the ownership of designer houses and rare wines fished out of sunken old ships art collection makes a statement about the persona and social class identity of the owner. Emotional purchases or media hype induced collecting of art is likely to mislead the collectors and they end up buying for prices higher and suffer when prices decline to realistic levels. High brow art collecting showcases those who have made their millions and billions and have acquired a ticket to visible refined tastes in art and culture. But looking at the current go especially in U.S. the refined tastes come with a double question mark.

Can we arrive outside of immediate time to judge good art? From    inside the sea you can not see the flourishing landscapes on the land unless you are a clairvoyant. Many famous and high priced artists will be lost in terms of market and popularity while some of those who are not so well promoted/propagated will be ‘discovered’ in future. Art is a product of a contemporary society and to buy trendy art is always full of pot holes. The real worth of art work should last till contemporary vanishes into past. Art should not be treated as fashion changing by the minute. Internationally and in India I have seen many artists who were a rage vanish into oblivion. What better reason is needed to avoid collecting seasonal flowers!

Art is different as it needs not the faculty of understanding but feeling. In one of my exhibitions of abstracts quite a few persons asked why did I not put some object or figure to give a meaning to the painting. Problem is we expect familiar to be present in a work of art. Gustav Klimt was commissioned to do four murals for a new university—Aula in Austria in 1900. In those works he explored new dimensions away from his familiar style. But there was a scandal that the works were morally degrading and they were never exhibited. These masterpieces were lost when Nazis burnt Immendorf Castle in 1945. The murals were the basis for his emergent style but the society junked them. Art goes beyond the familiar and into nascent corner of our inner experiences. Hilla Rebay the American abstract painter says, "Painting, like music, has nothing to do with the reproduction of nature, nor interpretation of intellectual meanings. Whoever is able to feel the beauty of colors and forms has understood non-objective painting."

 

Culturally Indian art is more on the quieter side of creative search. Whereas western art and especially U.S. art revels in shock value, and the use of crass product-marketing culture to decimate the fine difference between commerce and art. Pickled cows and sharks, self portrait in own blood, artist canning his own shit, diamond studded platinum skull mould, or the Piss Christ photograph, ad infinitum can shock a society but can not last as abiding aesthetic creation. I think art here has less to do with communion with spirit rather it is the use media to create brand value through shock for the artist. We know media picks up more on sensational news and with instant communication it is easier to propagate an art work which sensationalizes. It brings in focus sensory rather than spiritual. In the year 2004 I visited Andy Warhol exhibition in Museum Kunst Palast Dussaeldorf. Looking at giant silk screen works sitting lonely in mega size halls, I realized the unitary influence of consumerism in American society and how Warhol through his art put a mirror to it. Mass takes away personal spaces and robotizes our responses to life. Unfortunately use of crass mass Pavlovian culture to decimate the fine difference between consumerism and art has also emerged. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has turned art into a factory product marketed more like Wal-Mart turnovers. I am sure art will survive it for it is pedigreed to be different than the mass produced mass consumed products.

 

 

(Copyright with author)

 

Viktor Vijay Kumar

Painter and Assemblage artist

Director, Curator European Artists e. V. (India Asia) Velbert-Essen

Germany