Art as an investment? Watch out!

March 04, 2008
Krishnakumar P

Global auction house Sotheby's had put on display contemporary Indian and Asian art worth $10 million in Mumbai on February 28. The art and jewellery on display will be sold later this month and in May, in New York and London respectively. Sotheby's senior management and international specialists would host the event.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that India and Indian collectors globally are an important force for Sotheby's existing and future international business.  Sotheby's is thrilled to be bringing a group of highlights from key sales in New York and London this spring to Mumbai," Henry Howard-Sneyd, deputy chairman of Sotheby's, Europe and Asia, said. Howard-Sneyd spoke to Assistant Editor Krishnakumar P about the Indian art scene, art as an investment option and also what he -- as a leading man in auction business -- thought about the Indian Premier League deals. Excerpts:

What is the thought behind exhibiting in India art that is going to be sold in London and New York?

Our philosophy at Sotheby's is: we seek to find out the greatest works in every field we operate in. We sort them from all over the world and we bring them to the central point, which we call our international selling centres.

The major ones are New York for the Americas, London and to some degree Paris and Geneva for Europe, and Hong Kong for Asia.

We work to bring all the major art collectors to these centres. A successful element of that is a travelling exhibition, which are sort of tasters . . . tempters . . . to tell the people that this is the sort of quality we have, you must visit our sale. From our catalogue of 50 art works, we present in these exhibitions a sample of five best from each category.

We try to create a situation where the collectors plan their annual international sale. In these travelling exhibitions, they get to meet their fellow collectors, they discuss art and later bid for it.

Do you have any plans for India? Probably as a second centre in Asia after Hong Kong�

No, we don't have any plan. There are many reasons for that. India not yet has -- this can change very soon -- an international centre. India is beginning to get into the art market, when compared to say the US, where there is a huge history of collecting.

Also, India lacks in infrastructure. India can be a lovely place for the art collectors to visit. But they won't come just for these auctions.

If India wants to become an international centre, what should it do?

I do not know if it would want to become one. If it does, it should look at the other centres and take a close look at infrastructure, regulations, paperwork that these centres possess.

We must remember that collectors are a voluntary group. They collect art because they want to. If India makes it easier for them . . . the way Hong Kong has done (it has great infrastructure, a place people from Taiwan and China find it easier to travel to) . . . that is what they will look at.

Other segments like shipping agents, insurance will also be crucial for India to become a global centre. The art industry spawns a whole lot of other industries around it.

For a government considering an art market, it needs to consider  when wealthy people come, they stay in good hotels, dine in good restaurants, and shop at high end outlets. All these factors generate income for any government.

How has Indian art evolved vis-a-vis the market? How is it perceived?

It is enormous. Raqib Shaw is an Indian artist, and a single work of his sold for 2.49 million pounds last October !

Remember it was an international sale, not a local one. When other collectors looked at it, they went, 'wow!'

We have six or seven pieces of Indian works this time and there are different venues to sell them. The market has become more international. It is no more just Indian collectors buying Indian works. This also means art prices would go up.

What does the future hold for Indian art?

One: prices will go up. If it continues to talk to the international audience and also remains very Indian and unique, it will grow. Also, those artists who are successfully doing it -- there are quite enough right now -- are accepted on the international stage, and as long as other artists see what they do and follow, Indian art will keep growing.

What we are doing is not just about Indian art. We are opening everybody's eyes to the wonders of art . . . it is a bit educational. We are encouraging Indian people to -- apart from appreciating their wonderful culture -- see it in the context of other rich cultures of the world. We want Indians to recognise good art.

What is Asia's place in the world of art? What, in particular, is India's place?

We can't categorise in a geographical sense like you are trying to. Chinese art is immensely popular. One reason is because there is so much happening in China. The country is in the newspapers everyday. The works that the Chinese are creating are very much in tune with the international ways.

India has chosen a slightly different path. It has chosen to remain very Indian. But, now you have artists who are much more open. India is following a similar trajectory to that of China's. I am so much involved in India because I did something for the Chinese art and was instrumental in taking it to the global platform.

I started out in Asia in 2004. In my first auction in Hong Kong, I immediately realised the potential of Chinese contemporary art and called up my colleagues in New York. I asked them to open a sale there. It was one of the most sensational sales. There was so much international attention.

The Hong Kong sale was for $5 million. The first New York sale in spring 2006 already made $13 million. In 18 months, by the end of 2007, they were already beyond $50 million, This was an explosion that we basically picked right. We chose the works, we added our injection and education of marketing and promotion and moved it to the international level and it went even past what we expected.

How about Japanese art?

Japanese art looks undervalued to me.

Where would India fit in?

It definitely is not in the same league as Japan. It is much closer to China. Like China, the country has a deep and enriched culture of enormous variety. The country has gone through a period of turmoil. If in China, it was the cultural revolution, in India it was independence.

In China, it was rougher on the citizens. But astonishing growth of wealth followed . . . people bought houses, yachts . . . after that they started to look around. Art is one of the things you turn to when you have most of everything else.

The concept of art as an investment is catching up in India in recent years. As someone who lives and breathes art, how do you see this development?

That I think is very dangerous. We, as a company, would never recommend any one to buy art as an investment. It is not about financial investment. It should be about the joy, the recognition that art brings. The degree of sharing it with others who collect art, the spiritual uplift . . . Of course, if you are spending a big sum you are not going to be insensitive to the investment.

But if you track the art market historically, it has always proved to be only an OK investment. It rarely gives returns like the stock markets do.

Almost the only times when it does is when nobody has been looking at a particular work . . . nobody's been paying attention to it . . . and suddenly, they go, 'wow!' But in those cases, it is not appreciation; it is just that the work had remained undervalued.

I think investment in the art market can distort the market price for private collectors.

Is this a purist's view?

Yes it is a purist's view, but ultimately art will go to private collectors. That is where it ends up. That private collector may be an institution, but a private place is where it ends up. Someone has to see a greater value than the investor does, and that is a much more uncertain investment.

There are a lot of young Indian artists who have been making names recently. Where do they fit in your scheme of things? How do you spot them?

That's what our experts do. Theirs' is a vital skill and it comes with experience. Many of then have been in this field for 20-30 years.

That sort of experience is important to try and identify who is good. To do that, one doe not need just trained eyes, but good natural eyes. They get to know what's special in one look.

Have you come across something that you spotted and took to the world?

I am not really in that world. But, in a broader sense, I did spot Chinese contemporary art and I did say this is going to make an awesome impact.

In fact, I spotted one of the big starts of Chinese contemporary artists, Zhang Xiaogang, who does family series -- other, father, child with big heads, rather beautiful watery eyes -- I saw his work in Beijing in 2002. They were asking for $20,000. I didn't have that sort of money then. Even if I had, my wife would have killed me if I had bought it.

So, it was clear to me that Chinese contemporary was undervalued. I spotted and ensured that it grew, but how fast it grew was a real surprise.

Is there one such spike waiting to happen for Indian art?

There have been many significant areas of growth in Indian art over the years. Some of the more contemporary artists command very high prices. TV Santosh is an example. When his work was first sold, it went for $10,000. Soon it was $20,000 and $50,000. Now it is over $100,000. And these prices are not decided by us. There are people bidding. And sometimes there are people suddenly fighting for it. This is the beauty of bidding in an auction . . .

Therefore, the real valuing happens in the auction?

Yes, the markets decide rather than the dealer or a gallery. It is an open market. We focus on being open. People see what goes on. It is the client only who wants to buy a work. It is he who decides its price. I can tell you it gets very exciting.

The pleasure of an auction is when two people fall in love with the same object and fight for it, pulling its worth upwards.

Last week, a hotel played host to an auction -- a very different kind of auction, where human beings were sold.

Ah, I heard about that. Was it exciting?

It was. What do you feel about bidding for players . . . a first in cricket and auction history ?

No, it was not. I am ashamed to say there was something called slave trade. But these are not slaves, these are successful cricketers.

Still, it is very interesting, is it the first time? I am wondering . . . I can assure you there are charity auctions abroad. There are good looking men, women, and celebrities who go under the hammer.

There have been auctions to have dinner with Angelina Jolie and very rich gentlemen who like Angelina Jolie will bid for it. Yes, but it is for charity. The cricket auction is indeed the first time it had happened on such a scale and in such a serious way.

There was some resentment form certain sections over the way human beings were auctioned . . .

I think it is a very open was of finding out a players market price. It is a transparent way of setting the price. It may take some time getting used to it. But I don't have a problem with that. I thought it was an intriguing idea. If the players themselves are happy to be treated this way, it is not a problem.

For some of the players, it could be a big shock . . . thinking they are the biggest players and finding it in the open market that they are not. (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni, wasn't it who topped the sale? (Sachin) Tendulkar wasn't No 1, which for me was a surprise . . .

There weren't many takers either for the Australians .  .  .

But, this is India.
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