Invest in antiquities to make more money

Deepak Natesan / DNA MONEY Tuesday, 05 August , 2008, 11:32
With the stock markets still in the doldrums and real estate looked upon with caution, investors need to reach for undervalued assets that hold promise in the long run.
Antiquities would be one such avenue.

Over the past year or so, one has come across the occasional write-up on a spurt in antique collection. The newfound interest among the art fraternity has already begun taking shape with the recent entry of a whole new breed of collectors. The March sale of Indian and Southeast Asian Art in New York said as much. Collectors bid aggressively with the hammer going down at 5 to 10 times the estimated value for several masterpieces.
But, while it is common knowledge that antiquities are undervalued and there is marked disparity in valuations in comparison with contemporary art, not much has been reported on the crucial economic drivers that will fuel the boom, or about the various media, their importance and valuation.
The antiquities market consists of small collectibles (like vessels, lamps, prints and puppets, etc), wooden carvings and textiles, stone sculptures, bronze works and miniature paintings in a more or less ascending order. Most of the pieces acquired range from the 10th to 19th century.
Miniatures constitute the top end, requiring expert knowledge and understanding. Stones and bronzes range from various dynasties. Wood carvings, textiles and pichwais usually range from the 17th to 20th century.
Although not a thumb rule, most antiquities sell in India for barely 1/3rd the international price. Small exceptions to this rule are the Tanjore and Mysore paintings, which sell at a higher price in India than overseas. It is this price differential, coupled with a boom overseas, that is set to drive prices in India. Now, for the three basic economic reasons for the impending boom:
First is the fact that they are not made anymore. The hands that created the antiquities are no longer alive, resulting in zero additional supply. This is far different from the scenario in contemporary art where the quantum of art produced increases with popularity. Another factor that affects supply is the fact that the best of antiquities were bought decades ago by wealthy collectors.
Those days, antiquities were far more expensive than contemporary art and were acquired only by the affluent. This has had an impact on the supply as very few buyers ever ended up selling their collection.
Another factor that drives the demand-supply equilibrium is the fact that collectors of yesteryears never bought antiquities as an investment. All of them bought for sheer love and enjoyment, unlike contemporary art, which has a mixed basket of collectors comprising of collectors, corporates, investors and funds. Most of these old collectors have long since retired or died and their collections have made their way into museums.
The new generation of collectors are migrants from contemporary art. They find the price levels very cheap and also have deep pockets. Their entry will drive the markets to price levels never seen before.
The global market in ancient Indian art, so far dominated by Americans and Europeans, will swell with the entry of large Indian buyers.
In value terms, the antiquities market in India is barely 5-10% the size of the contemporary art market. What happens to this small market when there is an influx of large buyers is anybody’s guess.
Although art funds and corporate investments have made inroads into contemporary art, they have yet to enter antiquities. Once they do, a new era would have started.

However, collectors need to understand the legalities involved and comply with the Antiquities Act while making purchases. One needs to ensure that purchases are made from government-licensed antique dealers and duly registered with the department of antiquities.
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