Sunil Sethi: A bullish Damien & other demons

Business Standard - Mumbai,Maharashtra,India

Some emails can have a calming and salutary effect. An old journalist friend wrote from London this week: “Trying to put together a piece on the coming crash in the contemporary art market here. The received wisdom is that Indian and Chinese buyers will ride to the rescue. Did you see the Damien Hirst show in Delhi? Any views, reactions? I am in my frequent Thursday afternoon panic.”My friend is also a columnist, so the reassuring part was that columnists everywhere are bent low at their computers, palms slightly sweating, on Thursday evenings. But if Indian affairs were his chosen weekend topic why was he talking about art prices and Damien Hirst in Delhi rather than tastier stories from the subcontinent such as the Singur imbroglio?
There’s logic behind the inquiry. An astonishingly large sum of money, about $130 million, is expected to be raised at Sotheby’s sale of Damien Hirst’s works in London later this month. It’s not often that an international auction house devotes an entire show to the works of a single contemporary artist, and it is a reflection of the recession in the West that selections of Hirst’s works were taken on a road show in Asia to lure cash-rich buyers from emerging markets. Fourteen pieces by Hirst were displayed in Delhi — his spot and spin and butterfly paintings and a bronze sculpture of a ghoulish-looking skeletal angel seated on a rock. If Indian companies are briskly acquiring big steel and drug and BPO companies round the globe, surely there are enough rich Indians with spare cash to buy works by the acknowledged enfant terrible of the art world?
The Hirst show also coincided with the first art trade fair in the capital, the India Art Summit, and judging by the beaming smiles all round (Minister for Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni cheerfully posing with artists and organisers) it went off swimmingly well. The organisers haven’t released precise figures of the business transacted (it’s roughly estimated at about Rs 10 crore over three days) but 33 galleries were spread over 100,000 sq. ft of space and next year’s art summit promises to be three times as large.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in a period of general economic slowdown — when stock markets tank and property prices peak — people have to park their money somewhere, and the art market is often a favourite. But it is also true that there is no business more governed by hype, capricious tastes, cartels and price-fixing. The Sotheby’s-Christie’s clandestine price-fixing on commissions some years ago erupted in a scandal so large and provoked so many lawsuits that its owners and senior executives had to served a variety of sentences, including jail terms.
The Indian market in contemporary art is still minuscule — worth about $350 million in a worldwide market estimated at $25 billion. Trade in contemporary Indian art is infinitesimal compared to contemporary art from Latin America, Southeast Asia, China and Japan. But it remains both an unorganised and disorganised business with few checks or controls, and overrun by fly-by-night operators and other predators. A friend who sold a major artwork by an important Indian artist via an online auction in June is still waiting for her money to come through. Indefinite delays in payment for stocks or property would invite instant penalties and threat of litigation.
Rules and regulations are essential to mark the growth of the Indian art market from adolescence to adulthood. Till then, it will carry the reputation of dodgy dealers operating in a disreputable marketplace. Meanwhile, Western eyes are peeled for the number of Indians standing by their phones to bid for Damien Hirst in London on September 28. But a bullish Damien in India doesn’t mean that the art market’s other demons have been laid to rest.
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