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Kishore Singh

Contemporary art prices have crashed steeply, so why aren't more works in the market?

* Values of contemporary art are down by as much as 60-70 per cent
* Enough contemporary artists have stood the test of time and their prices should turn robust soon enough
* There is very little contemporary art available in the market

Read those key points again and you will be hard put to reconcile them. If the contemporary Indian art market has crashed out, investors or collectors should be able to lay their hands on contemporary art at prices much cheaper than they were a few years, or even a year, ago. With less art selling, there should be more art available in the market. And those looking for a bargain should be spoilt for choice.

Or at least, that’s the theory. In a more practical world, however, this isn’t proving so.

Try looking for Jagannath Panda: Hmm, still tough to get. Ashim Purkayashta? Not right now. Atul Dodiya? Not at those discounted rates. At least a Riyas Komu? Sorry, there aren’t any in storage just now.

Actually, there are: And that’s exactly the problem. Many of these artists have a body of work that is in the market, yet isn’t being shown, or sold, because it was commissioned, or acquired, when prices were high (many collectors/investors will say that in the case of contemporary artists, they were extortionately high). Because the art market was buzzing, galleries couldn’t lay their hands on enough work, so they often agreed to pay even higher prices to acquire works by artists who began to produce virtual replicas for a fast-moving idea. Having paid a steep price for them, they can now hardly liquidate their worth for far less, so they’re sitting on large stocks hoping the art market will rise sooner rather than later.

It isn’t just gallerists who have created a sense of scarcity of contemporary works in the market, it is the artists too. When artists know there is ample stock that is sitting in galleries, they cannot afford to under-price newer works, as it will become the new benchmark and create a negative environment for the artist’s earlier works that will then likely never find a higher price. As a result, artists are determined to hold on to if not their previous highs, at least high enough prices in the hope that the market will improve some time soon. Any such movement would benefit their current body of work, but more importantly, earlier works now caught in the squeeze between low interest, low prices and low sellability, are in danger of becoming white elephants.

It could be the reason there aren’t too many shows by contemporary artists currently —both spring and summer have been periods of drought for new works by young artists, and the few shows have tended to be group exhibitions rather than solos. Clearly, artists are waiting out the cooling period — though it might be more appropriate to say they’re waiting for a heating in prices — which is why they’re not showing new work. (The good thing, most collectors expect, is that the extended waiting period might result in new directions and more challenging works of art.)

It hasn’t helped that even the faint revival in the auction market has tended to benefit mostly the moderns. Collectors say that with their proven longevity, their prices were never in doubt, but that the market had over-heated in the case of the contemporaries, a price they’re paying at great cost to themselves as well as to the entire art fraternity now. While moderns are being spoken of in terms of price increases, in the case of contemporary artists, the most-often used term is price rationalisation.

Does this mean there is no contemporary art available in the market? Well, yes and no. For now, it appears that only collectors are selling the odd works, and while prices are extremely attractive, collectors are either apprehensive and not snatching them up at auctions, or gallerists are adding them to their inventories without spending too much (and without word getting out into the market of the low value, which could then impact the entire market for these gallerists and artists).

For a serious collector, it is best to look around for not individual works but an entire collection of works, which could then be available for excellent value. Gallerists (and artists) will be willing to negotiate for a large number of canvases if the profits are negligible, non-existent and sometimes in the negative (for reasons of liquidity). These are usually hush-hush affairs, and you will have to deal delicately with galleries that have been associated with the artist you are keen on investing in.

But be extremely cautious: You don’t want to end up paying much more for an artist than he is currently worth (and these days no one seems willing to wager on what the right price is any more). You need to do enough due diligence to ensure that the artist has the credentials to survive not just the current downturn but also in the future decades. After all, an artist is worth only as much as his market longevity.
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