Art of the Deal

Thursday, September 25, 2008

WHEN THE COUNTRY'S best-known painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, inked a deal to sell 100 canvases for Rs.100 crores, he concluded the biggest transaction in the history of Indian contemporary art. The significance of this humungous deal — which gives the rights of a series of paintings on the theme "Our Planet Our Earth" to a Mumbai-based industrialist — goes well beyond the interests of the two parties involved in it. A transaction of this scale can provide the much-needed impetus to the market for contemporary Indian art — one that has been growing steadily over the years but, in global terms, still very much in its infancy. It could help in establishing new benchmarks in the pricing of Indian art, which is undervalued in the global market, and provide a further dash of confidence to dealers, art collectors and others who want to dabble in what is an emerging market. Significantly, the Mumbai industrialist, Guru Swarup Srivatsava, who has agreed to buy the paintings, had an eye on nothing but the bottomline. He is not an art collector but an investor in the futures market; someone who has admitted to perceiving iron ore and art in the very same way and who apparently showed an interest in the latter only because he felt it was better to put his money into "intellectual property rather than land."
Art markets around the world are driven by such cold commercial calculation rather than airy sentiment. It is much too premature, and possibly erroneous, to conclude that this transaction will raise valuations of Indian painting in general. But it will certainly lead to greater international attention being paid to the country's contemporary art — a rich tradition that dates back to the painters of the so-called Company School such as Raja Ravi Varma, the revivalists of the Bengal school who breathed new life into painting such as Abanindranath Tagore, and the more recent and contemporary crop of artists who draw their inspiration from varied sources and belong to diverse genres. The value of contemporary art has been closely linked to international interest; prices of canvases by Indian painters surged after international auctions were launched in the mid-1990s. The entry of auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's has fuelled considerable interest and prices of works by some major painters have shown a sustained increase, sometimes as much as by 20 per cent annually.


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