17th Nov 2004

When will the bubble burst? Fashionable artists might see their prices dip if they aren't careful.

For those who think Shibu Natesan's new paintings are getting out of reach, take comfort from the fact that Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of British art, just sold the contents of his defunct London eatery, Pharmacy, for a whopping $17 million at a Sotheby's auction on October 18.

From a set of martini glasses that fetched $9,000 to a glass pharmaceutical cabinet that sold for $2.2. million, the contemporary art fever seems to have gripped the entire world, and India seems to be no exception.

Like interest rates, there seems to be a strange co-relation with the rising art prices between India and the West. But is this sharp rise good for the market? That is a subject that is being loudly debated across the globe.

The last major bust after the bull run of the late eighties and early nineties in the art world abroad produced its share of casualties. Will the same hold true for India as well?

According to London's Art Market Research, the prices for top contemporary artists have risen 72 per cent in the last three years. There is no such credible benchmark in India, but Citibank's newsletter on art as an investment provides figures that track the average square inch rates of some of India's leading artists, and the gains seem to be pretty much up there with those abroad.

Sadly enough, there is still very little art education in India and everyone is benchmarking their average works to some of the star lots that make headlines at auctions.

As a result, there is very little on the secondary market, and whatever is available is rather average across the board. Sellers only want to sell at auctions or, worse, hold on for the greater fool.

Imagine this. A work by Shibu Natesan that was priced at Rs 2 lakh two years ago is now being quoted at Rs 15 lakh! The recent rise in prices for young Indian artists like G Ravinder Reddy, Iranna and even Atul Dodiya is simply quite remarkable. Not very different from Andreas Gurskey's photographs that are now commanding a staggering $300,000 for one editioned print.

Does everyone agree that capitalism is trying to kill art? Certainly not. After the fall sales in New York, one dealer pointed out that good Indian paintings were now comfortably selling for over $100,000, and that figure would soon rise to $250,000. After all, it has happened abroad for well over a decade, such dealers claim.

Sadly enough, the same dealers have told me that they have immense difficulty selling works in that price range, and that asking prices and selling prices are two entirely different things.

Where everyone does agree is that the field has grown exponentially over the last few years, with more artists, galleries, shows and, of course, hype.

What goes up must eventually come down. India is yet to experience a full blown bubble bust but if and when it does occur, the results would most certainly be interesting to watch.

One cannot help but think of artists like Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, David Salle and Julian Schnabel whose careers either finished or have still not recovered because they flooded the market with average works some 15 years ago. No doubt, the same might just happen with some of our most fashionable artists here as well. Nitin Bhayana

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