Sunday, December 20, 2009

Confessions of a Collector !

Let me start with a true story on the importance of collectors in the Indian contemporary space. I was invited by my very good friend Swapan Seth, who is maybe the most prolific collector of contemporary art in this country today to view a panel discussion that he was part of. This discussion was on Video Art at Gallery Espace, a gallery I think has done a wonderful job with a lot of art initiatives including the one on promoting video art and even the recent exhibition. Swapan was part of a panel and the discussion started at 6 PM in the evening, there were some of the poster boys & girls of Indian Contemporary Art curators and critics on the panel with him.

I got up at 7.30 PM finally because I realised that most of the people on the panel just loved their own voice and was bored to death ( except 1 speaker who was really good). Swapan finally got a chance 15 minutes later after hearing others for a good 1 hour 45 minutes !, now this is a collector who is keeping Video art alive and one of the most appreciative collectors for young artists. I asked some people who stayed back and they loved the last part only !

This is a clear example of how the art world needs to change with the focus on collectors.Galleries and curators who will not adapt will just stand on the wayside as people move on. I will tell you what I love about Peter Nagy, Arvind Vijaymohan and Bhavna Kakar in New Delhi, they are interesting people with a view, they all are involved in the sales process but are not boring or full of themselves.

Let me also share a view that I hear about buying and selling of artworks. Meet any top artist represented by a top art gallery in India, now they only sell to serious collectors and please do not put the works in auction, my retort is why not ?

Answer :Well, because old collectors loved their art and never sold the works, they were genuine lovers of art.

Question : Really, how much did they pay for the works at that time ? 1 Lac for a Hussain ? ! Talk about paying 25 lacs for the work of a top contemporary artist and you will get the answer.

If a collector is taking financial risk because he loves your work, then he has the right to buy and sell, when Charles Saatchi says that, very few people have a problem but otherwise I hear this all the time. Now, I am not talking about flipping a work, I am against that or even being in the art world to just flip will get you nowhere but look at the costs of collecting today. What is the harm in consigning works to an auction to raise further funds so you can collect more ?

These are uncomfortable questions, ethics are sometimes meant for collectors only, in 2 specific cases this year and I am talking about galleries which are in the top 5 galleries in this country, the prices were revised downwards by 40 % in 24 hours of the show opening ! So much so for the love and appreciation of art.

So what did I buy this year ? Only what I absolutely loved ! ( Rule No.1 ) and also at the right value ( Rule No.2 ).
  • A Lovely 10 ft by 6 ft Seher Shah shown at Armory Show in New York and then being shown at the current solo in Nature Morte

  • A triptych by Prajwal Choudhary, the image is posted in the earlier posts on this blog at from Bhavna Kakar & Aparajita Jain's lovely show at the peak of the recession, great work at a fantastic value

  • A Sajjad Ahmed photography work from the same show, the value that he asked was ridiculous to say the least, till the gallery got him to understand some basics of pricing!
  • An absolute beauty of an installation by a young artist called Sidhartha Karawal called "My Generation is Silent" again featured on this blog from Project 88

  • Sarnath Banerjee's satirical graphic works, a set of 4 works on property dealers, really fantastic from Project 88

  • TV Santhosh's "Game Theory", absolutely brilliant work on canvas ( I think his canvas works are to die for !) from Guild Art Gallery
  • Shreyas Karle, a collection of 15 paperworks which I am yet to recieve ! from Guild Art Gallery

What did I sell ?

  • Arunkumar H G, the Nandi bull, lovely work but had to sell it to raise money.

Which Artists will I sell or not buy this year ?

I think I will avoid all middle rung contemporary artists this year, so if you have the money, please go ahead and buy

  • Thukral & Tagra
  • TV Santhosh ( Only Canvas)
  • Jitish Kallat ( Only Canvas)
  • N S Harsha
  • Mithu Sen ( Large substantial works only)
  • Seher Shah ( Large works only)
  • Jagannath Panda ( Large works, price needs to be right)

I think both Bharti Kher & Subodh Gupta are in a different league due to their association with Hauser & Wirth but collectors have lost money and hence considering my limited funds and risk aversion, I would stay away for now. Although, I would buy a great Subodh installation any day but considering the prices would need to be really lucky on the value front.

Now, for everyone else who is over the 2 lacs mark just research more and below the 2 lac mark, if you love the work just buy it. Simple rules for collecting art. Over 2 lacs, needs to be justified, I loved Aditya Pande & George Martin at 2-4 lacs and would have happily sold them at 8-10 lacs without batting an eyelid. The Value perspective needs to kick in especially in the environment today, otherwise you are being taken for a ride. Now collectors I know were buying them at 10 lacs, which according to was just pure speculation because there was no way that they could command such prices logically. Would I buy both of them at more reasonable valuations, absolutely yes!

So what about all the wonderful artists over 2 lacs, well just watch if they are going anywhere, if you love the work , then please keep it otherwise just consign to an auction, no harm with that. I have 3 artists I have mentioned on this blog earlier who have now moved to my sell list for this year as I believe they are doing nothing exciting and have reached a value threshold. So I need to sell to sustain my collecting frenzy!

I would rather buy a Sajjad Ahmed, Prajwal Choudhary & Sidhartha Karwal for under 2 lacs or less and enjoy my art, as all of them have the potential to make it big.

As for the 20 artists, who are sitting at 8-10 lacs price levels, ask them for the justification on their pricing and do your research, most of them would be in my avoid category.

Some very good art shows opened in Delhi in November & December, but most of them have been commercial disasters with illogical pricing and negligible sales. Pretty much like the Christie's auction which failed miserably as the estimates were too high, Saffronart scored with the right pricing and had better results with in line estimates.

Thank you for your support, encouragement and affection for making this the most widely read and searched blog on Indian contemporary art ( I am not saying this, Google is saying this !, over 1.2 lac search results for this blog!)

I will just try to be as frank and honest as I can be........

Merry Christmas and have a great New Year ! Happy Collecting !



Kapil Chopra is Senior Vice President of Oberoi Hotels & Resorts.He writes a blog on collecting and investing in Indian Contemporary Art at also writes for The Telegraph newspaper in the Sunday magazine " Graphiti" every fortnight. In Delhi, he has written for "The Mail Today " newspaper and "First City" magazine.


anangsen said...

While I truly appreciate the inputs that you so honestly and arduously give in your blogs, I have to say that there are a few things here which make this seem like a meat market. For one, you mention that three artists that you previously collected are now on your sell list because they are not doing anything exciting in your view. Well, that may speak for the collectibility of their future work, but if you liked the work you bought earlier then why should that be judged (and so harshly) by their future output? Besides, this assumes that artists are on some linear production line, like a factory. This is certainly not the case according to my understanding because artists have lean periods and strong periods, and no one can foretell these things. One who is down and out may well be nurturing the seeds for a masterpiece of tomorrow, and in my view it is wrong to treat artists like skilled labour who follow fixed working hours, produce according to 'schedule', 'grow' according to plan etc etc.
Art is a mystery, and its creative processes are an even greater enigma. To judge it so simplistically is perhaps not the best approach.
Only this, but otherwise, I enjoy your blogs and hope you keep it up.

Kapil Chopra said...

Thank you, Anang for your comments. It is not a meat market or a linear production line but yes it is a financial asset. When artists start doing illogical things or pricing then you have to exit to protect your interest. Please understand that this would not be the case for an Atul Dodiya who is a brilliant artist going through a lean period, who i would still hold on if I have acquired him at the right price point but ideally I should have sold him the moment he did that 40 watercolor show mounted at 20 lacs with Bodhi. Too much supply, rates were too high and the market crashed, you did not have to wait for the rescession, it crashed much before that.

You need to watch out for signals like these, as I always say, if you enjoy the work keep it but I would rather exit and buy someone else. As a collector your tastes are also evolving, also remember, these are the mid tier contemporary artists, it takes a lot of talent and push to make it to the top, you really need to have something exceptional.

I think these 3 artists have made financial mistakes and hence the exit, too much greed and too many works coming out never helped anyone, more on that later.

Thank you once again for your honest feedback.



anangsen said...

Greed is indeed the undoing of many, artists or otherwise.

I can see both points of view, that of the art connoisseur as well as that of the art investor. Maybe the art world needs both to survive. Hopefully they will soon be embodied in the same person.

While art is undoubtedly a financial asset, it is also more than that. I take your points about your own choices in this area and if you are an investor then you are an investor, and having written earlier, I shall not repeat my views on that. Perhaps more alarming is that artists themselves are treating their works as mere financial assets. It is this attitude which has resulted in a lot of the current downscaling. Unfortunately, even deserving artists have had to bear the brunt, but overall everyone seems to have grown up a bit due to that, hopefully.

A lot has been written about crude collectors and venal investors, but perhaps not enough light has been shed on the artists' own abjectness. Nothing can excuse the lack of integrity or scruples in the artists, especially those who are so casual about the assistant/assembly-line production 'system' of art. It is this assembly-line which is responsible for creating art works that are better classified only as commodities, and the blame for that lies squarely at the doorstep of the artists. Very often the artists themselves justify this system by quoting the assistants of Italian masters' studios etc. What they forget is that this was a very different system than the current one where the assistant executes everything, leaving only the conception of the work to the artist. As I understand it, the personality and the uniqueness of any art work lies largely in the off-beat decisions of the artist taken spontaneously while executing a work. It is these quirky inputs and straying-off from the set plan that impart a sudden insight into the artists deepest thought processes. If an artist entrusts the execution wholly to a third party, then he will get a nicely finished product, but it will have almost no personality beyond that of a well-packaged commodity. More worryingly, it will be more of a reflection of the assistants' competence than that of the artist's.

What happened in the studios of renaissance artists of Italy? For the first few years, an assistant just swept the floors and arranged the tools. If at all he was found capable, then he was entrusted with grinding pigments and priming canvases. Only the truly gifted were allowed to lay even a brush on the canvas, and they were only the chosen few, not the bulk of the assistants. The ones who were so chosen, mostly did pouncing and tracing, and at most filled in the solid background colours, leaving the rest to the masters. Nowhere did the assistants did the details or could even dare to think about it. In the rarest of the rare cases that they were allowed to do so, it was only in secondary aspects, and the main figures were always done by the hands of the masters themselves. Moreover, the assistants who did any painting were chosen after having proved themselves as budding artists in their own right. Famously, they went on to become Michaelangelos and Leonardos. This is a far cry form the practices of today and cannot be used to justify the present trend where the only tool some artists use is their cell-phone camera by which they grab visuals, send it to their helpers to photoshop, then get their assistants to blow it up into large format works. What results is neat, clean, soulless work with all the charm of any mass-produced commodity. How is this in any way similar to the studio system of the masters where it was passion, agonising quality control, great personal command over the medium, and limitless backbreaking work of the artist himself which created the art?

I seem to have digressed from your blog, but maybe you will excuse this as I really needed to put it out there. I hope it does some good beyond just my own personal venting :)

Thanks for your blog which has allowed for this airing.

Kapil Chopra said...

Dear Anang,

Your comments are correct, most of the top artists today are financial experts. I have nearly met all and I can tell you for sure that between studio artists and financial planning, somewhere the soul has gone as you rightly put it.

I had a top gallerist speak to me, in negotiations with an artist he lost a good show as the artist decided to go with another gallery as they agreed to the ridiculous prices that the artist wanted to price it at. The gallerist had a grouse against me that I go for the galleries and not the artists when they are being unreasonable.

That is the challenge, I speak for the collector as an important person who loves the work and takes the financial risk. If we don't grow the collector base within this country then contemporary art may not recover soon. I also know of an artist who was a super hit on Saffronart but hasnt sold a work now for close to 2 years as no one will buy it at that value.

Most of the shows are selling 2-3 works and that also with great difficulty but still price correction is not setting in properly.

Honestly, it is scary sometimes and hence either go at the top of the market or go for the young guys as they still have the fire and the passion that you saw in yesteryears !



anangsen said...

I understand and sympathise with your views Kapil. This recession has served to somewhat correct the faulty value-system, but a lot more needs to be done to get the art world in a truly thriving and meaningful state.

Here's wishing for a happier and more value-added New year.


anangsen said...

I would like to take this opportunity to also say something about the sort of gallerists that we have in India. Most of them are bored aunties who have gotten together with their girlfriends to amuse themselves. They confuse contemporary art with temporary trivia, have no idea whatsoever about professionalism, are unethical and power-mad. They soon disappear when they find out that running an art gallery is indeed work and not just playing dress-up.

The ones who have managed to make a place for themselves are mostly the same as above, but with greater grit and an even greater amount of luck. Poor artists from small towns send them the best work they have, stand bleating in front of them completely awe-struck by their intimidating offices and staff, and occasionally get something thrown out to them. The 'hot-shot' artists are treated much better and are feted all around. However, what remains constant is the financial frauds that are perpetrated on artists by a majority (though I would like to think not by all) gallerists, who charge the client more than they pay the artist's percentage on, delay payments to the artist by years on end, even managing to purloin a few works in the great hullaballoo!

Let me narrate the experience of a friend of mine. In his late 20s, he decided to chuck it all up and devote his life to art. We all thought that he was being a romantic fool, but we respected his obvious talent and supported his passion for doing something he really wanted to do. However, it was painful to watch how he struggled for well over a decade without getting anywhere. Pre-boom, in the 90s, he would typically make a score of calls to finally get one solitary appointment. There he would be outside the office at the appointed hour, having lugged all his work to show to a gallerist who was not even there. Three hours later, some flunky would emerge to tell him to come the following week. Again, the same story. Every once in a while, 'madam' would deign to give his work a passing glance before storming-off without a word to some power-lunch or the other. Finally, someone took pity on him and gave him an exhibition, but even they did not bother an iota for any press-coverage or publicity. Having made no effort to sell his work, they then blamed him for producing work that was unsaleable! He used to confide in us how they would not even consider his suggestions for getting his work written about, for educating buyers on the qualities of a new type of work, or for promoting him as an artist etc. The gallerist is a very famous collector, and his main corpus and source of income is this fabulous collection. Gallery matters come a very distant second, and it may well be that he has some shows every year mainly as part of his tax-planning. Is this a fair deal to the artists?

Now, luckily my friend has found some sort of a toehold after all these years, but is too damaged to even remember the passion that he had started off with. He has reduced his life to the basic minimum, has decided to remain single, and has even forgotten what it means to take a vacation. So far he has managed to keep a hold on his integrity, but if tomorrow, he chooses to become a commercial artist, I would have neither the heart not the right to tell him any of the things which I have written about earlier. He has steadfastly refused to buckle under the pressure to employ assistants and generate fast-selling commodities, but the buyers do not seem to be able to distinguish his infinitely superior and detailed work from the run-of-the-mill, and he still does not fetch the prices that he is clearly deserving of. It seems that ironically he is paying the price for not being a media hound, for not being on the assembly line, for not hypocritically sucking up to gallerists. Should this be rewarded or punished? Why does the system not value its real stars? Why do we always get fooled by what is loud and shiny, ignoring what is solid and dignified?...continued...

anangsen said...


There are two sides to everything, be it artists, gallerists, investors, collectors, or whatever. To my mind, a good way to set things in order is to induce transparency. But this is India, and the only thing transparent here are the white saris that Bollywood actresses wear during rain-dances.

I would very much like to get your views, and the views of others, on how to promote greater professionalism and systematic functioning in the Indian art scenario.

Kapil Chopra said...

Dear Anang,

You have put it across so well and hundreds of artists in India go through this every year, only 10 make it to the top every year and the rest are left in shadows without a proper access to sales. So when an artist hits the big league, some of them get arrogant over the top and the last few years of an economic boom has now made this imbalance a problem.

I completely agree with your point on transparency, pricing in most of the top galleries is transparent generally, it is in these Aunty galleries that pricing is manipulated. Top galleries have top artists who then try and dictate their price and for a mid tier artist they fix a price which can fluctuate and could be more transparent.

The key need of the hour is to increase the collector base and provide a level playing field for all.

Keeping all this in mind,we are rolling out an equal opportunity global platform so that everyone gets an opportunity, let us see if we succeed.

Will let you know when we are ready, 60 days from now !



anangsen said...

Wow Kapil! That sounds awesome. I can hardly wait.

I wish you all success.

DEBRASS said...

i recently came across a Raghu Wodeyar, I was researching Tyeb Mehta and saw this "tribute to Tyeb " art work. He was picked up by Charles Saatchi for his "school" of young artists. I love N. S. Harsha. Having a few peices of art myself, and self taught, I go more for figurative rather than abstract, I guess I am not that evolved. but you do make interesting reading. if I had money I would buy a Bose Krishnamachari tho. His art work, is very interesting.

anangsen said...

Investors and collectors are different species. Which one of these are you?

For some time they had become interchangeable, the collector and investor in art, but as the market fragmented (when it was expected to consolidate), their domains have become exclusive of each other. The current environment is seen as buoyant for the collector as good quality works have returned to the market. For the investor, though, things look just a little grim, particularly since Forbes India’s damaging story on an art fund by Osian’s head Neville Tuli, it turns out, was artificially inflated before it bombed.

Here, then, are the differences between a collector and an investor. Read it with a pinch of salt.


# Is interested in particular works by an artist, or specific works of art.

# Would prefer the value of collected art to increase.

# Should the value of a painting or an artist move up, it’s fortuitous, a talking point in a group.

# Collecting is focused purely or loosely on a genre, period, medium, theme or specific artist(s).

# May occasionally sell works to enhance the perceived or academic value of a collection, or to turn around ill-chosen works.
# The collector is a constant visitor at galleries, artists’ openings, art fairs, talks and seminars.

# Collectors come as couples, are often women and only sometimes men. Institutions collect as well.

# Will invariably talk about art on social occasions — it’s a passion.

# Will likely beg, borrow or steal to buy a work they especially like.

# Collateral? “Well, I have this house…”

# If investments in art don’t rise, you won’t be entirely unhappy — there’s the art, at least, that you’d rather have.

# Unlikely to invest in an art fund: “I’d rather have the art.”

# Most likely to say: “Wow! That’s a treat. How much will it cost me?”

# Least likely to say: “I have too much art, I must get rid of some of it.”

# Will you look at that Souza!”


# Has little or no interest in either an artist or specific works of art.

# Would definitely want the value of art in which he is invested to increase.

# The value of art must definitely move up, but it’s hardly a talking point.

# Collecting is driven purely by an index that factors in hedging of risks.

# Will definitely sell works as soon as the value is realised, as per a chalked-out strategy.

# The investor is rarely sighted at art events other than at talkathons about investment and value.

# Investors are more likely to be men (and sometimes women) from the financial world. Prefer institutional investing.

# Will never talk about art on social occasions — it’s just an investment.

# Will likely organise institutional funding for any purchase.

# The collateral is the art.

# If investments don’t rise, you’ll be anxious - owning the art is poor consolation and a reminder of your failure.

# Likely to invest in an art fund: “provided there is a guarantee of at least the principal and interest”.

# Most likely to say: “I don’t care who painted it, tell me how much it will fetch me three years from now.”

# Least likely to say: “I have too much money, I could buy art with some of it.”

# “Souza who?”