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Phalanx SpacerLetter to the Editor
A sharply critical response to the review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss in the first issue of Phalanx and also a reply to this criticism from the reviewer.
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Reclaiming the Present for Colonialism
Since the lecture finds itself exhibited on the Reserve Bank of India's web page, this piece reflects on Meghnad Desai's First P. R. Brahmananda Memorial Lecture delivered on September 20, 2004 at Mumbai, in which the economist attempts to draw similarities between the economic growth of India during the last 40 years of the 19th century and the neo-liberal era following 1991.
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Development and Accounting Malpractice
This is a reaction to a key argument offered those (especially industrialists) favoring large scale development of 'backward states' who appear to be riding on an accounting malpractice.

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The Age of Shiva: A Novel by Manil Suri
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Home > Editorial
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Editorial
Some Questions about the Indian Art Market
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Although it has not lived up to this aspiration and its second edition has been delayed, it is hoped that Phalanx will eventually become a quarterly. But regrets aside, it is now time for Phalanx's second editorial and as already declared in the manifesto, it will not make a reference to the contents of this edition but will, instead, look at an issue getting attention in the public space. The issue chosen this time is the market for modern Indian art and the purpose of this editorial is to ask a few questions that neither art buyers not promoters seem to be asking but that would appear obvious to lay persons like the editors of Phalanx. As always, arguments pertaining to and/or against the views implicit here are welcome.
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Since the different kinds of markets have, by and large, already been established in the global space, it is logical to suppose that the development of any kind of market in India must necessarily follow precedents set abroad. This is true of the art market as well, as there has been an art market in Europe since the nineteenth century. A market must devise a way to estimate the value of the commodity bought and sold. The market value of a commodity is based on the demand for it and is dependent on certain clear criteria - like the industrial requirement for a metal or the earning capacity of a company. The value of a work of art is more difficult to estimate but that does not mean that there are no objective criteria to determine its market value.
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The market value of a work of art is dependant, by and large, on the importance of a particular artist and also the importance of the movement to which the artist belongs. To be able to determine this, the art market can only depend on the informed opinion of writers/ critics/ experts on art who are expected to be outside the purview of the market. It takes some time for critical opinion to make an estimate of a painting's worth or the importance of a painter. This is why a painter like Van Gogh virtually starved to death in his lifetime but his paintings commanded huge prices later. We can say, generally, that it is informed opinion that brings value to art. Without there being critical opinion on art, art cannot command the prices that it does command. People buy art because it gives them the sense that they are participating in culture and reading about art is a way for the buyer to decide what commodity she/ he is going to buy. Also of importance here is the cultural value of a painting. Is the painting reproduced and do reproductions hang in the homes of ordinary people. Do ordinary people pay gate money to look at the works of an artist in a museum? Do public museums show his/her pictures? It would appear that the market value of a picture is, ideally, a function of its cultural value.
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Another aspect that determines the value of a painting it evidently its 'provenance': who has owned the painting? A painting that has been owned by well-known collector or collectors will be worth more than one owned previously by unknown persons. Since many of these collectors donate their art to public museums (e.g.: Peggy Guggenheim) and their gifts are accepted publicly, they must be knowledgeable about art. It is not enough for them to be able to acquire art or to be famous in other spheres. It is necessary for a collector to acquire a reputation as knowledgeable - for his/her ownership to bring value to a painting. The ownership of a painting by a well-known collector is a kind of certificate as to its inherent value. Provenance usually means that each painting has a long recorded history of being owned and exhibited.
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The most famous artists of Europe produced their works more than fifty to hundred years ago. Since re-sales of a single painting happens over an enormous period of time, it is impossible to ascertain the prices paid at different times for it and/or calculate the annualized return on it. The greatest artworks in the world do not come up for sale because they are not privately owned but owned by public museums. The art market in the Western world is, by and large, stable but there are occasionally some scandals. One scandal surfaced some years ago when an Australian millionaire bought Van Gogh's Irises for about 60 million dollars. It later came to light through an employee of the British auctioneers that the auctioneers had loaned the buyer 40 million dollars to buy the painting. Since this amounted to the market being rigged, the art market had a near collapse and it was some time before it recovered.
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Before we examine the reliability of the Indian art market, we need to examine its characteristics. Firstly, the market is relatively new and there is no history of the Indian rich investing in art. Indian businessmen have not bought world art - unlike Japanese businessmen who have bought masterworks (like Van Gogh's Sunflowers). Consequently, few Indian paintings have any provenance because most paintings have no history of ownership.
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Secondly, there are no discernible movements in modern Indian art; it has no recorded history and there is no such thing as informed expert opinion about Indian art outside the market. The most comprehensive book on modern Indian art is, in fact, authored by one of India's most important art promoters and cannot therefore be termed disinterested/ unbiased. Modern Indian art is rarely acquired by non-Indian collectors. It should be mentioned here that even modern Chinese art has a market in the West but modern Indian art does not. India does not have a tradition of museums where paintings are exhibited and looked at by ordinary people. The rich may pay a crore of rupees to buy a Hussain (our most renowned modern artist) painting but few will spare Rs 100/- to look at the same painting in a public museum. Among the few Indian paintings which are reproduced and reproductions of which hang in ordinary homes are perhaps those of Ravi Varma although their value may not really rest in their being 'art'. All other modern Indian paintings may therefore be deemed to have little cultural value to the public at large. Many big draws in contemporary Indian art are rarely exhibited even in Indian museums.
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Most Indian artists mimic well-known Western styles (e.g.: Surrealism, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Pointilism, Cubism, Pop Art, Futurism, Constructivism, Op Art, De Stijl movement) and their paintings are bought by buyers who have no knowledge of the original school from which the painting is derived. Indian buyers of modern Indian art are not knowledgeable about the traditions in the art they own and they simply go by the names publicized in the press. As an instance, MF Hussain's paintings are apparently not exhibited in any important museum around the world but no Indian buyer seems to care.
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The above characteristics suggest that the Indian art market is a very immature market. It implies that prices can be easily manipulated/ fixed by a handful of dealers operating together. The risk in investing in modern Indian art is apparently high. International art is not 'listed' but its price is determined through the bidding at auctions. This enables international auctioneers to evaluate pictures individually and this becomes a guarantee or commitment on the part of the auctioneer, who are not simply go-betweens. In the case of Indian art, the international auctioneers only act as go-betweens and have not placed a value upon any painting. The fact that Indian art is auctioned by Southeby's or Christie's does not, therefore, certify the value of a painting.
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The practices in the Indian art market are not transparent. In the first place, sales are private arrangements and the names of the buyers are usually withheld. There is no guarantee that the price declared is the actual one. When an art consultant 'recommends' a particular work and makes an estimate of the likely appreciation in value, his recommendation has no validity since sales are not transparent and the declared value could be false. If the consultant offers to buy back a painting at a later date and guarantee some appreciation, this is no more than an unsecured loan with the painting as 'security' and interest masquerading as 'return on investment'. Considering that the margin appropriated by galleries/ dealers is in the region of fifty percent, an investor buying and selling through a dealer/ gallery should also sell at twice the purchase price to break even.
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Many Indian painters commanding high prices have relatively small skills and a scrutiny of their pictures reveals this. For instance there are some objects which are more difficult to draw than others. Those objects that suggest movement - like some animals - are more difficult to draw than those that do not. As examples, cats and horses are more difficult to draw than dogs and cows. Hands are evidently more difficult to draw than torsos, and faces are the easiest to draw in portraits. In fact, when children doodle in their exercise notebooks, they tend to draw faces of various kinds. Looking at the portraits by respected Indian painters, one finds that many of them avoid drawing hands by either having the subject hide his/her hands behind his/ her torso or keeping hands outside the frame of the picture. They are also apt to draw faces alone. Another favorite ploy is to draw faces of 'imagined people', which are featureless and devoid of the identifying characteristics that are usual in any kind of portrait painting.
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Looking at the Indian art market, it would appear that it is riding on the back of high liquidity and the high growth rates of the economy. As long as the economy does well the Indian art market may do well but the confidence of buyers in the market needs to remain. If, for instance, it comes to light that the same picture has gone through an auction several times in a relatively short period with the prices being marked up each time, it could signal a rigging of prices by art consultants and dealers. This might unearth a scam of the Harshad Mehta kind in the Indian art market which could collapse. The difference is that there are objective criteria to say that P/E ratios in the stock-market are too high or very low and the stock-market is bound to bounce back if stocks are undervalued. There are no such criteria operating in the Indian art market.
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The factor that distinguishes the 'artist' from the 'artisan' is apparently the notion of authorship. The artist has a 'signature style' or vision that the artisan is not seen to possess although the artisan could still be very skillful. 'Styles' are not simply names scrawled in the bottom right-hand corners of pictures but need to be argued about and established through critical discourse in the public space. Since there is little evidence of such critical discourse on modern Indian art in the public space, is not the notion of authorship in Indian art largely spurious and is not the value placed on the artisan's work more assured - at least because its skill is more apparent and therefore less disputable?
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