The ten commandments of collecting art

The finest collections are about how all the objects within come together successfully and seamlessly

brunch Updated: Feb 10, 2018 22:48 IST
Arvind Vijaymohan
Arvind Vijaymohan
Hindustan Times
art collecting,art collector,art
Radha In The Moonlight by Raja Ravi Varma ( Pundole’s)

As with most personal journeys, collecting art is most fulfilling when charted and navigated on one’s own: triumphs, missteps, discoveries, learnings et al. There is no rigid rule book for ‘collecting correctly’, though as you prepare to channel your inner Peggy G (a legendary art collector), it would be prudent to consider some basic tenets.

My personal guide is what has been referred to on occasion as ‘The Ten Commandments’.

Thou shall learn the lay of the land

Start by understanding the landscape and the primary elements that populate it: the leading artists, galleries, museums and key figures on the scene. Sign up for mailing lists, subscribe to domain specific blogs, websites and magazines (more for strengthening your visual vocabulary at this stage), link your calendar to save-the-dates, dedicate three to 12 hours per month for this indulgence, and make it a point to show up for social events.

Thou shall ask questions

In order to proceed, you need the 3 Vs: visit, view and vocalise. While attending openings and perfectly nursing that flute stem with the flair of a bonafide wine aficionado is smashing, what ultimately matters is what one distills and retains while on-site. This requires relentless questioning. Ask, and ask brazenly, without any concern about how silly the query might be. What makes this artist great, and why this work (that you at this stage feel your six-year-old could have managed with greater finesse with a set of blunt Crayolas) is so brilliant, or so frightfully expensive. A sound gallerist or representative should offer you a response that adequately suppresses your raging cynic. Keep asking these questions till you either see that light at the end of the tunnel, or realise for certain that you’re better off with your six-year-old’s Crayola creations.

The Skin Speaks A Language Not Its Own by Bharti Kher ( Christie’s )

Thou shall do your research

The more you view, ask, read and imbibe, the easier this terrain will be to tackle. You will fairly early along the way identify artists whose works you like. Make it a crucial part of your groundwork to learn as much as you can about their practice, and all that they have created. What makes their work special, and which part(s) of their practice is special, specially and specifically for you. It is important at this stage to also understand the mechanics of how works are priced, and the logic that drives their valuation, especially within the secondary markets that deal with works being traded for the second time, or thereafter. There certainly is a fairly straightforward logic to how pricing is determined, and any art insider would be able to offer you clarity on the formula, as well as the grey spaces therein.

Thou shall appreciate the importance of quality

As you make your way through this landscape, you will come to appreciate the facets and nuances that make a work strong – in subject, execution and presentation. And also conversely, why a work would be regarded as weak. It is essential to remember that even the finest artists have a body of work that isn’t in any capacity comparable with their strongest and this quality would (or rather, should) determine its valuation, and more importantly for you, its individual fit within your collection.

Thou shall create your advisory council

Or at the very least, identify a personal art oracle with whom you can discuss the artworks you relate to and are shortlisting to collect. This would be someone who would offer objective advice and whose opinion you trust: ideally, an art collecting veteran. Professional advisors should ideally not be engaged till much later, as and when your collection demands sharper focus, and as the budgets increase. Going further, you should connect with as many art fraternity members as possible in order to build a network that can be accessed as and when required.

Thou shall not follow the herd

Most collections tend to be cookie- cutter format prototypes, wherein a ‘hotlist’ has been chased and secured. To build a genuinely personal collection, let the herd quietly pass by. Be instinctive, and aim to find what you really find sensational. It would be a good idea to discuss these early choices with your confidant, or advisory council. Once you’ve covered some ground, made a few mistakes, and feel the cool breeze of confidence, go forth with your collecting without bothering about the world’s position on this. Find your voice. Learn to trust it. Allow it to constantly evolve. Remain true to it.

Thou shall outline a budget

Do this at the very outset: define the annual capital base you’d be comfortable with for your collection. The financial framework will allow you to consider essential collecting and acquisition decisions such as identifying the level of art, and more specifically the artists who lie within the range of potential ownership, thus affording the emerging collection with a certain structure.

An untitled artwork by Vasudeo S Gaitonde (Christie’s )

Thou shall not be gullible

If you are getting access to works at what seems to be at a heavily distressed sale price, remember the voice of your grandma in the background, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Check all aspects with the strict diligence required. The number of inauthentic works replete with well-dressed histories and pedigreed provenance has exploded over the past two or three years. What it ultimately comes down to is the work itself – always begin with having the work cleared for authenticity by the resident experts before taking any other step. As importantly, please consider the importance of provenance and documentation, all of which should be in perfect order, carefully scrutinised for veracity. Authenticity and documentation concerns addressed, remember this: chase deals to your heart’s content but always remember quality usually costs a few whiskers, or a mile above the husk. Just because it is larger and yet significantly cheaper in price does not mean you’ve located an incredible deal – it probably is a weaker work. And just because it is small, does not mean it should be lower in price than a work double the size. Consider the work’s individual importance.

Thou shall dedicate time for this pursuit

Circling back to one of the basics: The key to an evolving collection is to remain constantly consistent, on all fronts. To make time to visit showings, to stay informed about artists of interest and their practice, their strongest body of work, the appropriate current-market valuation, the availability, the exhibition schedule: all this information forms the bedrock of successful collectorship.

Thou shall be deliberate on your personal vision

Look at the larger picture: What makes you you, and your collection yours. Understand and define your inherent sensibilities and preferences, and how you wish to explore and manifest these unique aspects of your signature via your collection. The finest collections are rarely about a few trophy works: they are always about how all the objects within it come together successfully and seamlessly, in spite of comprising a varied dynamic of dimensions, periods, mediums, subjects and creators.

These 10 pointers should serve as a stable set of pointers to begin with, and as you go on, you’ll learn all that there is to know.

The author is the chief executive officer of Artery India, an Indian art market intelligence and advisory firm. He has 16 years of experience in consulting for private individual collectors, and large institutions and estates.

From HT Brunch, February 11, 2018

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First Published: Feb 10, 2018 22:48 IST