Art collectors in the making should challenge established opinions

Asking a gallerist or curator a simple set of questions about what qualifies an artist as a genius and the works as brilliant is always a great idea.

opinion Updated: Jun 29, 2018 11:27 IST
Art collectors,Arvind Vijaymohan,Damien Hirst
Visitors stand next to a Raja Ravi Varma painting displayed at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, India, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018.(AP)

“3-(5-CHLORO-2-HYDROXPHENYLAZO)-4, 5-DIHYDROXY-2, 7-NAPHTHALENEDISULFONIC ACID”

No typographic mixup. This is exactly how the week’s art column is meant to open.

This is the title of a monumental painting by Damien Hirst I recall staring at in early 2008. It measured 84 x 204 inches and featured 286 dots in an assortment of colours, arranged in precisely lined rows, evenly covering the spread of the canvas surface.

One doesn’t expect the well-heeled to be packed in a hall like canned sardines, but towards the end of February 2008, I found myself jostling for space at the Phillips de Pury Contemporary art auction in London that was offering for sale this painting.

Also on offer that evening were four works by Indian Contemporaries: T V Santosh, Subodh Gupta, Riyas Komu, and Justin Ponmany - the primary reason for my presence.

The canvas by Hirst went on to sell for £1.75 million or approximately Rs. 13.9 crores, that according to the Artery India database is the record price for a work from this series titled Hirst’s ‘Spot paintings’.

I’d like you to consider a few points at this point. There were, at time of the last series census, over 1,350 Spot paintings, all of which feature the immediately comparable pattern of uniformly lined dots, albeit in a range of sizes and colours painted on varied canvas dimensions, ensuring (and I’m hazarding a guess here) that each work is indeed unique.

Apart from their astoundingly skillful brilliance, what could make this series more desirable for a collector, you’d imagine?

How about the fact that except for a guesstimated two dozen canvases, nearly all the remainder works have been painted most entirely by his assistants.

I’d like to clarify here that being a tad old-school, while I believe a work should be rendered wholly by an artist with no helping elves, I do appreciate and understand the need for a battery of studio assistants, or a professional technician to craft a Contemporary artist’s vision. In the case of these Spot paintings however, the skill grade is perhaps that of a middle schooler with some patience and steady hands.

In that light, I’d like you to consider that at least a few hundred individuals or entities have at some point decided to spend, in many instances, staggering sums of capital on these works, believing these to be worthy of collectability.

Hirst is a brilliant marketing mind - the sharpest of all time, as evident in light of his financial net worth. As an artist, barring a few flashes in the early stretch of his practice, I’d not hold such a glowing opinion.

The point being drawn here is to fight the herd. The collective voice of unchallenged approval, especially from industry power players and tastemakers can oftentimes lead to the utterly average being celebrated and sought after in a frenzied manner.

If you are a collector in the making, learn to challenge the commonly prevalent voice in the market. I’d rather you seem the fool and ask the wise one you’re facing about the merit of the apparently brilliant work. Asking a gallerist or curator a simple set of questions about what qualifies an artist as a genius and the works as brilliant is always a great idea. Perish any thoughts of being seen as a cultural ignoramus, or asking something “too silly.” Usually, even the most inarticulate expert would be able to present some sound thoughts in support of the calibre of the artist and works.

A signature collection emerges when one applies their individual stamp and this is usually on account of not following a pattern. A set of artists might be essential to a collection, but the particular works housed therein need not follow the predictable humdrum of market favouritism.

If you’re an investor in this domain, there have been instances, usually in the short term that have recorded strong growth with supporting vacuous content. It’s a fairly straightforward strategy that takes as little imagination as creating some of the mediocrity that sells for millions of dollars. However, my position for investing herein is completely to the contrary: investors will record exceptional growth only when they adopt long term positions, acquiring critically important works.

I was at Art Basel earlier this month. It is the considered, with sound reason the finest amongst all within the art fair circuit. As one might expect, there was a high stack of works on display that I would classify as being worthy of a barrage of questions.

More often than not, the only question that is asked for these works is: “how much is it for?”

(Arvind Vijaymohan is the CEO of Artery India, a financial datacenter focused on Indian art sales globally)

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 11:27 IST