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The art of buying art

December 22, 2012

The holiday season is upon us and there are plenty of great ways to ‘shop local’ and support our economy and our artists.

So, are you thinking of buying art but feel you do not have sufficient knowledge? In order to gauge the domestic art sales monitor it is the opinions of reputable galleries, who have stood the test of time and are still the most reliable. As facilitators of art sales, gallery directors are at the very centre of art commerce.

Here, in a Q and A session, some leading gallerists define buying trends and consumer sensibility, keeping in mind the effects of the global art boom and the structure and temperament of the local market, Commenting on ripple effects of the flourishing world art market Sameera Raja of Canvas Gallery, Karachi, thinks art awareness levels here have definitely grown. Riffat Alvi of VM Gallery, Karachi, relates it with price hikes and art moving on a ‘fast track’ to which Noor Jehan Bilgrami of Koel Gallery, Karachi adds, “Now inflated prices of art are way beyond the reach of the domestic buyers; hence many artists who exhibit internationally are no longer accessible by the local populace.”

Shakira Masood of Art Chowk, Karachi, adds, “A strong domestic client base is desirable for any artist. Pakistani artists’ international recognition has created a demand for their works locally. However, there is a limited appetite for acquiring their works at international prices causing a distortion in the market for these artists.

“Moreover, major international auction houses have held several successful sales of Pakistani modernists and contemporary artists. Several of these sales saw ‘record breaking results’. This is a little misleading as these works had hardly ever come into catalogues before. The result was a benchmarking of prices that is unsustainable in current financial conditions.”

Variable trends in current art sales /investments centralise on Old Masters and Modernists, contemporary miniature, mix and multimedia art, landscapes, calligraphy and pictorial culture paintings. There is a general consensus among galleries regarding Old Masters and Modernists as investment buys and good value for money providing availability, provenance, authentication and condition of artwork are satisfactory and legitimate,” and in Masood’s experience “most buyers with liquidity are looking for good deals.”

Among new generation art it was the contemporary miniature that first energised local art sales and generally all galleries testify to its on-going popularity. According to Zohra Hussain, “The contemporary miniature, especially the well-known names and those whose works frequently comes up in auctions, are in great demand not only in the local market but also popular with the wealthy Diaspora.”

On the flip side, Sanam Taseer managing The Drawing Room Gallery, Lahore, makes a valid observation when she states, “For a while collectors in the West couldn't get enough of the ‘bombs and burkas’ miniature paintings that our artists were producing at an alarming rate until the art community itself started protesting against this commercialisation of the subject matter with many artists such as Mahboob Shah and Rashid Rana making fun of this shameless pandering with shows such as ‘I love miniature’.”

There are assorted reactions towards sales popularity of mix and multimedia art. Bilgrami and Seemah Niaz at Unicorn, Karachi, felt that high tech artists are trendsetters and have an edge over the other genres but the discipline is still in its evolutionary stages.

Alvi observes, “Mix and multimedia art by the younger set moves faster and is very popular as the works are very thought-provoking.” Masood further clarifies, “In mix and multimedia, photography and installation work is becoming popular particularly among younger collectors. Video installations remain a hard sell though.”

Taseer reminds us, “Our very own Rashid Rana has been chosen as the best South Asian artist for five years in a row. His work is collected by many institutions and can retail for up to half a million dollars.”

Pictorial, culturally oriented art and landscapes were also subject to varied opinions. Canvas and VM endorse them as evergreen genres while Chawkandi declares, “Landscapes have never been popular in Karachi and cultural paintings which were extremely popular at one time are now only acquired by visiting expatriates and first time buyers.” Similarly Koel is of the opinion, “Landscapes have always remained more popular in Punjab and they still continue to do so and pictorial culture paintings are very low on the rung of today’s art.”

According to Canvas and Unicorn, calligraphy has a niche market and Chawkandi reveals that it “is popular for office and as gifts since it is not highly priced,” whereas Art Chowk points out that there is “a steady interest in text-based work which is not strictly calligraphy.”

There are once again diverse viewpoints when gallery directors are queried about buyer sensibilities. Sameera Raja says, “They buy because they want to acquire the art for their personal collections,” and Noor Jehan Bilgrami concurs, “As a percentage there is more who buy for pleasure than as an investment.”

Delving deeper Sanam Taseer states, “They buy mainly for pleasure because although contemporary art often multiplies in value resale is difficult and dealers will take commission on every sale.” In Shakira Masood’s view, “It is generally a combination as a good collection is developed by a knowledgeable collector who studies the market and also knows his or her mind in terms of which works are attractive.”

Correspondingly in Alvi’s experience, “The best art collections are formed with passion and not with an eye for profit.” Hussain of Chawkandi Art, with years of sales experience behind her agrees that, “Art is selling,” but says, “most people are only comfortable with known artists. It is difficult to sell artists who are not big names. The seasoned collectors have become very cautious and calculating, few buy art for the love of it. I really miss the daring collector and the casual walk-in buyer who will buy a painting because he fell in love with it.”