Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Think of this as Husain's IPO: Business

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    • Emotional chicanery or fiscal prudence? Whatever it turns out to be - artist M F Husain's [ Images ] decision to accept Qatari citizenship will result in the hardening of his prices, writes Kishore Singh.
    • India's best-known artist has been out of the news for a while and for Husain there's nothing he enjoys more than media attention. In Dubai [ Images ] and London [ Images ], where he has chosen to live in self-exile, he gets a lot of Western press, but is unhappy with its patronising platitudes: They have only just discovered him, but he has been at the centre of the (creative) universe for as long as he can recall.
    • Maybe Husain is right in fearing for his life - he, after all, is the one who has been threatened - but we must not forget that it is possible he is playing to the galleries. And at the bottom of that might be something Husain is very smart about: fiscal prudence.

      In the decades that Husain was the uncrowned king among Indian artists, someone pointed out that Husain sa'ab liked surrounding himself with wealthy patrons, and got a kick out of being the most expensively priced artist in the country.

      The last decade changed that. International markets opened up, auction houses started dedicating sales to works from India or South Asia, and suddenly other artists were not just competing for Husain's crown, they were also surpassing his prices. Everyone from fellow Progressives F N Souza, S H Raza and Tyeb Mehta to newbie contemporaries like Subodh Gupta were selling at prices that made company turnovers look weak. Was Husain losing his monopoly at the top of the art indices?

      He arranged private sales of works and leaked news of them to the press, besting his colleagues' canvases with triptychs. He created a stir with a manipulated Rs 100-crore (Rs 1 billion) offer for a body of works via an unknown collector (who, alas, knew nothing about Husain, leave alone art). But, at best, all this was a losing battle.

      Now view his acceptance of a Qatari citizenship against this background and see how it begins to make sense in terms of financial invincibility. We are aware of the offers made to him to paint the Arab civilisation (money no bar) as well as setting up a museum of Husain's works somewhere in West Asia (Doha?). Yet it is the impact on the prices of his works that is important.

      For now, there might be a certain amount of panic in the market as collectors jostle to buy Husain's works because any new paintings he is creating are no longer finding their way to India, but also because there is the legitimate fear that he will probably shift his unsold artworks from India to Qatar.

      This will lead to a scarcity - real or imagined - that in turn will drive the prices up. Therefore, expect Husain's paintings to sell for much more than was anticipated at the spring auctions in India and internationally.

    • Photograph: Mayur Bhatt/ Saab Press

      Kishore Singh

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