Why do we collect? As a society, we began collecting objects about 12,000 years ago, it is said with the first settled communities living in clusters. However not every object collected can go into a collection; there has to be a value addition implicit in collecting the object before it becomes a collectible. Some of the most obvious values for collecting an object are historicity and rarity; however, there are deeper reasons that govern our need to collect objects. Whether it is stamps, coins, magazines, sports trading cards, vintage cars, film posters or memorabilia—and of course paintings and sculptures and other ‘objects’ designated as the high arts—the primal urge to collect may be motivated by various psychological desires and needs, many of which we are told are ‘unrelenting’, recurring and born of ‘restlessness’. It has been agreed upon by most psychologists that humans are unique in the way we collect items purely for the satisfaction of seeking and owning them. What is unique about art is that it creates a value out of something that has limited material value but at the same time is deemed priceless. This makes it almost impossible to predict the way the system functions.
A number of psychoanalysts explain the desire to collect as an existential anxiety: ‘the collection that becomes an extension of our identity, lives on, even though we do not’ (Muensterberger 1994).
As famed art collector Charles Saatchi observes, ‘Art collectors are pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. What matters and survives is the art’ (Saatchi 2009). With biting wit Saatchi acknowledges his own mortality while underscoring the point that art collections live well beyond their collectors.
Still others like D.W. Winnicott postulate that our attachment to objects can be traced back to our childhood where the doll, blanket or teddy bear is the object that undoes the trauma of being alone and separated from the mother-figure (Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler 1991). The essence of this ‘support’ is not absolute, as it is based on our individual cognitive abilities, and what an object means may differ from individual to individual.
Some ascribe gender to the act of collecting, for instance, Eric Bradley (2014) posits that there are certain objects, especially antiques, that appeal more to men than women—he lists objects like blow torches converted into lamps, toy soldiers, ‘sexy calendars’ and vintage fedora hats. While that may be the case in the demographic that Bradley chose, it need not be the rule and many collections defy gender stereotypes. Even more regressive is the view adopted by behavioural psychoanalysts that the collection is a male way of displaying accumulated wealth to attract female ‘mates’. The love of collecting is known to have afflicted the most asexual beings, who have no intention of attracting any kind of mate. Moreover, many collectors of art and antiques are women, and hence this view needs to be debunked.
There is also a phenomenon known as the ‘endowment effect’ postulated by Richard Thaler, which describes our tendency to value things more once we own them (The Economist 2008). An example that is cited is that of the character in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead who says, ‘I am the most offensively possessive man on earth. I do something to things. Let me pick up an ashtray from a dime-store counter, pay for it and put it in my pocket—and it becomes a special kind of ashtray, unlike any on earth, because it's mine.’ Through the endowment effect, value is ascribed to a collection because it belongs to a personality who lends it a certain value, while the collection itself may be of debatable quality. There are several examples of such collections globally, however, and especially so in the instance of art collections, a young modern and contemporary art market, like that in India, may be quite prone to the ‘endowment effect’. A flashy wine-and-cheese event held by a celebratory collector can often blindside people from looking critically at the content of the collection, which does a disservice to all parties involved.
Often an object may be invested with value because it was previously owned by or used by a celebrity. This phenomenon is termed as ‘contagion’—some collectors are attracted to celebrity belongings because these objects are seen as being infused with the essence of the person who owned them. For instance, the Austen MartinDB10 and the Sea Master 300 watch used by Daniel Craig in the recent James Bond film Specter was put on auction by Christie’s (Christie’s 2016) and this is a perfect example of that kind of collecting habit.
These fascinating explanations offer alternatives to the banal justification of why we like to collect art that is often offered to us by neoclassical economists who contend that we collect art based on what is supposedly called ‘market value’. Surely, when the late Kekoo Gandhy came upon Syed Haider Raza painting on the rocks at Mumbai’s Bandstand, he was not calculating the market value of the art work created by this artist, but was just charmed by Raza’s command over colour and form. ‘I invited him home to Kekee Manzil for a cup of tea and bought six of his paintings for just Rs. 600’ (Maddox 2013). It was only later on and with much nurturing and international exposure that Raza grew to be a phenomenal artist. Gandhy himself became a prominent art patron and the founder of Chemould Art Gallery in Colaba in 1963.
This example is an important marker in India’s modern art history because it indicates to us that Gandhy had ‘vision’ and he ‘intuitively’ knew that the young Raza had potential. Gandhy began his association with artists and art in the 1940s, when his frame shop at Princess Street in Bombay became an impromptu display window for artists like Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza, all of whom had been rejected by the Bombay Art Society and were banned from the J.J. School of Art at the time for their ‘unorthodox’ and provocative art—this was especially true of Souza and Husain. Despite this rejection, Gandhy was willing to risk going against the grain, because he possessed a certain vision and ability to spot talent that distinguished him from the average collector-turned-gallery owners.
A faculty that has been cited as important in defining a collector who sets trends rather than follows them is ‘intuition’. On the surface of it, all intuitive art collectors appear to be quite irrational. Instances of a collector chasing down a work of art, even if it means paying an astronomical amount to acquire it at an auction, may seem fanciful and not only because the work is of great value, although that is the logic that is used to describe and control the most valued contemporary art collections—like the art collection owned by Peggy Guggenheim or the famed Chester and Davida S. Herwitz collection that is cited as one of the most valuable collection of art work by late Progressive artist M.F. Husain. Scratch the surface though, and you will find that when both these renowned collectors began collecting the art works they were not priced astronomically nor were of great market value at the time. Once again it was a ‘vision’ and ‘intuition’ that led these collectors, eccentric or otherwise, to collect the art works.
After establishing why we as a species like to collect objects, one would want immediate access to a list of top ten art collectors. While it is important to signpost important personalities known for their vast and important art collections, it is virtually impossible to create an exhaustive or hierarchical list.
A linear art historical approach would indicate that early ‘art patrons’ are in a sense the predecessors of modern-day collectors and have established several precedents for creating an art collection in the process of colonization and nation building.
While creating and viewing art may be an egalitarian pursuit, the collecting of it certainly is not. The ability to build an art collection of substance and worth is often defined by means, to it put in economic terms: it is the access to disposable income that currently defines the ability to collect a sizable volume of art—enough to fill a private museum like in the instance of the Kiran Nadar Art Museum (KNMA) in New Delhi (Maddox 2011) or the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. Nadar began acquiring work for her new museum with an intention of reclaiming significant works that were travelling abroad for a permanent display in India. She acquired S.H. Raza’s painting Saurashtra at the hammer price Rs 16 crore and the big grey elephant covered in bindis by artist Bharti Kher was acquired at Rs 6 crore. ‘The Line of Control’, a mushroom-shaped cloud made in Subodh Gupta’s signature style of using shiny utensils was acquired from the Tate Modern Triennale in 2012 at an undisclosed price.
On the other hand, the Poddar’s Devi Art Foundation has the earlier works by artists like Gupta and Kher, and both Anupam and Lekha Poddar are proud owners of Gupta’s early sculptural work that consists of organic cow-dung sculptures and a life-size pink fiberglass cow called Rani. Besides the 2,000 contemporary pieces that mother and son jointly own, they also acquired 5,000 folk and tribal pieces, diversifying their collection to go beyond the modern and contemporary. It may be noted that the collections and museums showcasing these private collections differ from those acquired by the government that belong to the state, are national treasures and are usually not for sale.
Often acquiring good art works helps blur the lines between the classist distinction made earlier between collections of the nouveaux riche variety as opposed to collections that are built with ‘old money’ or those inherited from generations of art collectors. A valuation through old money or inherited collection may be challenged and a nouveaux riche novice may well stumble upon a gem in his or her collection that is of contemporary value.
Patron-collectors of pre-modern art were by and large from royal families. Most of India’s stunning architecture is the result of royal patronage, e.g., the Vakataka patrons of the Ellora caves, or the Chalukya patrons of Badami. Akbar and Jahangir commissioned intricate and detailed art folios that recorded their battles, love exploits and lifestyles. However, does the art patron of yore differ from the modern art collector? It has been argued that the art created for the patron differs from the art collected by an independent collector of modern times. First, because the art created for the patron caters to the specific demands of the patron, which may often be quirky and not always the best aesthetic decision. Whereas art which is created free of the patron’s desires and demands is believed to have room to be autonomous, and hence the ability to reflect the artist’s individual aesthetic sense, and therefore the potential to be more cutting edge, subversive, startling and enhanced in its ability to raise feelings of discomfort, rather than just pleasing emotions. For instance, many of Indo-British artist Anish Kapoor’s installations have been in conflict with the art patron’s desires. In 2015, his ‘Queen’s Vagina’ installation at the Versailles Garden’s Dirty Corner was the centre of much controversy. While the feminists cried foul because the work demeaned the Queen by reducing her to a mere ‘body part’, the art work was defaced with Anti-Semitic graffiti. Kapoor has insisted that the graffiti be retained as part of the art work.
Undoubtedly modern and contemporary artists have greater autonomy over their creations than artists working for royalty in the guild system, however the art market is not free of pressure. Art markets are controlled by demand and supply, prevailing trends and buyers’ tastes and arguably certain styles or phases ascribed to an artist have been more in demand because of having gained greater validation from collectors who inadvertently control the market. Take for instance the works by living artists like Anjolie Ela Menon and Raza. While Menon has experimented with pop and kitsch art expression decorating furniture and created Murano glass sculptures, she has not deviated from her signature style of painting and nor has Raza who continued to paint his Bindu series for several decades. Suffice to say that collectors can be great art patrons, and the need to distinguish one from the other is based mainly on functionality and intent.
Bamberger (2002) demonstrates the difference between buying art and collecting art: ‘Buying art is more of a random activity based on likes, preferences or attractions at any given moment, while collecting art is more of a purposeful directed long-term commitment.’ Not all bric-a-brac can qualify as a collection and often a good collection may be defined by its commitment to theme, the quality of the collectibles and how historically relevant it is. Also the modern-day art collector is a new breed—and it is fair that the emergence of an independent Indian modern art ‘scene’ only occurred after Independence.
Not all collections are governed by a rationale and some can be extremely idiosyncratic. Take for instance Aaron LaPedis’s garage sale that became an art collection by virtue of its sheer magnitude. As the owner of two art galleries in Denver and former host of a local PBS show called Collect This!, LaPedis is known for tracking down hidden treasures, ‘turning’ them into a profit. His book, The Garage Sale Millionaire (2012), offers advice on how to make money by digging around garage sales, storage units and everything in between. Or for that matter even the Saatchi and Saatchi collection where Charles Saatchi declares, ‘Art collectors whose names carry weight appear to be above market forces.’
Clearly the collector, if he or she is guided by an inner force that moves beyond external factors like the market, can also be motivated by the ego. ‘There is an ego trip of collecting art…which sometimes inculcates a relentless, narcissistic aggressive attitude. It is also the thrill of putting one’s money on the line and being proven right or wrong in the face of other people’s skepticism does not generally make you generous towards your peers.’
To quote international curator and collector Hans Ulrich Obrist on the joint role that private and public patronage of the arts plays in the growth of a healthy art scene, ‘Historically speaking, a great art scene needs both private and public support. While there has been a lot of support from private centres, there needs to be support from the government. Strong public institutions working with private institutions, is the way forward. We need collectors like French-American Dominique de Menil, but we also need government support in order to bring art to the public. A critical mass of great public institutions is needed. All of these different protagonists are needed for a great art scene’ (Maskara 2012). Obrist visited India in 2011, as part of his ‘mission’, The Interview Project, and did marathon interviews with several prominent and cutting-edge Indian artists like Subodh Gupta, Sheba Chachchi, Kiran Subbaiah, to name a few. Hosted by KHOJ and the India Art Fair, the talks were open to the public and provided a significant platform for dialogue at a time when India was still finding its place on the international art stage.
As indicated by collector-gallerist Abhay Maskara (2012), linearity is not a sure shot way of establishing value for art, which is why a contemporary artist like Subodh Gupta was priced on par with a modern like S.H. Raza, who is many years senior to Gupta. Having said this, the ongoing market correction has changed the equilibrium between the moderns and contemporaries. The market correction was a result of the big art market crash that occurred in 2008, when several galleries shut down and the pricing of many of the contemporary artists was corrected as a result of the slowing down of the art market. This correction then returned the market to a position where the moderns have been priced and valued above the contemporaries since they are a more ‘safe’ bet, because rarity and historicity are once again markers for establishing the worth and price of art works sold in the secondary market. These factors also indicate that the Indian art market is young and skittish, it is a dynamic market where yesterday’s ‘successful’ artist may become today’s ‘embarrassment’, which is why it becomes difficult to treat art as an asset class, against which collectors may take bank loans.
In the current scenario there are various collectors of art ranging from the likes of Harsh Goenka and Rajshree Pathy, who collect an assortment of art that spans fine art to design, other collectors like Czaee Shah and Shalini Passi have collections that are mainly defined by the contemporaries like Jitish Kallat, Shibu Natesan and video artists like Neha Choksi. The art collected by industrial houses like the Ambanis the Birlas and the Jindals are defined by variety since their collections includes not just modern and contemporary art but miniature painters and folk artists.
It may be noted that ivesting value in the moderns happened over a period of years. The late Jehangir Nicholson (1915–2001) was one of the earliest collectors. His collection has been valued as one of the most significant collections of 19th-century modern painting. The strength of the collection is a cluster of paintings by the Bombay Progressive Artists Group and other artists from 1948 to 1998 that has left its mark on the Indian art scene. There are works by Prabhakar Kolte, Jehangir Sabavala, Badri Narayan, N.S. Bendre, Homi Patel, K.K. Hebber, and others. Since Nicholson was unmarried and had no legal heirs to bequeath is collection to, Cyrus Guzder took charge of his collection for a time, and then in 2004 Guzdar and Kaiwan Kalyaniwala formed a trust, the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) which was set up to promote the knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary Indian art, with board members like artist Mehli Gobhai, critic-curator Ranjit Hoskote and gallery owner Dadiba Pundole of Pundole Art Gallery.
In his will, Nicholson expressed the desire that a home be found for this collection of 800 art works, where it would be accessible to the public (Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation website). The proceeds of his estate were to go towards supporting the collection and the promotion of related artistic activities, and the 3000 square foot gallery has been showcasing the Nicholson collection through various innovative curated shows over the years.
Sanjay Reddy, vice-chairman of GVK Industries and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC) also planned to showcase his art collection in an extremely public venue, Terminal 2 of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai. While Nicholson collected over the years, Reddy hired curator and chairman of the Asian Heritage Foundation Rajiv Sethi to commission artists to create site-specific art work especially for the airport. ‘India lives in multiple centuries and is also in a constant state of flux, which is why the airport resonates with this sense of transition. The art project transforms the space from one of sheer function to an aesthetic experience. The museum at the airport will reach out to millions,’ says Sethi of his curatorial vision (Maddox 2014).
Interestingly Reddy did not buy from the secondary market where most works are vetted by auction houses, nor did he rely solely on the galleries to supply his art, but he commissioned over 1000 art works that ranged from cutting-edge new media artists like Vivan Sundaram, Baiju Parthan and Natraj Sharma, to indigenous artists like Chandigarh’s Nek Chand. Artist like Nilima Sheikh and B.V. Suresh collaborated with local Kashmiri artists to create a gigantic mural the captures the essence of Kashmir, in a timeless borderless manner.
Another interesting voice speaking about art collections is that of Sanjay V. Kumar, the silent partner of Mumbai-based Sakshi Art Gallery. The author collector endeavoured to put across his collection to the public via a book titled Artist Undone (2012) which gives us a peep into the life of Harsh Sinha who buys a painting by Natraj Sharma at an online auction, spending half his savings, or ‘the price of a Mercedes Benz’ to be precise. While Sinha’s impulse is attributed to his estrangement from his wife, the wily account provides an interesting insight into the middle class take on art collecting.
In conclusion, we can refer to Bamberger once more, who states that despite all the immediate access that today’s collector has access to artists through dealers, galleries auction houses, online art portals and the artist themselves, the absence of comparison shopping and lack of market savvy among collectors is their big shortcoming. There is a tendency to stick to dealers and artists, rather than exploring options and multiple sources. Hopefully with time and exposure this too will change and art collectors will exercise all their options for collecting great art.
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The Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, http://www.jnaf.org/Annex/Foundation