Page last updated at 13:10 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 14:10 UK

Prices soar for modern Pakistani art

Dancers At a Wedding by Mansoor Aye

By Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

At a newly established art gallery in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi curious visitors sneak inside - hours before the formal opening of an art show.

A visitor at the Vision gallery
Nearly all the works at Vision had been sold even before the exhibition opened

They are looking for paintings by Mansoor Aye, who died earlier this year, or by the elderly and frail Tasadduq Sohail.

In Pakistan's increasingly speculative art market, posthumous sales of better known painters can bring windfall profits.

But even these early birds at the Ocean gallery are disappointed.

Like most art exhibitions around the country these days, nearly all the paintings carry red tags - meaning they are sold.

Studio deals culture

Pakistan's art market has gone crazy over the past year, with prices multiplying 10 to 20 times over. And famous artists are not the only beneficiaries.

Tasadduq Sohail at work
Tasadduq Sohail sold one of his works for $32,000 at an auction in 2006

In the nearby Unicorn gallery, a fresh art school graduate declines an attempt by a collector to reduce the price of her oil-on-canvas portrait of a woman from $580 to $450.

This is in sharp contrast to veteran painter Tasadduq Sohail who hardly received more than $50 for a painting until he was 65.

But then in 2006, one of his works was sold for $32,000 at an international auction.

"It is not easy to haggle with young artists these days, they know they will find buyers," says Seemah Niaz, the curator at Unicorn.

"They don't even have to display their work at the galleries, because buyers often visit their studios to make deals," she says.

'Far cry'

Major buyers often do not even find it necessary to look at what they are buying.

A great artist is the one who sells, it is a simple theory of supply and demand
Mansoor Halim, art collector

"I know buyers who have been sending their servants to book entire shows before they open," says Saquib Hanif, a collector and art critic based in Karachi.

"This is a far cry from the buyers of the 1950s through to the 1980s who would take a long and hard look at the piece before deciding whether it was worth hanging on the wall," he says.

So why such an indiscriminate rush now for modern Pakistani art?

One reason is that the traditional art collector has been replaced by speculators from the corporate sector.

"Many investors in the stock market and real estate sectors have realised that investment in art is comparatively more reliable and secure," says Zohra Hussain, the owner of Karachi's oldest gallery, Chawkandi Art.

"What's more, liberal bank credits and low interest rates during the last few years have enabled people to shovel larger amounts of money into art."

All this when recently the Pakistani economy was growing at over 8% a year.

"The trend started in the West, and the oil-rich Arab sheikhdoms took a fancy to it," says journalist and veteran art critic Akbar Naqvi.

Auction sales do not reflect the actual worth of an artist, but they do place him in a certain price slot

Zohra Hussain
Chawkandi Art gallery owner

"Since the Arabs did not have a model of their own, they started extending patronage to artists in Iran and South Asia to decorate their galleries."

An equal interest in South Asian art by Indian and Pakistani expatriate communities in the West created incentives for major Western auction houses to start offering South Asian art at their sales.

Some of these auction houses, like Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams, have extended their operations to Dubai in the last few years.

The boom for Indian art arrived much earlier than that for Pakistani art and some works of Indian masters have fetched nearly $500,000 at recent international auctions.

Works of Pakistani masters are now following suit. A lapis lazuli mosaic in metal by Ismail Gulgee was sold for $336,000 at Bonhams' Dubai auction in March.

"Auction sales do not reflect the actual worth of an artist, but they do place him in a certain price slot so that people are willing to pay corresponding prices for his or her subsequent works," says Zohra Hussain.

In other words, the net worth of today's artist is based on his or her economic viability rather than aesthetic credibility.

"A great artist is the one who sells, it is a simple theory of supply and demand," says Mansoor Halim, an art collector and executive vice president of ACE Securities business firm.

'No direction'

The pressures of demand are leading some artist to increase their output.

Mashkoor Raza paints calligraphy
Mashkoor Raza says he often dreams up his ideas in sleep

Mashkoor Raza, a prolific artist who paints horses and women, says he starts work on four new canvases every day.

He wastes no time waiting for an inspiration. "I often dream up my ideas in sleep," he says.

Fifty-two canvases he recently put on show in an Islamabad gallery were all sold - before the show opened.

Akbar Naqvi is worried about this state of affairs.

"There is a lot of creative energy in the Pakistani art scene, but there is no direction," he says.

"Nobody appears to be breaking new ground, or attempting to revisit his or her roots in their own individual way, as the early modern artists like Zubaida Agha, Shakir Ali and others did," Mr Naqvi says.

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