Before I begin this article I acknowledge that the line between modern and contemporary art can occasionally be a fine one and one that needs clear definition, particularly herein. To make it as simple and comprehensible as possible, modern art can be defined as art from the Impressionists, starting from around 1880 until 1970s while contemporary art refers to art created thereafter up until the present moment.
The Sri Lankan contemporary art industry has entered a crucial stage where it is now recognized on an international level as an emerging player in the South Asian art scene. With a majority of international collectors investing in our local contemporaries it has become increasingly important for local collectors as well as those with an interest in pursuing art investment, to begin supporting the growth and sustainability of this industry.
While the modern art scene, dominated by the 43 Group Collective (a group of twelve artists who first presented an exhibition of their work in London in 1943 and completely changed the way of thinking of artists of their time in Sri Lanka), is acknowledged by the local community, many Sri Lankan collectors have not realized that over the past five years the contemporary art scene has overtaken the modern art scene in terms of market appreciation. This is mainly due to the fact that the collection of modern art takes place informally through a network of known established private collectors, with the occasional piece going on auction at Schokman & Samerawickreme for larger amounts exceeding LKR.10,000,000. While auctions themselves do not stand to permanently increase values in the art scene, they do add value to the name of an artist. The average price of works in the local modern scene range from LKR.100,000 to LKR.10,000,000. Amounts exceeding this often are established at auctions in both the local and international houses and more often than not carry the name George Keyt as their creator.
Without the involvement of middlemen such as dealers and galleries that are clued in on the international demand and price structure, the values of modern art have remained stagnant over the past years while the contemporary art scene works have quadrupled, with a growing interest from younger high net worth individuals looking for alternative investments. The average price range of contemporary art ranges from LKR.75,000/- to LKR. 5,000,000/- and with galleries consistently presenting exhibitions locally and overseas as well as local artists being presented on platforms from Art Miami to the Dhaka Art Summit, two of the leading Western and Eastern art event, we can only expect these works to appreciate. The gap between the two markets is inherently small; for example a drawing by 43 Group artist Ivan Peiris sells at the same price as a drawing by established contemporary Chandraguptha Thenuwara.
How do we balance out this problem? It is purely a matter of time. With growing international interest in the modernist works, more and more collectors engaging in the resale market are bound to cause the values to go up and with a continuous presence in the international auctions, the market has to become affected. The local community does however have a responsibility to value, insure and publish their private collections to improve the awareness on the works that exist in their ownership. The expertise of trusted professionals who have access to the international auction houses and research material locally on provenance and prices, can play a large part in not only bringing to light these private collection values but also creating a constant in market range across the board; finally bringing both modern and contemporary to a better imbalance.
Featured Image : Chandraguptha Thenuwara, 2014, Untitled III, Ink on paper, 29x21cm