Collecting with Passion and Knowledge breeds Winners in Islamic and Indian Art

Collecting with Passion and Knowledge breeds Winners in Islamic and Indian Art

Over the past ten years, I’ve noticed that investment and financial return in the market of Islamic and Indian art tend to be tightly interwoven with a deep understanding and passion for the subject matter. Contrary to what one might think, these are not mandatory factors in art categories navigated by art collectors and investment advisers. In fact, back in the days when I was working at Christie’s, I had the chance to meet several buyers of Post-War Contemporary Art claiming they could not understand it; advisers of Modern Art that despised it; and collectors of Wines and Spirits who were teetotallers!

What This Means for Investors

What does this mean for the average investor or young collector eager to enter the world of Islamic and Indian art? To put it briefly, the main high-level players in the Islamic and Indian art market are deeply familiar with these artistic traditions. They understand them, love them, and are mesmerized by them. They have journeyed to the countries of origin and only invest in the artworks produced there after thoroughly 'savouring' the experience, rather than just seeking a quick cash return. This approach signifies that for newcomers, investing in this art category is challenging and requires due diligence checks. The risk of making mistakes is high, largely due to the abundance of reproductions and export market objects – which are essentially tourist traps – that are prevalent in the market. As a result, the outcomes of such investments can be rather unpredictable. Unlike a luxury item such as a ROLEX Submariner watch, flipping an 18th-century Kashmiri Qur’an manuscript takes much longer.

However, for those committed to the long term and willing to invest time in understanding the field, the returns can be unexpectedly high. This is often evidenced in auctions worldwide. Artworks purchased at ‘unsuspected times’, such as in the 1970s through to the 1990s, or even more recently, treasures unearthed by eagle-eyed connoisseurs from corner charity shops or house clearances, have been known to increase in value significantly, sometimes by 10, 20, or even more than 30 times their original price. A practical and representative case of the above-mentioned trends is exemplified by a Medieval Indian buff sandstone sculpture of the Hindu elephant-headed deity Ganesha, which I sold in October 2022, when I was heading the Islamic and Indian Art department at Chiswick Auctions. Purchased for £7,500 GBP at a Spink’s auction in London by the vendor’s uncle in the 1970's, in the current art market it was valued £4,000 – 6,000 GBP (the decrease in value was due to its conditions and specific art category – hardstone sculpture – currently not in high demand). The final selling price was £15,000 GBP (incl. BP). In the same auction, I offered another great find, a Safavid cuerda seca pottery tile from 17th-century Iran decorated with the slender bust of a cup-bearer (saqi). Cuerda seca tiles from Safavid Iran had previously generated mixed results at auctions, usually peaking in the £6,000 – 10,000 GBP rank, when complete, in good conditions and accompanied by notable provenance. This specimen was rescued from a house clearance by a collector who immediately recognised its beauty underneath the dirt. We originally estimated it at £2,000 – 3,000 but it eventually sold for an eye-watering £25,000 GBP (incl. BP), making a very happy vendor.

The Importance of Provenance

To begin understanding the complex dynamics of this market, it's essential to recognise that over time the inherent value of an item is determined not only by the object itself and its qualities, but also by its association with a particular collector, institution, or scholar. This is often referred to as the object's 'pedigree', or in the language of auctions and museums, its provenance. Property titles such as “from the collection of a London flat” or “Property of a Lady of Title”, though seemingly vague, have a unique impact on buyers and collectors. These titles can be pivotal in auction results, sometimes adding an extra zero to the final bid!

In the current art market, provenance holds great importance across all sectors. However, in the realm of Islamic and Indian art – a relatively new entrant in the global art investment world – it brings an added layer of legitimacy to the artwork. It creates a strong connection between its past and future owners, establishing a form of communications between them in a unique language, the one of beauty and aesthetics, regardless of time and geographic location.

During my six-year tenure as Head of the Islamic and Indian art department at Chiswick Auctions, I had the opportunity to organise several 'Single Owner' auctions. These included the collections of Indian paintings from Mr. A. Dexter; Indian and Southeast Asian Buddhist statues from Mr. Yonan; and a significant collection focusing on the Arts of Iran dating from the 8th century CE onward, which due to its vast size was divided into six auctions over a period of four years. The last two auctions of this collection took place in April 2023 and October 2023, my final sale in the company. Remarkably, three of these Single Owner auctions were ‘White Glove Sales’, meaning that every item in the auction was sold – a 100% sale rate by lot.

This trend is evident globally. For example, just last October, Christie’s London successfully auctioned the collection of Indian paintings by Toby Falk, a noted Indian art scholar, for almost £3 million GBP. In the same week, Sotheby’s London sold the collection of Stuart Cary Welch, another distinguished scholar in Indian and Islamic art. The sale exceeded the £3 million GBP mark with just four of the top lots.

Legacy and Geopolitical Influences


We have already covered two important 'variables' of the Islamic art investment market: knowledge and provenance. Now, let's move onto the third one. This is connected to two specific notions: legacy, and frail historical and ever-changing geopolitical balances. Starting with the first element, in my professional experience, fathers and sons rarely collect the exact same kind of art one generation after another. It does happen, but it's very rare in Islamic and Indian Art. During a meeting, I was once told by the son of one of the leading Italian collectors of Islamic Art: 'My father always had vision and he surely was a great collector, but he never explained these artworks to us. They were just part of the home décor, another trinket or piece of furniture. He did not pass us the bug of Islamic art, but he surely infected us with the passion for collecting’. Now, the son is turning into one of the key players in the market of Italian Post-War art.

The rare cases I've personally encountered of fathers and sons maintaining their Islamic and Indian Art collections through generations tend to come from overseas: Indians, Qataris, Saudis, and Americans first come to mind. In most of these cases, the element of legacy seemed little connected to art investment or economic return. Their strongest motivations to keep the family's collections alive were bound to cultural identity, intellectual preservation, and a deeply rooted sense of belonging and/or heartfelt affection for those cultures. This is particularly true with collectors of Indian and Armenian art, who sometimes can't stop a bidding war until they exit as winners, no matter the costs, causing great stir and estimate imbalances in the relevant art categories.


These feelings, influencing the markets of Islamic and Indian art, often find themselves up against another titan: the modern geopolitical scenario. The Near and Middle East have been ravaged by wars, conflicts, and political instability for the largest part of the last eighty years. At times perceived as loyal allies, at times as the worst enemies, Western powers have often intervened in the internal conflicts of these countries, trying to blend (and bend) them to canons foreign to these cultures. Specific events like a war, a bomb explosion, a terrorist attack, or a failed peace or commercial treaty among these players can translate into the immediate, sudden loss of value of artworks connected to these countries. For instance, I still remember that when Trump won the elections, the demand for Iranian artworks crashed. Now, Iranian art, especially of the 19th-century, is as hot as never before, a statement supported by recent auction results across both major and smaller auction houses. At Chiswick Auctions, I personally curated and auctioneered a White Glove Sale and another with 96% sold by lot and 142% by value with material of this period and country of origin, leaving the vendor star-struck by some of the results. More recently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has soured and clouded the minds of many. Several buyers decided to stay put and avoid bidding in many auctions during the last London Islamic Art Week in October 2023, causing top lots to remain unsold and other lots to sell for unreasonable prices, making market predictions completely aleatory and useless.


To conclude, investing in Islamic and Indian art certainly requires more effort than other market categories. Buyers ought to bear in mind not only the artwork’s cultural, historical, and effective market values but also the specific economic reality and geopolitical bond to which it is connected in the present days. The piece of advice that I always give to whoever is considering either entering or being an integral part of the market of Islamic and Indian art is to be cold-blooded but with a warm heart, i.e. never buy impulsively without having done your checks first, but also buy something you truly love and won’t mind seeing on your shelves for a while in case the market crashes and doesn’t allow you to have the quick return you might have hoped for.

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