For the Sotheby’s India Managing Director, there is a passion play and madness in collecting art.
The collections of great tastemakers, zeitgeist-definers of their generation, have always been a mix of art, furniture, carpets, and objets d’art collected through—and irrespective of—history, periods, cultures, and genres. The reasons for collecting can be aesthetic, intellectual or emotional, but the most exciting collections have been built around a visceral and genuine passion for the works themselves.
My own collecting odyssey began young. As an impressionable eight-year-old, I would pore over my parents’ collection of vintage Architectural Digest issues, seeing grand American homes with rich oeuvres of classical and modern furniture, some great art, and precious collectibles. The depth in detail and diversity left a lasting impact, cementing my own affinity to collect across categories.
I had also been bitten by the collecting bug at home. My parents—with their discerning, disciplined appetites for modern and classical art, furniture, textiles and objets d’art—had set the stage. With limited access in the 1970s’ pre-liberalized India, their home was largely self-designed—a mix of the studied, spontaneous, curious, playful, and accidental. I often accompanied my parents on their collecting trips, and we would spend hours with doyens of the furniture world like Mahendra Doshi, Laura Hamilton, and Farooq Issa, and at galleries such as Chemould, Pundole’s, and Sakshi. My parents may or may not have picked up a piece, but I always took back a story.
My first home, at 21, was a studio on Murray Hill in Manhattan, furnished proudly with a discarded mid-century two-seater bought for $60 from a thrift shop (the best bargain of my life), Basquiat and Lichtenstein posters from the MoMA store, a Bukhara carpet that my mother kindly recycled from her collection, and some pillows from ABC Carpet & Home. I proudly threw a housewarming with a case of Veuve, and pizza from Lombardi’s to show off my first home and ‘collection’. An appreciation and an almost visceral desire to own created what became an interesting mix of collectibles over limited savings of a hard-working salary in New York City.
I sacrificed a trip to the Bahamas for my first painting and gave up dinners at Pastis for a limited-edition Verner Panton chair. I put my money where I could see it best, on my walls, over the coffers of some bank, much to the amusement of my banking friends who managed sign-on bonuses the size of Souzas in the late-1990s. But while they toiled weekends in their sweatshops, I would be between galleries and flea markets, museums and Chelsea Passage at Barneys on my incessant hunt for paintings and objects of extraordinary beauty. I would drag my then-girlfriend-now-wife on frantic trips, to endorse my guilty pleasures. She thought me wildly irrational at first, but slowly became a partner in crime. I secretly wished my father would take care of just three months’ rent so I could buy that 15th-century Ming dynasty vase I had seen in a Sotheby’s sale on York Avenue, or that work from Bose Pacia I’d been admiring for weeks. That didn’t happen, but as I looked, my eyes began to get trained. Virtual collecting was my best orientation.
Our home today is a slow collection built over two decades. A coming together of modern and contemporary art, interspersed with classical art and some antiquities, colonial and mid-century modern furniture along with decorative arts—making for a rich, inspiring and meaningful dialogue. The home resonates with different forms and periods in proximity; a 19th-century Indo-Dutch colonial sideboard flirts with a pair of haunting Abir Karmakar works—from the Follow Piece series—capturing virtual moments, voyeurism and privacy on canvas. An early-19th-century brass-inlaid rosewood cabinet, restored by Mahendra Doshi, has ultra-contemporary works by Ayesha Sultana perched on it. The richness in diversity creates a complex language; the ability to juxtapose is simply something one learns from experimenting, it’s much like learning to play.
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When it all comes together, it’s like being in a room with beautiful and intelligent people of different ages, professions and spaces. The conversation is bound to be invigorating. Think a constantly evolving visual vocabulary with ‘Chandigarh’ chairs, a photograph by Pablo Bartholomew, a contemporary artwork by Zakkir Husain, turn-of-the-century Persian rugs strewn with HAY pillows on a Mahendra Doshi sofa, and a mid-century modern coffee table dotted with hallmarked silver candy dishes.
India is an explosion of art and design that straddles its rich past and present; our home is an amalgam, layering objects from these different periods, a metaphor of our rich civilization, a reflection of so many journeys. Restricting to one category or time may show focus, but may also risk a home looking like a period room of a museum; it’s a choice one makes.
The secret to collecting and coexistence is quality. Fewer, well-crafted, quality pieces always fit in. Art lasts for life, so it is better to collect slowly, with focus, research and with the right provenance. And be fearless about mixing. If early 16th-century art can find place in your heart, it will in the mind-space of your contemporary home.
But, above it all, there is a passion play, a madness in collecting. And that to me has always been the best part. It’s all about the hunt.