Ex-hedge-fund boss Michael Nock tries hand at art leasing business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:01am

Michael Nock, 57, is multitasking: he invests, he collects art and he paints, and he combines his passions for business and art in his art rental business. Now he is hoping the city's companies will hang more art on their office walls.

CEO of Art Lease, a company that leases artwork to offices, Nock has made his office in Lan Kwai Fong a show house for the kind of space he wants his clients to have. Walking into the office, one finds a Bloomberg terminal besieged by paintings.

"Blank walls breed boredom," says Nock, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1980 and collected some 600 pieces of art over the years. In particular, he has an eye for art from China and from his homeland, Australia. Included in his collection are works by some of the most famous producers of contemporary Chinese art, including Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Wang Guangyi.

Nock took over Art Lease from New Zealander Belinda Kruger, who established it 13 years ago. He has increased its inventory by adding his own collection to it. Everything he owns, as well as everything he produces himself - he paints almost every day in his studio in Wong Chuk Hang, near Aberdeen - is available for rent, except for a dozen personal favourites that now hang in his office. "That corner there, I would be reluctant to lease out," Nock says, pointing to three pieces by Australian painters Fred Williams and John Peter Russell.

Four years ago, Nock retired from hedge fund Doric Capital, which he founded in 1999. He has since established an investment advisory business, Michael Nock & Associates.

As an investor with 37 years of experience, Nock said he saw Art Lease not only as a way for him to monetise his collection but also as a business that would generate returns for collectors and artists.

"I sincerely believe that art can make a huge difference to the work environment," Nock said. "You create a more inspiring and enjoyable environment that both fosters greater productivity from your staff and impresses your clients." Long-term rental is an affordable way for companies, especially smaller ones, to do that, he says.

Art Lease's clients, mostly financial services companies but also the New Zealand consulate, rent artwork on year-long contracts and pay a price that includes delivery, placement, hanging and insurance that is usually 8 to 10 per cent of the value of the piece.

While Nock's own collection makes up the bulk of Art Lease's inventory, he is working with a few collectors who have each agreed to make around 50 paintings from their collections available. The income generated by those pieces is split between Art Lease and those collectors.

"If you had HKD$200,000 worth of art, 4 per cent of that is quite significant," Nock said. "In a world in which bonds are yielding 3 to 4 per cent, this is not bad." Nock added that he hopes to partner with more artists.

Masterpieces that belong to museums are not for rent, and Nock says the upper limit of value of "rentable" art is US$50,000. He said companies favoured paintings that were either abstract, non-controversial in theme, or relevant to Hong Kong.

"I don't think we have had a single nude rented," he says.

Nock says Art Lease as a business has a low return on equity.

"I look elsewhere for higher returns. I do this because I love it, and by renting things out, I never have to let anything go."