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LIFE

Young art lovers get help building collections at exclusive Hong Kong club

A younger generation of wealthy art lovers are building their own portfolios, and an invitation-only collectors club may offer guidance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 January, 2015, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2015, 3:06pm

Yuppies are so passé. These days, you want to be a yappie. A young art patron who is wealthy and wild about culture is a highly sought-after individual.

Even the stuffiest art institutions are eager to nurture young supporters, as they're a generation that may step into the shoes of older benefactors one day. What's more, they are a lot more active in shaping cultural likes and dislikes than their parents: think Twitter and Tumblr.

The major museums in Hong Kong are backed by ample public funding, so they have yet to offer the kind of unapologetically exclusive events that the Guggenheim Museum (@GuggenheimYCC), the Tate (@TateYPs) and other institutions are promoting to lure young patrons.

M+, headed by Lars Nittve, the Tate Modern's founding director, may introduce similar programmes in the future. But it is mainly the private sector that is keen to unearth the new cognoscenti.

"Young people see the world with different eyes," says Alberto Annesi, a not-so-old Italian art broker.

"I'm 46," says Annesi, now managing director of Parkview Art Hong Kong, a gallery he set up with local developer George Wong Kin-wah.

"As a market operator I must understand what they think because they are the ones shaping the future."

There are a few go-to names in the art circle who have become high-profile ambassadors for young Hong Kong collectors: Adrian Cheng Chi-kong of New World and Alan Lo of the Press Room Group, for example.

But there are plenty of others in this city, as it has one of the highest concentration of young multimillionaires in the world.

These art lovers often have a similar profile. They are educated overseas, they have parents or grandparents who collect traditional Chinese art, they have careers in finance, and they exercise prudence when it comes to buying.

This latter attribute is surprising. The young tend to have a higher appetite for risk, in investment speak, and this generation has witnessed an unprecedented rise in art prices, especially in contemporary art, which is the category they are most likely to collect.

Artprice.com's global index of contemporary art states average prices have gone up by 70 per cent in the past decade.

But many Hong Kong yappies hesitate to trust their own instinct. "Art is not totally subjective. Artistic achievement is driven by an artist's passion and depth, while market valuation is a collective opinion of critics and fellow collectors," says Sampson Lau, a suave and solemn 26-year-old private equity analyst.

Lau has set aside 10 per cent of his annual income to build up a significant art collection. As a professional spotter of good investments, Lau is conscious that some so-called "up and coming" artists have seen the prices of their work stall in the past few years.

Lau is one of many young finance professionals who are making enough to afford the works of fairly well-known artists. He has one of mainland artist Yang Yongliang's signature photo collages, and a painting by Hong Kong artist Chow Chun-fai. His buying budget can be as high as HK$100,000 apiece.

Lau grew up with the traditional shanshui paintings that his parents displayed at home, and developed an interest in contemporary art as an economics student at the University of Chicago.

"I had so little exposure to contemporary art growing up in Hong Kong. But in Chicago, I was surrounded by some of the world's best museums and galleries," Lau says.

He fears his tastes may be a bit too catholic. He would love to own a Zhang Huan one day, and his current favourites include a Turkish artist whose name he cannot recall. He also likes works by local artists who he considers "unmarketable".

Lau has joined The New Circle, an international, invitation-only club of young collectors which he hopes can help him become a more confident buyer.

The New Circle was launched by Hong Kong-based Alexandre Errera, a 28-year-old who had a brief spell in investment banking, and is the son of a prominent French diplomat.

At the Hong Kong launch party last September, Errera - a serial entrepreneur who co-founded the Personal Dating Agent website in London - gathered together dozens of individuals that would make any businesses seeking investment jealous. Members are required to be under 40, wealthy and well connected. Errera says the selectiveness is the only way for the club to offer events that include access to international art specialists, exclusive sales, and intimate gatherings with artists and collectors.

Members include socialites such as Charlotte Chen. Also a former banker, the 30-year-old is a co-founder of the Spottly travel app. She studied art history in Florence, Italy, for a year before heading to New York for an economics degree.

"In your 20s, you buy clothes and handbags. But as you get older, you want to buy something that you want to keep and could potentially increase in value," she says.

Buying art is a hobby for me. If you make a profit out of it, it's a bonus
Charlotte Chen, co-founder Spottly app

Chen is a fashionista who is also a seasoned investor, and her portfolio is made up solely of equities and property. "Buying art is more a hobby for me. If you make a profit out of it, it's a bonus," she says.

For that reason, she is happy to buy works by artists who are "emerging" and not widely endorsed. She feels some trepidation about navigating the art market on her own since she thinks she's made mistakes.

"I saw Yang Yongliang's works a few years ago. They were affordable then, and now they've gone through the roof. I should have bought one. I'm really kicking myself now," she says.

Lu Liqing is one of a number of young mainland professionals who have joined The New Circle while living in Hong Kong. She recently quit her job as a private banker at UBS, and hopes that art can help her reflect on the future direction of her life.

"The world of finance doesn't seem real, not when you are working on deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars all the time. I am going through a period when I am re-examining my life, and art is an expression of how you view life," she says.

Her newfound freedom allows her the time to browse a lot of art, and her favourite galleries include Alisan Fine Arts and Yallay Space. Works that have caught her eye include the wintry landscapes of Taiwan painter Chiu Chien-jen.

But Lu says her interest is not just confined to artists from this part of the world - another attribute common among this globalised generation.

"We may be more open-minded than older collectors. After all, globalisation has made works elsewhere more accessible. It also means that artists from different parts of the world may share the same mentality," she says.

The New Circle members are all newbies and face the challenge of plunging into a market when prices for contemporary art are much higher than a few years ago.

"Paintings that are not top works have seen average prices fall 10 to 30 per cent since the start of the global financial crisis," says Annesi. "Works that were fetching HK$100 million to HK$200 million in the boom years can be worth half that now. Collectors may lose money if they only follow the trends at auctions."

Actor and singer Alex Fong Lik-sun, who had the good fortune to start his collection early, agrees that new collectors should be wary.

"I've made a few mistakes," Fong says. "Art is not that liquid, so you have to watch your budget. When the bubble bursts, lesser-known artists suffer. Young collectors who can't afford the big names should be prepared for that. You should only buy artworks because you like them, because that way they will always be worth something to you."

Fong says the joy of buying art definitely outweighs the risks. "I bought my first painting when I was 25 for the simple reason that my father runs a gallery [his father Fong Yuk-yan owns the Yan Gallery]. He told me that as I had made money, I should spend some on art. Since then, I've been hooked," the 34-year-old says.

The former swimming champion, whose mother was a goddaughter of the late Wu Guanzhong, renowned as one of the founders of modern Chinese painting, has amassed more than 150 pieces of art worth about HK$30 million. There are now quite a few big names in his collection, including Shen Jingdong and Chen Lianqing. Still, he says that he is nowhere near satisfied with what he's got.

Oscar Wilde, who once complained that old-fashioned respect for the young was fast dying out, would be cheered by today's art world. The young generation has only just started buying art in Hong Kong, and has no intention of stopping.