Art is one of the most intensely personal, subjective and largely unquantifiable items in the world — all forms of art. Where one woman thinks “Hound Dog” is the height of musical expression, another dives for the volume box at the first hint of “You ain’t…” One man can see ironic (or not) joy in Dogs Playing Poker, where the guy right beside him immediately thinks he’s been transported to a roadside motel. There are many, many armchair critics that howled in derision at the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a record-breaking US$120 million. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Despite all that, most of us understand the value of art as a source of private pleasure, aesthetic beauty or investment. To that end, Sydney-based Collins & Kent International recently opened its gallery in Hong Kong to provide investors a chance to own (or lease, for corporate clients) works on paper by some of the 20th century’s masters. Among CKI’s stable: full-provenance works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Damien Hirst, Francis Bacon and Munch as a start. CKI’s paper-based art — lithographs, etchings, woodcuts and so on — by recognisable modern names are designed to make the work more approachable. “The majority [of CKI’s artists] at the moment are post-war. I also have quite a few 17th century Rembrandts as well. The problem with those is they don’t appreciate in value the same way. The market is smaller in that area,” explains Michael Donnan, art director of Collins & Kent International from their Central location. “People that would buy that [Rembrandt] for example would be a professor somewhere, marvelling about his Cranach,” he adds with a chuckle. “Your right, we’re familiar with these.”
And the modern masters appreciate in value, something Donnan has to consider when choosing artists to add to CKI’s roster. The gallery also leases art to corporate clients, and so investors that want to see a return immediately can leave their piece in CKI’s rental pool — similar to a hotel villa investment. Which explains the dearth of contemporary artists. “What we have to be careful with is the artists we select as investments, because not all of them appreciate massively in value. Dali isn’t much for growth,” says Donnan, hard as that is to believe. It’s Dali, right? “We have an unspoken covenant with our clients where we have to be in a situation where we’re offering a history of price growth. If artists don’t fall into that category, we can’t recommend them … Though it may be stunning, or visually breathtaking the investability of [contemporary] work is questionable. They don’t have the luxury of time to establish that pattern of growth.”
Art has generated a great deal of investment buzz in the last few years because of its very immutability. Art is a unique, hard asset of diminishing availability that’s usually unleveraged. Why put money in a bank, make some stockbroker rich or fret over gold? And contrary to what some argue, Donnan doesn’t think investment-driven art purchases are degrading the art itself. “I understand the point, but from our experience it’s opening up the world of art to many more people. In our publicity we say you can purchase from HK$40,000. But we offer pieces at less than that. It’s an affordable entry; it’s not Mr Rich Guy. That’s not what we look for. We do suggest it as an investment purely because it is.” And let’s not forget: nothing looks better across from Dogs Playing Poker than a nice Picasso.