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Features & Columns
by Hagen Engler

Calm and Collected

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The problem with earning a significant amount of money is that you have to spend it on something. The temptation is to invest it in further business ventures, but that only ends up earning you even more money. And then what do you do with that?

You can only sleep in one bed at a time, and you only require one vehicle to ferry yourself around town. So only catering to your practical needs isn’t even going to make a dent in your liquid assets. You could dedicate yourself to philanthropy. But if you’re a high-net-worth individual, you can build a school and still have a whack of money left over. It’s a problem.

So the very rich have come up with a novel pastime to dispose of their wealth effectively: they become collectors. When you’ve bought a mansion, a car, a yacht, some wine and some beautiful art without even making a dent in your fortune, it’s a sign from the gods that you need to become a collector.

There is no greater sign of refinement, than becoming a connoisseur of the rarest, most exclusive, most coveted items on the face of the earth.

Of course, when you begin dealing in large numbers of top-end items, you’re back to investing again. You find the value of your collection appreciates. But that is the burden of the wealthy to bear. Money attracts money, and nobody said being rich would be easy.

Wheels of fortune

The quintessential rich man’s purchase must be the sports car. So if you can make a name for yourself as the most noted car collector on earth, you’ve achieved something.

For some, a car collection is a status symbol, but for others, like comedian and host of The Tonight Show Jay Leno, a healthy salary is simply a means to indulging an honest love of automobiles. The 63-year-old American has a legendary collection comprising around 90 motorcycles and 100 cars of historical significance as well as spine-tingling power. His collection is diverse, including vintage cars, classics, racecars and sports cars. He owns a steam-powered 1906 Stanley, as well as first Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren supercar in America.

Noble and authentic as Jay’s love for cars is, his collection pales compared to that of Texas lawyer John O’Quinn. O’Quinn made his money in civil lawsuits, winning $1 billion against Wyeth Laboratories for the effects of its diet drugs and $17,3 billion in a tobacco lawsuit for the State of Texas.

In the course of his 68 years, O’Quinn amassed a collection of 800 cars, including John F Kennedy’s 1962 Lincoln Continental, a Ford Escort that once belonged to Pope John Paul II and the Batmobile from Batman Forever. He also owned what was said to be the oldest car in existence, an 1884 De Dion Bouton et Trapardoux Dos a Dos steam car. After his death in 2009, it was sold at auction for $4,6 million.

O’Quinn would sometimes buy 14 cars at a time at auctions. By 2004 he had clean lost track of how many cars he had, and it was months before he noticed his Ferrari 575M and a Ford Mustang had gone missing. It turned out employee, Zev Isgur, had been ripping him off. That is, of course, the eternal problem with collections of heinously valuable items: you need to keep them somewhere, and if there are a lot of them, someone’s going to be tempted to steal them.

Watchmen

Someone unfazed by such risks is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Who would dare steal a watch from him? Russian opposition group Solidarity says he has a watch collection worth $700 000 despite earning only $112 000 a year. “Putin apparently did not eat or drink for six years to acquire this collection,” said solidarity member Boris Nemtshov in a blog post.

Watch collections are having a bit of an image problem, then, if you consider that disgraced financier Bernie Madoff also had one.

Redeeming the pastime somewhat is Milan banker Alfredo Paramico, who has a collection of Patek Philippes worth an estimated $25 million. So passionate and so knowledgeable is the 44-year-old Paramico that he has established an investment fund based solely on vintage watches.

The fund, with Luxembourg-based Elite Advisors SA, last year consisted of 512 luxury watches – mainly Patek and Rolex – housed in an underground bank vault. It was worth more than $20 million. Elite Advisors offers an investment product called Passion Investments, where the firm collects fine, classic objects on behalf of clients. “Investments in tangible, easily understood assets emerge as an obvious, real alternative to traditional financial investments,” says the firm.

In 2009 the Passion Investments portfolio was 30 per cent in luxury collectibles like cars, boats and jets, 22 per cent in art, 23 per cent in jewellery, 14 per cent in coins, antiques and wine and the remainder in investments like sports teams, horses and musical instruments. The firm notes that wines are a good starting point for new collectors, as entry prices are still relatively low.

Grape investment

With some investors becoming disillusioned with intangible financial products and unpredictable markets, alternative investments like collectibles have become viable. Some of them even have their own financial indexes. The Liv-Ex Fine Wine 100, for instance, has risen 5,6 per cent since the start of 2013.

Wine collections can be managed by brokers much like traditional investments. However, the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK classifies wine as a “complex and risky investment” and mandates the use of specialist brokers. Ironically, wines are an illiquid investment, since little of it will have willing buyers. The only wines generally worthy of investment purchase are reds from particular French estates – Chateau Lafite Rothschild for instance, or Chateau Latour and Chateau Haut-Brion.

The largest private wine collection in the world is in fact held by Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida. The place was established by Bern Laxer in 1956 and is still owned and run by his family. The restaurant has been rated the best in America and its wine cellar is legendary. Bern’s stocks 500 000 wine bottles and 6 800 labels. Their wine list runs to a telephone book-size 212 pages and they host their own annual wine festival.

The cellars are so vast that from time to time they unearth forgotten bottles of enormous value. In 2010 they stumbled upon a bottle of the legendary first-growth Bordeux, Chateau Latour 1947, worth $30 000. It was added to the wine list, and, unsurprisingly, diners wanting to order it will first have to make a cash deposit with their booking. Again, this collection is for enjoying, not simply gathering dust.

Another such collection was that of legendary British wine writer Hugh Johnson. When he moved house, he sold off the contents of his five-room wine cellar for more than $150 000. His collection included an amphora dredged from a shipwreck at the bottom of the Mediterranean and dating back to 100AD.

Needful things

Any discussion of passionate collectors of means would be incomplete without mentioning Russian tycoon and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Baranovichi. The man bestrides the luxury collectibles scene like Mike Tyson did boxing in the Eighties. He’s like the Tiger Woods circa 2007 of the premium objects and exclusive portfolio items game. He’s the main owner of investment firm Millhouse LLC and his $14,6 billion fortune sees him ranked the 50th richest man in the world by Forbes. But it’s what he does with his fortune that really distinguishes him. Besides being a player in many established collections fields, Abramovich collects things that nobody else does. 

For instance, he has a collection of luxury yachts that has numbered up to eight at times. He currently owns five yachts, which have been called “Abramovich’s Navy”. The flotilla includes what was at the time the world’s largest privately owned yacht, the 533ft Eclipse, worth more than $400 million and coming with its own mini submarine.

The Abramovich air force includes a Boeing 767-33A/ER with a 30-seat dining room and an Airbus A340, reputedly worth $200 million. The latter is the largest personal plane ever built, with a Jacuzzi, Turkish bath, gym, conference room, bar and restaurant. He also owns three Euro copter helicopters, which ferry him to and from his yachts and numerous palatial residences.

The latter constitute a collection of flabbergasting note. He has bought five neighbouring properties in the Lowndes Square area of Knightsbridge, London, and connected them, creating a 2 700 square metre mansion. The properties cost him $20 million to purchase, but the combined value today could be ten times that! Besides this, he has an estate in St Barts, West Indies, a mansion in Aspen, Colorado, a chateau in the south of France, an estate in Sussex and another mansion in Kensington, West London.

But perhaps most indicative of the plight of the man who has everything is his recent purchase of New Holland island in St Petersburg.

Abramovich and his partner Dasha Zhukova are serious players in the contemporary art market, and have assembled a vast collection, including famous works by Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon and Russian artist Kabakov. Abramovich paid the highest price yet for a post-war work of art: $86 million for Bacon’s Triptych.

In 2010, Abramovich spent $200 million on New Holland, a crumbling former army base surrounded by canals in the heart of St Petersburg, Russia. The plan is to convert it into an art museum – perfect for housing his burgeoning art collection.

Thus do the interests of talented businessmen coalesce. His passenger plane, art and property portfolios can now supplement each other as he flies himself to St Petersburg to live aboard his yacht while viewing his art collection in the latest addition to his vast property holdings.

 

It’s good to be king, and no one loves things like a king.

 

SIDEBAR

"Sold to the man with the platinum cufflinks!”

Top-end collecting is big business. Behold some of the auction prices achieved for rare items.

 

Wine

In 2011 a bottle of Chateu d’Yquem 1811 white wine was sold at auction for $118 000 to private collector and restaurateur Christian Vanneque.

 

Letters

In 1953 Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, wrote a letter to his 12-year-old son Michael explaining the discovery, which would win a Nobel Prize. The letter was sold for $6 million at auction, making it the most expensive letter on record.

 

Drawings

The most expensive drawing ever sold was “Head of an Apostle” drawn by Raphael in the early 1500s as a study for his later painting The Transfiguration, which hangs in the Vatican. The drawing fetched $47,9 million at an auction in 2012.

 

Books

The Codex Leicester, one of the original scientific journals of Leonardo Da Vinci dating from the 1500s, was sold for $30,8 million in 1994.

 

Cars

A 1957 Ferrari Testarossa was sold at auction in Pebble Beach in 2011 for $16,4 million, making it the most expensive car ever sold.

 

Coins

The highest selling price for any coin in history is $10 million. The price was paid in a private treaty sale earlier this year for a “Flowing Hair Dollar” from 1794. The coin was the first dollar coin minted by the US federal government.

 

Paintings

The Card Players, painted by Paul Cezanne in 1893, is currently the most expensive painting on earth. It was sold for $268,1 million in a private sale in 2011.

 

Watches

A Zenith pocket watch given as a gift by India Nehru to her famously ascetic friend, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, later became the most expensive watch in history. It was auctioned in a lot with his spectacles, sandals and a bowl and saucer for $2 million. It was bought by Indian industrialist Vijay Malaya, chairman of the UB group and owner of the Royal Challengers Bangalore IPL cricket team.

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