Canvas the new 'safe-haven' for Hong Kong investors

Unnerved by a febrile stock exchange and persistent rumblings of a potential dip in property prices, Hong Kong investors are seeking refuge in art and the lure of both financial and cultural rewards.

Hong Kong, already the world's third largest auction hub, has seen a slew of big name galleries open their doors, including White Cube and the Gagosian, to tap the pockets of the region's new rich, and the studios of its ever-deepening talent pool of artists.

In turn new investors, wealthy but not super-rich, are taking a punt on art -- many for the first time.

For seed money of $180,000 HKD ($23,300), Levenza Toh bought a painting by a Chinese contemporary artist Liu Chunhai, which she hopes will rise in value by 20 percent each year -- a strong return compared with last year's stock market slump of 25 percent.

The city's bourse has rebounded so far in 2012 after the eurozone-driven losses of 2011, but Toh -- who confesses to being green to the art scene before buying -- says her investment also brings an aesthetic bounty.

"If the painting loses value I still have something beautiful to pass on to my children," she explains.

"Of course I saw the numbers... but I also saw the art work, the story behind it, and it connected with me so I am happy to own it."

Art brokerage The Art Futures group says its client base has grown in step with Hong Kong's burgeoning reputation as the heart of Asia's art market.

Art investment has become a relative "safe haven" in stormy markets, says AFG's Jonathan Macey, adding that the fundamentals of artists' work can be analysed in much the same way as a stock, with "mid-career" artists favoured over total newcomers or the top-priced favourites.

"It is also enjoyable for people in a way that buying property for purely investment purposes isn't," said Macey.

"We explain who the artists are and most people very quickly start to enjoy gaining that knowledge. The process is recreational and they carry on deepening their knowledge and enjoyment of art."

While Macey stresses art is not a "get-rich-quick" scheme he says clients can expect 12-18 percent gains over a three to five year period.

In the interim they can lease their paintings to hang in company and hotels lobbies providing a dividend of around seven percent that outstrips most bank interest rates.

Eye-popping sales at Hong Kong's big auction houses underpin the city's surge to the heart of Asia's art scene.

Buyers are particularly enamoured by Chinese contemporary art, reflecting China's rising economic and cultural power, with artists such as Liu Wei, Luo Zhongli and Zhang Xiaogang attracting multi-million US dollar price tags.

In 2011 Christie's Asian arm in Hong Kong saw total sales of Chinese modern art nudging HK$650 million, out of total sales of HK$7.04 billion.

Not to be outdone rival auctioneers Sotheby's this month hosted an Asian contemporary art sale that achieved HK$211 million -- the house's second-highest total for such a sale in Hong Kong.

The money is also cascading into Hong Kong's galleries as the profile of art buyers shifts from the high-end collectors who dominated a decade or so ago -- many of them European.

"We've seen collectors from Asia, south-east Asia, Indonesia, and Taiwan come into the market," says Nicole Schoeni of the Schoeni Art Gallery, who says her client base has widened over recent years from purely big European collectors.

"They are passionate about art. Investment is an added bonus of course, but they don't tend to 'flip' paintings every two or three months for profit."

As with any investment, art buying carries a risks as markets fluctuate, but Schoeni says the future looks good for Asian art.

"Asia's getting richer and there's also great creativity coming from the region. On top of that people here tend to be hard-working, positive and resilient... the long-term is positive."

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