Christopher Tsai gets profiled in Forbes for his interest in collecting Ai Weiwei in depth. Tsai commissioned a house from Ai that eventually sold but it is the artist’s only architecture collaboration in North America. Tsai runs a hedge fund but he comes by his investing prowess honestly. His father was a central figure at Fidelity in its heyday.
Looking past the profile, Tsai says something quite contrarian here considering the conventional investing wisdom that the carrying costs of art are too high compared to other investments. Now, it should be pointed out that Tsai is comparing the costs of art to other luxury investments, not financial investments:
The same happened with finance: Tsai made his first real investment at age 11 and ran a multimillion-dollar portfolio by the time he was 16. He approaches collecting with the mind of a banker–analytically–and has of late gradually moved away from building the definitive collection of contemporary Chinese art toward focusing mainly on Ai and a few others.
“I had been trying to assemble a collection that could represent the history of contemporary Chinese art despite that history being quite short,” he explained one afternoon in his sunny midtown office. “I wanted to do it not only because I loved what was available at that time but also because the works were inexpensive.”
Collecting, of course, is a journey: The more you see, the more you learn and the more your tastes develop. “When I met Weiwei I absolutely fell in love with him, and that began a transformative process,” Tsai says. “It occurred to me that I preferred more intellectual and conceptual art to figurative paintings. I didn’t want to collect Chinese contemporary art anymore as a goal–it didn’t make sense. Weiwei is going to matter to the history of art, and I decided to build a collection with him as the centerpiece.”
Tsai had been collecting for a few years before meeting Ai on a 2004 trip to China, at the recommendation of one of his art advisors. “This guy is going to be big,” the curator told him, so he bought a few pieces and soon began following and corresponding with the artist frequently by phone and e-mail, first commissioning him to design the country house and then consulting with him on what else to collect. He communicates with Ai and his assistants every week.
It has proved a fortuitous friendship–Tsai believes Ai is still “vastly” undervalued, and the connection is one reason he chooses to invest in paintings rather than watches or cars.
“I like a Maserati Quattroporte, but it’s not a good value investment,” he says. “Art is inexpensive to hold relative to other items like cars. No maintenance. Insurance is very low, so your cost is the cost of capital. And it’s a lot easier in most market environments to sell a piece of art than it is to sell a piece of real estate, for example.”