For Hong Kong financier Matthew Ho, one pleasantly unexpected upside of working at Deutsche Bank was that it was there he first came upon the German art that has become his passion. In 2010, the bank, which has an outstanding collection of contemporary art, began to sponsor the successful Hong Kong International Art Fair, now Art Basel Hong Kong. At a client dinner during the fair at the home of regional CEO Rob Rankin, Ho – now co-director of investment firm Everland Partners – was introduced to art dealer and gallerist Ben Brown. Brown had recently launched a gallery in the historic Pedder Building, the first western gallery to open there, offering a series of international art exhibitions.
It was on Brown’s stand at the fair the following day that Ho saw one of German photographer Candida Höfer’s awe-inspiring, large-format colour architectural photographs (now valued at £62,400) of the interior of the Biblioteca Marucelliana in Florence. “I had actually been inside that building. And what I loved about the photograph was the sense of space,” says Ho, adding, “My wife loved it too, and it is still hanging in our home.” Until then Ho had known little about western art and was not an art collector, but that image captured his imagination.
Brown has deep links with Hong Kong.It’s where he was born and his mother Rosamond is an artist who has been based there since 1964. After a 10-year stint at Sotheby’s in London and the opening of his Cork Street gallery, Ben Brown Fine Arts, in 2004, Brown decided to dip his toe into Hong Kong waters and opened a gallery outpost in 2009. “My view was that the people of Hong Kong were very keen to see good art,” he says. “But while there was a lot of financial speculation on contemporary Chinese art, there was not much opportunity to see world-class Asian or western art.” His first show in Hong Kong included work by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Candida Höfer and Gerhard Richter.
It was Ho’s interest in German culture that drew him to the Höfer. But he did not buy immediately. As Brown jokes, “Matthew is from Hong Kong! That was the day he started bargaining.” There was also the small issue of how to negotiate this enormous print up the stairs of Ho’s typically small, if beautifully appointed, Hong Kong apartment (the solution was a bespoke print). But from that moment, Ho says, “I started to study western contemporary art. Ben Brown was putting on these group shows in Hong Kong of the Düsseldorf school of photographers [including Höfer], of zero movement artists like Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker and of capitalist realist artists like Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.” He adds, “Honestly, Ben has been instrumental in teaching me about western contemporary art. He has an immense depth of knowledge.”
Conscious that he was allocating a proportion of his annual income to art, Ho chose to protect his investment by buying well-known names. In his words, “I have made some good money through Ben Brown over the years.” However, his first consideration has always been his own reaction. For instance, it was at Brown’s gallery that Ho was introduced to the work of German artist Heinz Mack, co-founder of the zero movement in Düsseldorf in 1957 and famous for his light installations, op art and kinetic art. “I only popped in for half an hour, but immediately I wanted to buy his installation work. Unfortunately, it was too expensive, so I bought this 1962 painting Ohne Titel (Untitled) [similar examples about £600,000]. I like the way it has been painted – it is very abstract, with clean lines.” Brown has been helping to build Mack’s market since the 2010 sale at Sotheby’s of the renowned Lenz collection of zero movement art: “What interested me was the relationship between Mack and [Italian artist Lucio] Fontana,” he says. “I also realised that I could do something with the zero movement, whereas there was no way I could do anything more for Richter or Polke.”
Once Ho had bought a couple of Mack works, Brown suggested he consider fellow zero movement artists Günther Uecker or Otto Piene, who are rising in popularity. In 2015, Brown helped Ho buy Uecker’s distinctive 1983 Kleine Malerische Handlung Kreis Kreise (€250,000 then, now worth about 20 per cent more), at Sotheby’s. Brown says, “It is an incredibly rich and intense Uecker. Matthew is always complaining that his apartment is stuffed. It is a big issue in Hong Kong. Contemporary art has been getting bigger and bigger, but in Hong Kong there is extremely little space. But here came a great, small Uecker.” Ho adds, “Although it is small, it has a three-dimensional feeling. Also, it is not too loud, which is important for me.” Looking to next steps, Brown says, “Piene is an obvious hole. And Yves Klein or Fontana – non-German artists affiliated with the zero movement – would be a natural fit.”
Ho is not afraid to sell in order to upgrade his collection. “What is important about Matthew is that he is prepared to take risks,” says Brown. Ho now owns two works by the multifaceted Sigmar Polke: a photograph called Ohne Titel (Willich) – about £24,000 – and a wonderful abstract painting, Schüttbild (about £480,000), from 2000.
Both agree that one crucial purchase was a photograph by Gerhard Richter, a print of his swirling, abstract Ophelia (€25,000) from 1998. “This was one of the bridges between Matthew’s original purchase and the zero movement pieces,” says Brown. “It is one of Richter’s best multiples and shows how painterly he was. It was also more affordable than Richter’s canvases and works on paper.” Ho concurs: “Obviously, I have a fixed budget. But I would rather buy one work by a more established artist than many by lesser known artists.” He ruminates about the path ahead, given that his apartment is bursting with art and he has more in storage. “I have everything from paintings to photography to bits of installation. But for a piece to hang in our apartment, both my wife and I must love it.”