In pursuit of fun and profit

Three collectors reveal why buying high-end showbiz memorabilia, comic books or vintage watches can be a sound alternative investment vehicle.

Tim Boswell stands among Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia at his shop in Dubai. Clint McLean for The National
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Tim Boswell’s friends used to make fun of his jewel-encrusted lion claw necklace. Then he told them who once owned it.

Elvis Presley wore the gold chain and pendant, made from the claw of an African black mane lion, both on and off the stage and it was once called the greatest piece of jewellery “the King” ever owned by his friend, Jimmy Velvet.

Mr Boswell, a Briton who lives in Dubai, acquired it during a buying spree in which he collected 2,000 celebrity and historic items over an 18-month period.

Mr Boswell’s impressive hoard is not unique in the UAE, although it is hard to say exactly how many collectors are based here.

One insurer alone, Zurich, insures 250 collections in the UAE with an average value of US$1 million each.

“Globally you tend to have very significant collections in the Middle East,” says Arslan Hannani, Zurich’s head of private clients. “One reason is that there is a comparatively higher disposable income and a concentration of wealthier individuals in the region.”

For Mr Boswell, his collection started as a way to spruce up his office on The Palm and spend some of the money he had made in the Dubai property market.

“I used to stand in front of all of the queues, [reserve] a property and investors would give me Dh10,000 outside for the folder,” says Mr Boswell of his early forays into the newly launched freehold market.

He went on to set up Ocean View Real Estate in 2002 and by 2013, when he started buying memorabilia, was a seriously wealthy man.

He bought “some Elvis stuff and some [Admiral Horatio Lord] Nelson stuff” from international auction houses, either in person or online. His investments were initially just supposed to create a sense of atmosphere in his office, then he noticed the amount of trading that went on in the collecting industry.

And like a true businessman, he began buying items with a view to selling them on.

He bought Elvis’s jewellery, clothes and even his golf cart; John Wayne’s waistcoat; letters written by historic figures including Einstein; cheques signed by Walt Disney; and the buckles Lord Nelson was wearing when he died in the Battle of Trafalgar – plus hundreds more items besides. And he is now selling it all in his shop on Sheikh Zayed Road, Ocean Antiques and Antiquities.

Mr Boswell, who also has property investments, says collecting has become a viable investment vehicle for him.

“Certain items – ie Lord Nelson letters – are appreciating like 15 per cent a year, as are good, authenticated Elvis and Marilyn Monroe items. So it is an investment rather than an ornament,” says Mr Boswell, who expects he will make a return on the goods himself, although is unwilling to reveal how much.

“A lot of people don’t get involved because they think it’s a closed shop. Nothing is a closed shop. It’s still wide open.”

He is by no means the only collector who views his hobby as an investment.

Tariq Malik, a vintage watch collector and the owner of the only vintage watch boutique in Dubai, Momentum, started trading soon after he began his collection in the early 1990s.

“Swatch just launched at that time with limited edition collections that turned almost every single watch into an instant collectable item. I was curious and … got myself one. I remember the model was named ‘Goldfinger’,” says Mr Malik.

“A few weeks later I managed to sell it to a client who actually paid three times the price I had. That opened my eyes, and I started trading Swatches. It was fun and at the same time I made loads of money.”

Mr Malik’s interest eventually developed into vintage watches. While his collection is ultimately a long-term investment, he says he does buy and sell some of the pieces.

Watches and jewellery make up the most popular collection category insured by Zurich, followed by fine art and vintage cars, according to Mr Hannani.

But it also insures some more “off-piste” collections, to use Mr Hannani’s turn of phrase, such as handbags. Clients in the Middle East tend to be regular customers of some of the big brands he says, and they are offered priority when new handbags are launched.

“We have seen collections where you have 40 or 50 of these bags of similar value. The average value is probably about Dh50,000. They are not used on a daily basis or anything. They are kept in a locked room,” says Mr Hannani.

Peter Georgiou’s collection could also be considered somewhat off the beaten track.

Over the past three decades the private banker, who has lived in Dubai for nearly nine years, has collected more than 1,500 comic books worth millions of dollars.

He started the collection when he was a child, but realised its investment potential very early on.

“I used to sit with the official comic price guide, and then each year mark with a highlighter what was going up and why it was going up,” says Mr Georgiou.

“That’s how I started collecting, which is quite unusual because you don’t get many 10, 11 or 12 [year-old children] who would do that. Then me and my cousin had a brainwave where every new No 1 which came on the market we would buy it.

“Now 30 years on, I could tell you 90 per cent of them aren’t worth much more than what we paid for them. But some of them did very well. Comics that we bought for 50 pence at the time, some of them are worth £500 today, so it’s OK. But some of them are worth £1.”

He may view his collection as intrinsically linked with money, but he is unusual in that he rarely sells or swaps his comics, unless it is for a higher grade.

Plenty of comic collectors are entirely unsentimental.

“I think more recently as the market has grown and more people have realised the investment component in comics people are buying on the basis to make money,” says Mr Georgiou. “The only thing I would say is it can become very addictive. The passion can take over and suddenly you realise you are spending more money than you can afford. It can become quite obsessive.”

All three collectors are cagey when it comes to the value of their collections. But all agree they are an integral part their investment portfolios. However, Mr Georgiou, who also has property, stocks and shares, says that does not mean that he would urge people to invest in comics without consulting an expert first.

Mr Malik, who also invests in vintage Louis Vuitton bags, Cartier accessories and vintage cars, often advises clients about setting up watch collections for investment purposes.

“You can collect art, cars, coins, but in my opinion collecting watches is the most rewarding and comfortable category,” he says. “How many garages can you have? Can you travel with your art? Do you take your coins with you to show it to your friends? With watches, all that becomes easier. You put it on your wrist, read the time, travel with it, make it part of your lifestyle. You can show if off if you want and hide if you want. And if your purchase was a clever one, you will be able to sell it as well.”

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