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February 17, 2015updated 28 Jan 2016 6:05pm

William Cash's letter from issue 43

By William Cash

William Cash on life imitating literature and art imitating death

Ihave just read The Dog by Joseph O’Neill, his biting new post-crise financi’re novel about a barrister who is lured away from New York to run a ghostly family office in Dubai. It’s a sharp and witty novel with a hilarious early scene involving a job interview — or non-interview — which I hope doesn’t have any real-life parallels.

O’Neill describes how his barrister anti-hero lands his job as the homme d’affaires for the Batros Family Office after being summoned by a secretary from New York to a 10am appointment at the family’s suite in Claridge’s. After taking the red-eye from JFK, washing and changing on the plane, his taxi pulls up at Claridge’s at 9.07am. He presents himself to the front desk at 9.08. ‘The receptionist told me that Mr Batros had checked out. “There he goes,” she said, and we watched the Bentley pull away.’

On the subject of family offices, I am confident that the interview process for Rupert Phelps for his new job as head of Savills Family Office Services did not involve being enveloped in exhaust fumes as he watched a Bentley’s taillights disappearing off towards Heathrow.

I recently attended a highly civilised dinner co-hosted by Rupert and chairman Peter Smith for 26 senior figures from London’s wealth management and property worlds in the Savills boardroom. The dinner was to show Savills’ commitment to being a major force within the family office services sector. The idea of the new division is to pool together all expertise within Savills from which UHNW families can benefit, putting them together with ‘key intermediaries’ (eg lawyers, asset managers, tax and trust advisers and accountants).

It was quite a grand affair, with many of the most senior Savills directors present as well as a good show of marquesses and the sort of peers who sit on City boards. To my right was Clive Beer, a fellow Shropshire man and Savills’ head of UK Rural Professional Services, who personally recruited Rupert. Before our first glass of wine had been finished, Clive was explaining the tax and investment opportunities gained from agricultural relief for UK-based HNWs buying an estate in Tuscany.

But what interested me most about the evening was the conversation I had with the senior director to my left after I asked him what active political lobbying Savills were doing to try and avoid the realistic possibility of a Labour imposed mansion tax. And how worried was he by the recent stamp duty rise to 12 per cent?

The director took a gulp of wine and shrugged before acutely explaining one of the great secrets of the success of London’s private-client advisory and property world. ‘We don’t have any lobbying,’ he said. ‘While personally we might not like the idea of a mansion tax on our houses, as Savills we remain neutral. What has made us so successful as a company is that we always adapt to change.’

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What Savills Man was politely saying — and this applies equally to well-paid tax lawyers and most other HNW advisers — is that the private-client industry actually welcomes political regime change. New laws and new taxes — and divorce as well for that matter — create fee or commission opportunity as HNWs have to reorganise and restructure their affairs. Whether an HNW client or family office is buying up a mews in Belgravia or selling its commercial buildings in Belfast, Savills are still making money. Commissions, my boy.

Instead of going to Davos this year, I went to the Brussels Art Fair (BRAFA) which was celebrating its 60th anniversary. As one of the oldest art fairs in Europe, it is regarded as an ‘art barometer’ of the cultural and financial health of Europe for both dealers and HNWs. Judging by the number of red polka-dot stickers on the stands after just two days, the European collecting market seems to be in good health. Yet ironically, one of the most popular new areas of European collecting is vanitas art, warnings of death.

A good example was a 17th-century wax sculpture of a head entitled Study of a Human Decomposition by a religious prior from Syracuse called Gaetano Zumbo. The half-decomposed head looks mournfully up to his maker with a bright medley of worms, maggots and cockroaches filling the face as a rat crouches on his rotting shoulder. It is being offered by the Dario Ghio gallery in Monte Carlo — a place where money and death have an unusually close relationship (remember the grisly fate of billionaire Edmond Safra?).

So popular are these vanitas works that one specialist, Dr Alex Van den Bossche, is offering his services to create a bespoke curiosity room (also known as a Wunderkammer) for HNWs. These were de rigueur in the 16th and 17th centuries, the forerunners of private museums.

Now buying vanitas objects which ponder the meaning of life — and death — seems to be coming back into fashion with HNW collectors bored by the faux-vanitas factory-line works of the likes of Damien Hirst. Why spend millions on a decomposing shark in a glass case when you can buy a wax sculpture of a decomposing 17th-century human head for ’200,000?

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