Wealth

Hong Kong Billionaire Lau Sets Two Records in 24 Hours

  • Tycoon buys $48 million diamond for seven-year-old daughter
  • His company sold Hong Kong's priciest tower for $1.6 billion

Pure coincidence or impeccable timing? Either way, Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau has just pulled off a twofer for the history books.

On Wednesday night he paid 48.6 million Swiss francs ($48.4 million) at Sotheby’s in Geneva for a 12.03-carat blue diamond, the most ever spent on a gem at auction. Then, less than 24 hours later, his company Chinese Estates Holdings Ltd. sold an office tower in Hong Kong for HK$12.5 billion ($1.6 billion), more than twice the previous record for a commercial sale.

Joseph Lau is pictured during a press conference in Hong Kong, China, on Jan. 1, 2013.
Joseph Lau is pictured during a press conference in Hong Kong, China, on Jan. 1, 2013.
Photographer: Imaginechina via AP Images

Lau, 64, who made his fortune in real estate, has been on a buying spree, collecting paintings from blue-chip artists as well as jewelry. He also generated headlines last year when he was convicted in Macau for bribery and money laundering in a trial he didn’t attend. He’s appealing the conviction.

Lau’s company sold the 26-story Mass Mutual Tower in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district to Chinese developer Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd. Chinese Estates paid HK$460 million for the tower when it bought part of it in 1987 and the rest in 1991, yielding a 27-fold return.

Hours after the deal was announced, China Life Insurance Co. said in a press statement it was buying an office tower and retail space from Wheelock & Co. for HK$5.85 billion, making it the second-most expensive building purchase in Hong Kong.

It was the third property sale to Evergrande by Chinese Estates this year, Chinese Estates spokeswoman Eunice Yeung said. In July, it sold a residential, commercial and hotel complex in the western Chinese city of Chengdu for HK$6.5 billion. The company sold another property in nearby Chongqing for HK$1.75 billion.

The previous most-expensive transaction for an office tower in Hong Kong was the HK$5.4 billion paid by Citigroup Inc. to a unit of Wheelock in 2014.

Lichtenstein Painting

Lau has also been busy on the auction circuit this year. On May 12 he picked up Roy Lichtenstein’s painting "The Ring (Engagement)" at Sotheby’s New York auction for $41.7 million, just a day after purchasing Pablo Picasso’s "Buste de femme" across town at Christie’s for $67.4 million.

Unlike Liu Yiqian, a Chinese billionaire collector who this week bought an Amedeo Modigliani nude for $170.4 million and pays for his purchases using his AMEX card, Lau wired the money to the two auction houses in New York, according to copies of receipts obtained by Bloomberg.

Lau’s blue diamond purchase on Nov. 11 came a day after he paid 28.7 million Swiss francs for a 16.08-carat pink diamond at a sale by Christie’s in Geneva. Both purchases were made for his seven-year-old daughter Josephine, his office said.

Known as the "Blue Moon," the record-breaking gem had a pre-sale estimate of 34.2 million francs to 53.7 million francs, according to Sotheby’s website, and has the highest possible color grade of fancy vivid blue. Lau renamed it "The Blue Moon of Josephine" and christened the pink diamond "Sweet Josephine."

Bribery Conviction

Last year he bought pieces of jewelry for another daughter, 13-year-old Zoe: the 9.75-carat "Zoe Diamond" for $32.6 million at Sotheby’s New York, and the "Zoe Red" ruby for HK$65 million at Christie’s Hong Kong.

Not all headline news about Lau has been good. In March 2014 he stepped down as chairman of Chinese Estates after he was convicted in Macau for bribery and money laundering in connection with land secured for a luxury housing project. Lau, who did not attend the trial, was sentenced to five years and three months in prison. As Hong Kong and Macau do not have an extradition treaty, he remains free.

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