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8:30 AM Monday, May 9, 2005: I'm looking at a residential real estate syndicate with an annual cash on cash return of 11% and a 7-year IRR of 20%. I'm not bragging. These deals are hard to find. But they exist. That's my point. They're bricks and mortar. So long as you have tenants (rents at reasonable prices) and have locked in your long-term borrowing, you should be OK.

In contrast, it's difficult -- if not impossible -- to make a decent living in the stockmarket. Which brings me to Fred Hickey's latest High-Tech Strategist newsletter. Hickey is a tech bear and has done well recently with put options on IBM and others. For others, see my April 11 column. Click here.

In mid-April Hickey, figuring that tech stocks were "over-sold", turned around and bought call options on IBM, Lexmark, Xilinx, Linear Technology and Cisco. He writes "before I create any heart attacks, rest assure that I am no bull. This is simply a trade. As noted in past newsletter, my put options generally have accounted for 2% to 2 1/2% of my total portfolio over the past couple of years, awaiting a true buying opportunity. I remain defensively positioned" -- which means treasuries and precious metals.

However, he does own a handful of technology stocks -- AMD, 3COM and Novell. None of these excite me. And none I'd own. Hickey is also looking to step back into put options. His put option hit list, as he calls it is Best Buy, Dell, KLA-Tencor, Applied Materials, Texas Instruments, Countrywide Financial, Maxim Integrated Products, Apple, eBay, Google, Research in Motion, Toll Brothers and Capital One.

Playing this game is very hard -- too hard for me. I report it because I want you to get a feeling of just how hard it is. For example, he bought IBM call options, he says, at $72.15 -- which was the right price. But how to figure that piece of astrology?

Art as investment? My friend brokers million dollar plus paintings. He cautions that no one should buy art for investment. You buy it because you like it or because it fits a hole in your collection. If it goes up, that's a bonus. In recent years, I've bought art I liked from artists I sensed were into self-promotion. All my purchases have been under $5,000 a piece. In 20 years, they'll be worth something, maybe. For the next 20 years, I'll get pleasure from looking at them.

To demonstrate how fickle and how hard the high-end art market is, I bring you an article from Saturday's International Herald Tribune:

Impressionism and Modern art of the early 20th century are down to a trickle, making the game trickier than ever for buyers and auctionhouses alike.

Consider the contrast between Sotheby's $91.3 million sale on Tuesday, when nearly one third of the works on offer crashed unwanted, and Christie's session a day later, in which 52 of the 59 lots sold for a whopping $142.92 million. What happened?

Both houses have first-class teams in the field, and both had a few -- a very few -- extremely good paintings. But when quantities are minimal, a difference of one or two units can tip the scales. And when quality standards get lower all the time because there is less and less to choose from, those unlucky enough to take in larger numbers of third-raters with foolishly optimistic estimates pinned on them hit the dust.

Sotheby's Tuesday evening sale included just one great painting with the signature of an Impressionist, and even that one did not really belong to full-grown Impressionism.

Monet's view of the river Seine at Argenteuil was painted in 1872 in a style heavily marked by the legacy of the Barbizon school and the influence of Eugène Boudin, Monet's mentor. It has none of the light effects that would soon characterize Impressionism. Extremely beautiful, however, the landscape fetched a substantial $4.38 million.

While there were a few truly Impressionist works, these did little to enhance the image of the movement. A clumsily composed seaside landscape by Monet, "La Manneporte, Marée haute," in which half of a natural rocky arch plunging into the sea looks like the underbelly of a pink elephant, cost $2.59 million.

An overestimated still life of gladioli in a vase by Renoir, whose main virtue lies in the signature, brought a generous $1.69 million -- the auctioneer Tobias Meyer wisely let it go well below the lower end of the estimate. Three Pissarro landscapes of no detectable merit, two banal Sisleys and a very mediocre Renoir contributed to create a depressing impression of drabness in the 19th-century selection.

Sadly, the picture was not that much brighter in the early 20th-century schools. Only one painting leapt off the wall. Max Beckmann's "Self-Portrait with a Crystal Ball," painted in 1936, owes its vigor to his Expressionist heritage. The face, however, is handled in purely figural fashion, making it hard to categorize the picture. Its sheer power sent it flying to a huge $16.8 million.

Two other notable works caught the eye. One, Picasso's "Femmes d'Alger (J)" from a series of 15 paintings carrying the same title and numbered A to O, was executed on Jan. 26, 1955. Done in the crude, spoofy style that Picasso often practiced during the second half of his career, the scene matches the image that the general public has of Picasso's art. It soared to a huge $18.6 million, paid by a Geneva-based international dealer.

Sotheby's had no such luck with its important Fernand Léger "Houses Amidst Trees," dating from 1914. The subject is reduced to virtual abstraction with its rhythmical geometricized shapes. The picture is highly advanced for its time. Unfortunately, the estimate, $8 million to $12 million, excessive by one third if not by half, killed the painting stone dead. The story repeated itself over a Kandinsky done in 1909 or 1910 with a wild $15 million to $25 million estimate. Bidders sat glumly on their hands.

Ironically, this probably helped whoever bought the superb "Landscape with Red Trees" done by Maurice de Vlaminck toward the end of his Fauve period, in 1906 or 1907. The faceted effect sends back an echo to Cézanne's late landscapes. As if stunned by the failure of the Kandinsky, the attendance barely took notice. A lone contender bid against the reserve. At $856,000, he or she bagged the bargain of the day.

As Christopher Burge, Christie's premier auctioneer, took over Wednesday, the change in atmosphere was striking. There was a buzz in the air. Twice as many major works, a higher average level and estimates pegged to reality rather than dreams made all the difference in the world.

The very first lot could easily have run into difficulties. The bronze version of a plaster study for a headless woman grasping her foot and exposing herself for sexual intercourse is not the easiest work to sell, even if signed Rodin. When the bronze is posthumous, as was the case here, it is harder still. Yet everybody seemed to want the piece that night. "Iris, the Gods' Messenger" brought an astonishing $520,000, exceeding the upper end of the estimate by half.

The second lot, a charming Impressionist landscape done by Pissarro in 1881 with delicate hues made possible by the support, silk laid on paper, nearly matched the high estimate at $452,800. The sale was taking off with a bang. ...

While star lots injected the energy and glitz indispensable to any major auction, what ensured the overall success was the inclusion of a number of good paintings with plausible estimates. Not least, the auctioneer apparently had the latitude of selling some works below the low estimate when he felt that the bar was set too high.

Picasso's Parisian view of the Boulevard de Clichy painted in 1901 may be superb but did not really warrant a $1.8 million to $2.5 million estimate. Burge let it go at $1.5 million, making the price with the sale charge almost $1.7 million. Monet's "Afternoon at Vétheuil," which is not brilliantly composed and hardly justified a $7 million to $10 million estimate, was knocked down at $5.9 million ($6.62 million with the sale charge), which is not cheap.

These concessions gave bidders the feeling that there was some measure of spontaneous debate in the making of a price. More than once, this made them willing to pay more. The study for the portrait of a young girl, Thérèse, by Balthus sold for $1.8 million, far above the high estimate -- with good reason.

Contented faces could be seen all around as those attending rose to leave. It had been an exemplary auction in the new penury age. The lesson deserves careful scrutiny.

Where Big Green Gets Big Greenery:
I am thoroughly jaded by what we can buy and what we choose to buy to please ourselves, and to impress our neighbors. With that as an introduction, I bring you Friday's New York Times. I don't make this stuff up. You must read this piece:

TO christen his two-acre property in Southampton, Gary Wexler wanted something grand for his front yard, something that bespoke sophistication, culture and permanence. After all, this was the social jungle of the Hamptons, where the carpetlike grass advertises a homeowner's cachet as much as the Hummer he drives and the caterers he hires.

So Mr. Wexler, 64, a real estate developer from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, chose a fully grown copper beech valued at $50,000. "We picked this tree to match the house," Mr. Wexler said, as he stood on the driveway at his property on the East End of Long Island a few Fridays ago, waiting for his lawn ornament to arrive.

A little after daybreak, a flatbed trailer rolled in from New Jersey, along with a caravan of cranes and gardeners. The specimen stood 45 feet, weighed 20 tons and was about 70 years old. Mr. Wexler was immediately pleased by how the gnarled branches offset the crisp cedar shingles of his new, 7,000-square-foot house on Wickapogue Road. "It makes the house look like it's been there for a while," he said.

photo by Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times
Gary Wexler, right, his landscape architect, Edmund Hollander, and Mr. Wexler's $50,000 copper beech.

In the Hamptons, where many people already have trophy wives and trophy houses, the trophy tree is becoming the latest must-have accouterment in the game of landscaping one-upmanship. Hedges that screen out prying eyes are being pushed to ridiculous heights, hothouse orchids are trotted outdoors, and the price tags for glamour gardens and mock nature preserves are topping $1 million. A garden-variety lawn is a faux pas worse than last year's Vuitton bag.

"It's landscaping as jewelry," said Steven Gaines, the author of "Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons" (Little, Brown, 1998). "You have a generation of incredibly wealthy baby boomers whose signature emotion is impatience, and the landscaping reflects that."

Or as Mike Scotto, the truck driver who transported the beech tree, put it: "It's like putting a big diamond necklace on your pretty wife and showboating."

Lavishing on landscapes is hardly new to Long Island. The estates of the Astors, Vanderbilts and Whitneys, so reminiscent of the Gatsby era, bristled with manicured croquet lawns, tea gardens and rarified maples. The Hamptons, however, with a fertile mix of money, real estate envy and fishbowl paranoia, breeds landscaping pageantry. Where else would gardeners be required to sign a confidentiality agreement before putting on work gloves?

And with only weeks to go before Memorial Day, the roads in and out of the Hamptons currently resemble a nursery parking lot. Armies of landscapers, gardeners and their flatbed trailers file in every morning in a sort of upper-crust Earth Day. "Everyone is on edge worrying about whether the gardens will be done," said David Seeler, the owner of the Bayberry, a nursery in Amagansett. "When this was a beach-house community, people wanted a little shade tree. But now we have this surge of $15 million homes. And very big houses require very big landscapes."

Cheryl Minikes, 60, who lives on Park Avenue in Manhattan, knows about landscape inflation. When she outgrew her two acres on Georgica Road in East Hampton, she added three more acres. But the resulting lawn was so big that she had to subdivide her garden into a dozen smaller "rooms": one for formal cocktails, one for informal gatherings and another just for children.

The cost for all her magnolias, wisterias and hydrangeas? "Oh god! It's probably millions," Ms. Minikes said. "I don't know the answer, and I definitely don't want my husband to know."

Like fashion and art, landscaping is a costly hobby to sustain. "If someone is looking to use their landscape to impress their friends, they can spend a lot of money," said Perry Guillot, a landscape architect based in Southampton. "I had a client who flew over a nursery in his own plane to pick out a tree."

He might have to charter another flight. The purple-leafed Japanese maple may have been in vogue last season, but this summer, it's all about the deep-burgundy chocolate mimosa. "That's supposed to be the long-awaited hot tree," said Kathleen Marder, an owner of Marders, a boutique nursery in Bridgehampton that has supplied exotic plants to Martha Stewart. Other trendy plants? A new hydrangea hybrid, Endless Summer; the native bayberry shrub; and anything tropical, Ms. Marder said. She picked up a book called, "Hot Plants for Cool Climates," and listed several tropical varieties she plans to carry: burgundy banana plants, burgundy phormiums and assorted cannas.

Whether the warm-weather foliage can survive the Hamptons climate is beside the point. After Labor Day "they get tossed out," Ms. Marder said, in an offhand tone that suggested yet another trend: disposable gardens.

AFFLUENT Hamptonites, however, have long preferred checkbook gardening over hands-on mulching anyway. "We get clients who buy $20,000 worth of annuals every spring," said Jim Kiley, the maintenance manager at Whitmore's, a large landscaping company in Amagansett. That doesn't include the price of upkeep; after all, people here don't water their own flowers. "A three-acre property costs about $40,000 a year to maintain."

Luckily for those on a tighter budget, the most coveted plant is also the humblest: the common privet hedge. "Originally, people screened to block the wind," said Elizabeth Lear, a landscape architect from Southampton. "Now they want to screen out their neighbors."

Privet is so overused that some hedge-lined streets look more like labyrinths than neighborhoods. In Water Mill, the column of privets along Rose Hill Road stands 20 feet, as if triple-decker buses were an issue. In Southampton, the entire length of Gin Lane is a wall of hedges as opaque as a highway sound barrier.

Landscape architects joke that the Hamptons is the privet capital of the world. Mr. Guillot has even written a book, "Privet Lives: An Imaginary Tale of Southampton's Iconic Shrub" (powerHouse Books, 2004), that satirizes the Hamptons in a series of fanciful hedge drawings: a lawn dotted with pill-shaped privets, a hedge cropped like a bouffant. But there is no shortage of real-life entries.

Carroll Petrie, a New York philanthropist, has been known locally for the 400-foot-long trapezoidal hedge at the the corner of Gin Lane and Little Plain Road, a property with serious curb appeal. It looks as geometric and architectural as a Richard Serra sculpture. "We used laser levels to shape it," said Charles Bellows, her longtime landscaper. "People are always taking pictures of it." (Mrs. Petrie sold the property this week.)

Hedges, however, have their limits. As the Hamptons are subdivided into smaller and denser lots, homeowners are discovering that privet only grows to about 25 feet before its shallow roots buckle. To extend its height, a few have started using duckbill cables from party tents, which keep the hedges from tipping.

While those extra feet may thwart neighbors from peering into your pool, that won't prevent the neighbors' Garage Mahal from rising above the hedges. For those landscaping emergencies, Edmund Hollander, a landscape architect based in Manhattan, likes to hem his hedgerows with a tightly packed skirt of Leyland cypresses. The hardy evergreens can grow 60 feet and taller. "They give you another layer of privacy," said Mr. Hollander, who designed the Hamptons gardens of Peter Jennings, Alan Alda and many Fortune 100 executives. For extra camouflage, he also advises his clients to snap up adjoining properties as they become available. Why take the chance that P. Diddy will move in and start holding his famous parties?

But rappers or not, entertaining is what these gardens are designed for. Just make sure they're ready for guests. "We were laying down the sod while the caterers were setting up," Mr. Seeler, the nursery owner, recalled of a Bastille Day party several years ago in East Hampton. Such last-minute installations are becoming the norm. "The trend today is for instant gardens," he said. "The first question clients ask me is, 'When will it be done?' Then they go away to Europe, and when they return, they come out and entertain."

But even in the Hamptons, there are those who resist the trends. Take Christopher Browne, 58, a managing director of the Tweedy, Browne Company, a New York investment firm. He has been landscaping his 18 oceanfront acres in East Hampton for three years, and he's less than half done. A recent drive-by revealed a pond, an apple orchard, a grove of specimen trees, but no house - he won't be breaking ground until 2007. "You do a landscape the same way an artist does a painting," Mr. Browne explained. "I like to feel that it reflects me, that I put more into it than just writing checks."

The dog has religion

Muldoon lived alone in the Irish countryside with only a pet dog for company. One day the dog died, and Muldoon went to the parish priest and asked, "Father, me dog is dead. Could ya' be saying' a mass for the poor creature?"

Father Patrick replied, "I'm afraid not; we cannot have services for an animal in the church. But there are some Baptists down the lane, and there's no tellin' what they believe. Maybe they'll do something for the creature."

Muldoon said, "I'll go right away Father. Do ya' think $5,000 is enough to donate to them for the service?"

Father Patrick exclaimed, "Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus! Why didn't ya tell me the dog was Catholic?"

Harry Newton

This column is about my personal search for the perfect investment. I don't give investment advice. For that you have to be registered with regulatory authorities, which I am not. I am a reporter and an investor. I make my daily column -- Monday through Friday -- freely available for three reasons: Writing is good for sorting things out in my brain. Second, the column is research for a book I'm writing called "In Search of the Perfect Investment." Third, I encourage my readers to send me their ideas, concerns and experiences. That way we can all learn together. My email address is . You can't click on my email address. You have to re-type it . This protects me from software scanning the Internet for email addresses to spam. I have no role in choosing the Google ads. Thus I cannot endorse any, though some look mighty interesting. If you click on a link, Google may send me money. That money will help pay Claire's law school tuition. Read more about Google AdSense, click here and here.
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