Even for the Person Who Has Everything, Gifts Matter
R. COURI HAY, a society figure in Manhattan, is not one to think small when it comes to holiday presents.
He gave a former partner two Andy Warhol prints of Marilyn Monroe, because by that point in their relationship he had given him every other Monroe-inspired item he could think of, from kitschy items to trips to places linked to her.
He once presented Cornelia Guest, a socialite and animal rights activist, with a plate of jewels. He told her she could pick whichever one she wanted but that only one of them was real. (“I knew the real one,” Ms. Guest said. “That was a fun present.”)
For his mother, he went so far as to commission Peter Max, the pop artist, to create a painting from a photo of his mother and grandmother. “It brought tears to her eyes,” he said. “She was genuinely surprised to receive that.”
And it is that surprise that he says he and his friends try to give each other above all else. “My friends and my family and my partner — they’re all really spoiled,” he said. “They can all basically buy anything they want for themselves.”
But this year, Mr. Hay thinks he has really outdone himself. For his current partner, he has the gift of all gifts— better than the Damien Hirst painting he gave him last year, better even than the Range Rover with a bow on top. Spoiler alert: He’s getting a three-foot-tall Fabergé egg painted with koi fish.
Why this? His partner loves koi and tends to the ones in the garden in their townhouse. The egg, which he has been hiding for months, was painted by the artist April Gornik, and Mr. Hay bought it at a charity auction.
“When I saw it painted with koi fish, light bulbs went off and it was like, ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,’ ” Mr. Hay said. “I’m putting a big box over it. I think he’s going to go into shock. I believe he will not guess what is inside the box.”
Of course, one man’s perfect surprise is another’s ho-hum gift — or frivolous indulgence. If you’re not a small child, does any of this gift-giving really matter? Should we even bother spending money on gifts that are extravagant, thoughtful or both for our friends?
Yes, it turns out, we should. Gifts matter.
Elizabeth W. Dunn, associate professor of psychology at University of British Columbia and a co-author of “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” (Simon & Schuster, 2013), pointed to a study she was involved in that tested couples’ reactions to the gifts they thought their partner had selected for them.
“We lied and told them their partner either picked their top choice gift or their second-to-last-favorite gift,” she said. “People freaked out. One time I had to dive between a couple who was saying, ‘Why would you get that for me?’ ”
Of the 10 gifts they chose from, all were less than $10.
In the experiment, what gift people picked for their partners ended up influencing how they responded when asked if they would marry the person.
“What that says to me is that people should put some thought and money into a gift,” Ms. Dunn said.
But she said extremely expensive items might also be about a giver’s inability to pick an appropriate gift. “People aren’t good at giving gifts,” she said “Most people solve that problem by thinking what they themselves would like. That’s fine when you’re similar to the gift recipient, but sometimes people are just trying to throw money at the problem.”
Scott Diament, president of the Palm Beach Show Group, which produces art, antiques and jewelry shows, is giving a $295,000 Christophe Claret Margot watch to his girlfriend this year.
“When you care about someone who is really special to you, you want to find something that says something about you, about them, about the relationship,” he said.
The watch struck him as a significant display of affection — only 20 were made — but also appropriate for his girlfriend since the design is about love itself. “You can click a button and it comes up ‘he loves me, he loves me not,’ ” he said. “You can also set it so it always comes up ‘he loves me.’ ”
The proverbial Grinch with such lavish presents is the gift tax. Michael Malakoff, managing director of wealth planning at Ascent Private Capital Management in San Francisco, said few people thought they needed to file a gift tax form for a holiday present. If the gift is worth more than $14,000 and is going to anyone other than a spouse, they do — even if no tax will be owed. “If you don’t, you’re playing the audit lottery,” he said.
This is a risk many are willing to take, since the gift tax is not as closely audited as the estate tax, he said.
Other research shows that while gifts are important, these high-value baubles may not be the best way to deepen a relationship. Experiences would be better. And they don’t have to be extravagant ones. A gift certificate to a favorite restaurant will suffice.
Cassie Mogilner Holmes, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in a coming paper looked at how gift-giving fostered relationships. All gifts helped to strengthen relationship bonds, but those that were experiences made those bonds even stronger.
“If my best friend were to take me out to dinner or give me a gift certificate to that same restaurant, my receipt of that gift would lead me to feel closer to her than if she had given me a sweater,” Ms. Holmes said. “People are more likely to give material gifts because they have this notion that come Christmas morning you want to have something under the tree to unwrap. There is this assumption that they’ll think of you whenever they use it.”
But this assumption, her work suggests, is false, and people would be better off giving concert tickets or signing someone up for a wine club. “When you’re consuming an experience you feel a greater intensity of emotion than when you’re consuming a material good,” she said.
In other words, the sweater — or $295,000 watch or Fabergé egg — is great when you unwrap it, but over time you get used to it in a way you don’t with the memory of a great night out.
Sheila Rosenblum, owner of Lady Sheila Stable, a horse-racing syndicate, said she gave her 80-year-old uncle a racehorse this year, to fulfill his dream of owning a thoroughbred. But when it came to her two children she went for an experience, an extreme-sports vacation that will include tandem paragliding, ziplining and, of course, horseback riding, from Dubai to New Zealand.
The risk is that the giver picks an experience that the giver would like, not one that the receiver wants. But that can happen with any gift.
And even at this level of gift-giving, there is no guarantee that the gift will get used, no matter how lavish or thoughtful.
Martin D. Shafiroff, an investment banker, commissioned the artist Iké Udé to create a portrait of his wife, Jean, in 2012. “I wanted it done before I got too old,” Mrs. Shafiroff said of the stylized picture.
Alas, while she says she loves it, the picture is not hanging on the Shafiroffs’ walls. “We have other types of art in the home,” she said. “We’ll eventually hang it somewhere. But it’s here in my home, and I’m very happy that I have it.”
While reveling in giving gifts, Mr. Hay, whose home is filled with gifts from a lifetime of being on the Manhattan social scene, does not subscribe to the adage that it is better to give than receive.
“I never tell people ‘No gifts,’ ” he said. “Who doesn’t like to unwrap a gift? I’m difficult to buy for and surprise. But you can shop for me. I don’t want to discourage anyone.”
And if all else fails, he said, there are always chocolates.
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