Obituary: Allan Murray, banker and art collector

Allan Murray
Allan Murray
Have your say

BORN: August 1943 in Gullane, East Lothian. Died: 4 February, 2016 in Hong Kong, aged 72

In the great tradition of Scottish merchant adventurers, Allan Murray made his fortune in the Far East but enriched the cultural life of his native country with substantial donations and gifts, especially to the National Galleries of Scotland.

Allan George Murray was the younger son of Robert and May Murray. He was educated at Gullane Primary School where the headmaster encouraged in him an interest in words and a love of language – as an adult he kept 13 English dictionaries by his bed. He left North Berwick High School with a clutch of Highers, but eschewed university in favour of an immediate earnings profile.

He joined Chartered Bank in 1962 as a trainee, and on passing his exams in Manchester and London he was posted to the Middle East, soon becoming securities manager in the bank’s offices in Dubai, then in Aden where he survived the political unrest and riots of the Aden Emergency. Three months under house arrest were made tolerable by his noticing that, while the front door of his house was guarded, the back was not. However, on returning to the bank, he found that in his absence a junior colleague had leapfrogged him to the manager’s job. He moved to the Buraimi Oasis in Oman.

In 1971, he moved to Hong Kong with the newly-formed Standard Chartered Bank again as securities manager. From the outset he was dealing with the richest Chinese families and their generosity in sharing with him the finest Champagnes and clarets confirmed in his own mind that he had found an environment that suited him perfectly.

He developed a rapport with the Hong Kong Chinese that was fundamental to the success of his subsequent career. His dealings with Francis Zimmern, chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, led in 1976 to an introduction to one of Zimmern’s daughters, Carol, herself a stockbroker. Murray realised he had met his soulmate and they married later that year.

In 1974, he joined Jardine Fleming (the recently-formed joint venture between Jardine Fleming of Hong Kong and the London-based merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co), principally because they guaranteed him a permanent posting in Hong Kong.

Shortly after joining he began writing a daily report on the market for their mainly foreign broking customers. These became legendary and were built around his thinking of the market as being like a steam engine, the Hang Seng Express, either “storming down the track”, “waiting at the station”, “returning to the marshalling yard” or myriad such activities as seemed appropriate in the ever-changing Hong Kong market of that era. It was an eccentric piece of work but, being original and humorous and showing good insights into local thinking, it gained a substantial amount of broking business for Jardine Fleming from European and American institutions.

Murray was retained after Jardine Fleming became part of JP Morgan Chase in 2000; at the time of his death he had worked for the company for 42 years. Colleagues have recalled how morale in his department was always high, and it was said that without him JP Morgan would never have been able to gain traction with the senior members of the Chinese community in Hong Kong. He rose through the company to become chairman of Equity Broking.

While he made his Chinese friendships and connections through business, he met the expatriate community through his immensely energetic, outgoing nature – he took an interest in everyone he met, irrespective of rank or position.

His networking, both social and business, was facilitated by his love of “clubland”. On arrival in Hong Kong he joined the Cricket Club and later the Shek-O Country Club, where he played golf with The Dawn Patrol on Sunday mornings, teeing off at 6:15am sharp. Though he had played golf from the age of five on the Gullane courses, his style, as with everything he did, was his own and his swing would not be found in coaching manuals. He was chairman of the club for the last 14 years of his life.

He enjoyed the Jockey Club at Happy Valley, where he was a shrewd follower of form, but his second home was The Hong Kong Club, where he lunched every day he was in town. He was the most generous of hosts and could charm almost anyone to attend his lunch table in the Jackson Room. He was chairman of the club in 1998-99.

In London he always stayed at The Oriental Club and in Edinburgh at The Royal Scots Club. His twice-yearly lunches in Edinburgh’s Café Royal – where his guests were senior businessmen, museum directors and curators and gallery owners – were not for the abstemious, and diaries were cleared for the afternoon.

In 1978, Allan and Carol viewed the collection of Scottish paintings created by the London merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co. Allan was so inspired that he told Carol he wanted them to create their own collection, with Fleming’s as the benchmark.

Over the next 35 years the Murrays built up what is now regarded as the best private collection of historical Scottish paintings formed in the last 50 years. Using the Edinburgh dealership of Bourne Fine Art, initially the pace of purchases outstripped what Allan considered Carol would countenance, so a group, building up to over 70 paintings, was discretely hoarded in the gallery’s Dundas Street stockroom. When he finally confessed, it was decided that the paintings should hang in The Hong Kong Club where they remain – now numbering over 120 – reminding visitors of the importance of Scotland and Scottish businessmen in the development of Hong Kong as a financial centre.

With all available walls in Hong Kong taken up with the collection, in recent years Scottish institutions – the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Kelvingrove in Glasgow and National Trust for Scotland as well as Tate Britain in London – have benefited from long-term loans from The Allan and Carol Murray Collection, including works by Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn and John Knox.

The Murrays were also major donors to the Playfair Project at NGS in 2003 and in the refurbishment of the SNPG in 2011, giving their names to rooms in both museums. In 2013, the Portrait Gallery commissioned a portrait of Murray by John Byrne. In 2006, Murray became a trustee of the Fleming-Wyfold Foundation which administers the Fleming Collection.

Allan Murray was working to the day he died of a brain haemorrhage – his life philosophy was “short and full”. Amiable and loyal to his legion of friends, he is an immeasurable loss. He will be remembered for many things – his distinctive sartorial choices which always included an item in the “Murray green”, his unbridled enthusiasm in taking the stage to belt out Elvis numbers to get the party going, and his inimitable roaring laugh.

He is survived by his wife, Carol.

Patrick Bourne