40 Under 40 Asia Pacific

Elaine Kwok

1 September 2016

Vice President and Director of Education, Christie’s Asia, Hong Kong

How large is the demand – and the need – for specialist courses in art education in Hong Kong and Mainland China?

In London and New York, Christie’s Education trains a lot of people who want to work in the art sector. The student profile here is a bit older, and our work is as much about cultivating clients as it is about cultivating talent for the industry. There’s a huge amount of interest: about one third of people who take courses are collectors, a third would like to work in the industry, and about a third have a general interest. We do a lot of programmes in Chinese that are geared towards Mainland Chinese clients.

And what do the courses focus on?

For the uninitiated, many things about art can be intimidating: so much is about context and how a work or artist fits into a wider art-historical narrative. Part of what we do is basic art history on areas that are relevant to Asian clients. Chinese art is a big part of our curriculum, whether it’s classical painting, traditional ceramics and antiques, or – increasingly – contemporary art. There’s also a lot of interest in basic Western art history.

Another big aspect is how to navigate the international art scene. A lot of the roles of the various players in the art world – dealers, auction houses, museums, collectors, art critics – aren’t as well defined in China, so we look at their traditions and how they contribute to the ecosystem of the art sector. A lot of how the art world works isn’t intuitive – it’s a bit like learning a language.

Do you feel that a younger generation’s interest in art and collecting is growing in Hong Kong and China? What should auction houses do to encourage emerging collectors in the region?

All we can really do is encourage more people to come through our doors. So whether that’s through the Christie’s Education programme, or because there’s an event, or whether people just come to develop their eye and look at what they like, we need to teach people to engage with art more – and really think about it as part of their life.

You’ve conducted auctions in London and Hong Kong, and now also have an auctioneer’s licence in China. Did you ever envisage yourself at the rostrum when you started at Christie’s in 2007?

The answer is no! I remember watching auctioneers in London and thinking that I’d never be able to do it. You need so much stamina and clarity of mind. But when I moved back to Hong Kong in 2008, the firm was pushing to get more local auctioneers on the rostrum – people who speak the languages, and are from this area of the world – and so a few of us trained. The global head of auctioneering, Hugh Edmeades, was very encouraging from the beginning, and provided a lot of tutorials. That really made me go for it.

What are the challenges of switching between the various auction styles and traditions of different countries?

Firstly, there’s the language issue. To begin with, it’s a bit tricky getting the numbers straight, because the Chinese language has a different digit system from English, counting in tens of thousands rather than thousands. Then there’s the fact that buyers here tend to think a little bit longer, and the pace of the auctions is just a little bit slower. You have to bear that in mind as an auctioneer and not hammer down things too fast.

Taking the formal exam to become an auctioneer in Mainland China was a huge culture shock for me, in terms of how you’re expected to speak or make hand gestures – it’s quite different from the training I’d had at Christie’s. I had to unlearn old habits!

And what’s the best advice you’ve had along the way about leading auctions?

Don’t let the underbidder go too easily. Whether an auction is successful really has to do with our specialists and their expertise, but an auctioneer can pull up the price by 10 or 20 per cent through how they interact with the underbidder. With a little bit of persuasion, they’ll bid one more time…

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