The Sotheby’s Hong Kong saleroom

HONG KONG - Here is an interview that I did with journalist Katie Hunt for the most recent issue of Sotheby’s at Auction magazine (Katie wrote a great story about the booming Hong Kong scene in our May issue).  As CEO of Sotheby’s Asia, I have had a ringside seat to the unprecedented boom in China’s art market over the past decade. When I began my job in 2006, Hong Kong auctions accounted for some 8% of Sotheby’s revenues.  Today, the Asian market is responsible for 20% of the company’s business.

Sotheby’s is investing in a 15,000 square foot Hong Kong gallery space. Why are you expanding now?

In London and New York, people come to Sotheby’s and they can browse in our bookshop and wine shop, relax in a café and view exhibitions all year around. We have always wanted to be able to offer those experiences here. At the same time, Hong Kong itself has changed a lot since we first arrived here in 1973. We have ART HK, which is coming under the Art Basel franchise this year, international galleries like White Cube and Gagosian have opened and the West Kowloon museum project is getting a big push. Hong Kong has become the art hub of Asia and I think it’s exactly the right time for us to expand so we can bring a true Sotheby’s experience to our growing client base in Asia. We want to interact with our clients and the general public more than just twice a year, during auction season.

Your Spring sales act as a barometer for the Asian art market. Were you pleased with this year’s results?

Our spring sales went very well. We made headlines with a world auction record for Song ceramics when a 900-year-old Ruyao washer fetched HK$208 million/US$27 million. Altogether, we sold more than 2,780 lots sourced from nearly 30 countries, and achieved a total of HK$2.4 million/US$316 million against a pre-sale estimate HK$1.9 billion/US$244 million. 

Nicolas Chow holds the 900-year-old Ruyao washer that sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $27 million.

China’s art market has seen exponential growth over the past few years and is now, by some estimates, the world’s largest. What has driven the boom?

First of all, Chinese people have more money now. Like any other nation, when people become wealthier, they can then seek satisfaction from cultural pursuits. Owning a piece of China’s Imperial past by acquiring Imperial objects has become highly desirable for Chinese buyers in these past few years.

A view of Sotheby’s pre-sale exhibition at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

Are there any signs that the market is slowing?

I would not say so.  This season saw somewhat less dominant bidding from Mainland China, replaced by strong bidding from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

To date, Chinese collectors have been most interested in buying art and antiques from their own culture. Is there any evidence tastes are evolving to include Western art?

The interest of Chinese collectors is still very much in Chinese ceramics and Chinese paintings, although we’ve seen them branching into wine, watches and Western jewellery as well as some forms of Western art–especially Impressionist paintings and 19th-century Victorian pictures which depict landscapes, flowers and things of universal appeal.

There have been a number of high-profile cases of Chinese bidders failing to pay for items won at auction. How have you handled the issue?

Non-payment is not as big a problem as it is thought to be. We’re talking less than 2% of our annual turnover in Sotheby’s Asia, which in 2011 amounted to over US$1 billion/HK$7.8 billion. We have taken and will take steps to protect our consignors, as we also do with the issue of late payment. When circumstances justify it, we will pursue late payers through legal channels. We did this to protect the interests of the consignor of a painting by modern Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki, which made a record during our October 2011 sales; after an initial delay, full payment was eventually made in March. 

Among the first exhibitions at Sotheby’s new gallery will be the bright,
eye-catching work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

Sotheby’s only holds auctions in Hong Kong. Do you have any plans to hold sales in mainland China?

At the moment, the law does not allow foreign houses to go into China to sell cultural relics. I think in time that will change, but while we are exploring ways to hold auctions in China, we continue to hold exhibitions in the country. For example, this March we took our spring highlights to Chengdu in Sichuan (read Kevin Ching’s post on the highlights exhibition in Chengdu here). We already know our client landscape reasonably well along the coast in Shanghai and Beijing, but the big chunk of China that is unexplored is in the West, so it’s important that we start building and enhancing our relationships there.   

Your main competitor, Christie’s, has a licensing agreement with a Chinese auction house. Is this a route you would like to take?

Any such venture will only be meaningful if we can find a partner that genuinely shares our vision, our values and our respect for governance. Sotheby’s is a great international name that carries a lot of value and we would not do anything that would put that at risk.

China’s main auction houses–Beijing  Poly and China Guardian–now rank as the world’s third and fourth largest; how do you view your Chinese competitors?

It is remarkable that some of them have grown so large in a matter of just five or six years. However, there is not one Chinese auction house that has handled so many internationally renowned private collections of Chinese ceramics or works of art as we have done. And buyers–those who go for top quality, the best client service–know to come to us.

Watch the first installment of Sotheby's four-part video series about Hong Kong, Eye On the Art World, in which we explore the city's position as a major center of the global art market.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]