I n 1973, Sotheby’s became the first international company to hold auctions in Hong Kong – and it landed in the city with a bang. Its inaugural sale in Asia featured remarkable Chinese porcelain that brought in a total of US$2.3 million, making it, The New York Times raved the next day, “the most successful auction of Chinese art objects ever held anywhere.”
Today, 50 years after its first auction in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s continues to break records in the city, led by a team of experts in Asia committed to bringing the best of art and luxury to collectors around the region. In 2022, its total public sales in Hong Kong hit US$1.1 billion, matching the record made the previous year and marking Sotheby’s as the market leader in Asia for the seventh consecutive year.
Our core mission is to bring art and culture to wider communities in Asia.
“When we first opened doors in Hong Kong, collectors in the region were mostly focused on acquiring Chinese art – works most closely connected with their own cultural heritage. The art market was then small. Now, Asia is blossoming to become one of the world’s largest markets, accounting for 36 percent of global turnover, with interests across Western and Asian art alongside cross-category collecting.”
Working alongside Drahi to steer the company into the next half century is a new generation of forward-thinking leaders who will continue to drive the company’s success, including Wendy Lin, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia; Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and the Worldwide Head and Chairman of Chinese Works of Art; and Jen Hua, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and Chairman, China. Driving key divisions alongside Chow, who is at the helm of Chinese Art, are Wenhao Yu, Chairman of Jewellery and Watches, Asia; and Alex Branczik, Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia. Meanwhile, a team of regional leads are guiding the company in the growth of key markets in Asia, including Jean Qian in Mainland China and Jasmine Prasetio in Southeast Asia. In the saleroom, Ian McGinlay, who has conducted many of Sotheby’s record-breaking auctions in the region, is nurturing the company’s next generation of auctioneers.
These leaders are united in their goal to drive growth in Asia, as well as by their desire to keep building on Sotheby’s legacy of innovation by pushing the company in new directions. Together, they are exploring cutting-edge sale formats and digital experiences, such as Sotheby’s Buy Now, which allows collectors to acquire art and luxury objects outside of the traditional auction calendar at fixed prices year-round. Demand from top collectors in Asia is reshaping the auction market not just in the region, but around the world, and is particularly evident in luxury categories. “Collectors in Asia now account for the highest proportion of global spend in luxury – an astounding 40 percent," says Lin. “Five of Sotheby’s top ten most valuable items sold at auction in 2022 were in luxury, including the Williamson Pink Star diamond which sold in Hong Kong for US$57.8 million, and achieved the record price per carat for any gemstone ever sold.”
With its upcoming online initiatives, as well as a series of new client spaces and offices scheduled to open around the continent, including a 24,000-square-foot maison in the heart of Hong Kong, Drahi is confident that Sotheby’s next half-century in Asia will see the company rise to even greater heights. But beyond sales figures and business ambitions, the Sotheby’s Asia leadership team is connected on a deeper level – by the responsibility they feel to the collectors they work with.
“We have played a seminal role in shaping the international influence of collectors in Asia."
"Collectors come to Sotheby’s because we have the reputation and the expertise." Lin says that many collectors have the confidence to explore new interests through Sotheby’s because they know how carefully all items on the block have been vetted. "They trust us to have access to the finest, rarest and most worthwhile objects."
Chow understands what drives collectors. Sotheby’s first single-owner sale in Hong Kong in 1980 was the collection of Edward T. Chow, arguably one of the greatest connoisseurs of Chinese ceramics – and Chow’s grandfather. Chow’s childhood experiences laid the foundation for the work he does today. He is the go-to advisor of many of Asia's leading arts patrons, including Liu Yiqian, co-founder of Long Museum together with his wife Wang Wei. In 2017, Liu acquired a porcelain cup – one of only 17 known to exist from the Ming dynasty – for US$36.3 million from Sotheby's.
Recent successes prove that the market for Chinese works of art remains buoyant. “Our record-breaking results in Chinese Art in the Hong Kong Spring Sales reaffirms Sotheby’s position at the forefront of the market,” says Chow. Combined sales from the departments Chinese Works of Art, Modern Chinese Paintings and Fine Classical Chinese Paintings brought in a total of HK$1.64 billion (US$209 million) this April. Star lots included Zhang Daqian’s Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, which sold for HK$251.6 million (US$32.3 million), and the Dr Alice Cheng Falangcai Bowl, snapped up by a collector for HK$198.2 million (US$25.3 million).
Sotheby’s in Asia is synonymous with unparalleled expertise, innovation, and legacy. Our unsurpassed experience in Asia is the bedrock of the trust our clients put in us.
While Chow has established Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art department as the market leader over the past 25 years, he has also pioneered new sales models that have enabled Sotheby’s to both reach new collectors and inspire existing clients. “Since I joined the company a quarter of a century ago, our sales have grown a hundredfold, and we have expanded from sales that were for the longest time China-centric to embrace art from all around the globe spanning from prehistory to present day,” says Chow.
Chow is the mastermind behind Sotheby’s series of Curiosity sales, which began in 2014 and offer a kaleidoscopic array of objects, including Western antiquities, tribal art, minerals and fossils, and Old Master drawings. “Over these 25 years since I joined the company, we have continued to push the boundaries, be that unlocking the possibilities of the great objects that we are entrusted with, through curated sales, or collaborations with cultural icons,” says Chow, referring to auctions that the company has hosted in conjunction with figures such as NIGO®, the founder of fashion brand A Bathing Ape.
Through these sales, leading connoisseurs in Asia have expanded their horizons – and their collections. At NIGO® Only Lives Twice, an auction in 2014 featuring items from the fashion designer’s own collection, a diamond-studded dollar-sign necklace by Jacob & Co was sold to Robert Chang, who is best known for his world-class collection of historic Chinese ceramics.
Chang’s acquisition of this one-of-a-kind necklace alongside his continued commitment to Chinese ceramics is emblematic of how many collectors in Asia are now buying across multiple categories.
Over the past 50 years, Sotheby’s mission in Asia has evolved. To start with, the company simply facilitated the buying and selling of art. Now, Lin describes it as a combination of a tastemaker, a pathfinder and an advisor to the collectors Sotheby’s works with. “In many ways Sotheby’s has become a cultural gateway,” says Lin. “Not just for local collectors who want to access the best in the international art and luxury market, be it cutting-edge Western contemporary art or exclusive Western-branded luxury items, but also for international collectors who are interested in delving into the ancient and modern cultures of Asia.”
The company’s position as a cultural bridge is particularly pronounced in Mainland China, where a new generation of collectors are hungry for information about art and collectibles from elsewhere in the world – and are turning to Sotheby’s for advice.
With the growth we have seen in the region and the rising interest of a new generation of collectors, we can certainly expect China to be at the fore.
"Collectors are insatiable learners, and interested in personal growth and development. They are not just assembling a collection of objects for social status,” says Hua. “The collectors will happily purchase a Patek Philippe one minute then dip into contemporary art the next minute.”
Collectors in Mainland China are also digitally savvy. “They have no qualms about embracing new technologies and bid online even for premium lots,” says Hua. “A Mainland Chinese online bidder was the direct underbidder of a Francis Bacon triptych, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, that sold in New York for a record US$84.5 million three years ago.”
In response, Sotheby’s is engaging with collectors in Mainland China through a variety of new online channels. “We are dedicated to providing art enthusiasts with easy access to the most desirable collections through a variety of platforms, including audio guides, virtual exhibitions, and auction live streaming, all from the comfort of their own homes,” says Jean Qian, Sotheby’s Managing Director, China. This year Sotheby’s is also launching the online platform Sotheby's Buy Now in Mainland China. Sotheby's Buy Now is a major move away from the episodic, event-driven auction calendar that the company has adhered to for so long – and so far it has been a success. In Europe and the US, 75 percent of sales on Sotheby's Buy Now are to clients new to Sotheby’s.
“With Sotheby’s Buy Now we are seeing a new generation of collectors looking for immediate purchases all year round and available online,” says Drahi. “Over the past five years, our daily experiences have become more digitally integrated than ever before. We want our Buy Now platform to blend seamlessly within our customers’ lifestyle and habits – to create a destination that serves their lifetime requirements, from wedding gifts to décor for their new home.”
Mainland China is a key step in the next chapter of Sotheby's strategic growth in Asia.
Offline, Sotheby’s is opening new offices and an exhibition space in Shanghai later this month. “The forthcoming launch of Shanghai Sotheby’s Space, situated on the banks of the Suzhou Creek, will create a new landmark for art and culture in Shanghai,” says Qian. “This will enhance the local community's offline collecting experience and demonstrate the company's dedication to continued investment in the Chinese market.”
Alongside Sotheby’s increased presence in Mainland China, the company is also ramping up its activities in Southeast Asia. In 2022, Sotheby’s held its first auction in Singapore for more than 15 years, generating sales of SG$24.5 million (US$18 million). The sale shone a spotlight on artists throughout the region, including Shanghai-born, Paris-educated Singaporean artist Georgette Chen, who was a key figure in the development of modern art in Singapore in the 20th century, and Luxembourgish artist Michel Majerus. The sale saw new artist records set for both Chen and Majerus.
Moving forward, Sotheby’s plans to host regular auctions in Singapore, as the company develops the cultural landscape in Southeast Asia with the city-state at its core. “Our successful auction in Singapore last year included not only important works by Southeast Asian artists, but also international modern and contemporary art, to reflect the diverse collecting categories that the audience in Singapore and the region have been actively collecting,” says Prasetio.
Sotheby’s has also started hosting educational endeavours around Southeast Asia. “July 2022 saw our first ever non-selling exhibition in Vietnam which was attended by more than 5,500 visitors over just four days. Titled Timeless Souls: Beyond the Voyage—Hồn Xưa Bến Lạ, it was intended to encourage discourse and awareness about modern Vietnamese art,” says Prasetio. “We were humbled and overwhelmed by the positive response from the community.”
We are proud to say that Southeast Asian art has a truly international audience and patronage.
These initiatives in Singapore and Vietnam – as well as new offices opening in Seoul, and Sotheby’s ongoing activities in Japan – are not operating in silos. They are all part of Drahi and his colleagues' overarching mission for Asia: to make the best of art and luxury available to collectors and the wider public in the region, whenever they want it, wherever they are. “Our goal is to broaden our customer reach in Asia, whether it be through our physical locations, introducing new transaction channels, sales formats, or new categories,” says Drahi. “We are focused on providing the most innovative collecting experience tailored to our collectors’ lifestyle in the region.”
This vision to make Sotheby’s available to collectors both online and offline, and to host sales both at scheduled times and year-round, is encapsulated in the company’s new maison in Hong Kong, which is due to open in 2024 in Landmark Chater, one of the city’s ritziest and most prominent luxury retail space at the heart of the city. The 24,000 square foot street-level space will feature many access points – from street to footbridges – allowing collectors and visitors alike to enjoy an array of extraordinary objects and experiences from across time and geography. The multi-functional compound will encompass an expansive state-of-the-art exhibition space and showcase Sotheby’s full suite of offerings – from the company’s signature auctions, private sales and masterworks exhibitions, to aspirational art and luxury objects available via Sotheby’s Buy Now and an innovative café concept.
“With our maison opening in Central in 2024, our ambition is to ignite people’s imagination in this city, instilling confidence and giving them an entirely fresh perspective and experience of art and luxury,” says Chow.
Drahi is all the more excited. “Sotheby’s new maison in Hong Kong embodies our vision for a widely accessible and truly integrated destination for the world’s most extraordinary objects and unique experiences,” he says. “It will be the beating heart of Sotheby’s Asia as we enter our next half-century.”