‘Bids come from all directions. We have to look everywhere’
Christie’s Hong Kong-based female auctioneers on what it takes to wield a killer gavel
One wonders what James Christie might have thought, as he stepped onto his Chippendale rostrum for the first-ever Christie’s auction on 5 December 1766, had he known that today, half of the company’s 51 auctioneers would be women.
Of those, five work out of Hong Kong, deploying a combination of charm, energy, numerical agility and crystal-clear diction that, in 2020, helped to steer the sale of more than 4,500 lots — exceptional artworks and luxury goods ranging in price from tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of Hong Kong dollars (£1,000 to £1,000,000 and up).
What makes a good auctioneer?
Not everyone can hold a room. It requires a stage presence akin to that of an actor — a capacity to ‘be compelling and full of life’ as Hong Kong-born Sara Mao, Director of Christie’s Education Asia Pacific puts it.
For fellow Hong Kong native Elaine Kwok, the region’s Director of 20th and 21st Century Art, flexibility and resilience are key. ‘You have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and keep calm when the unexpected occurs,’ says Kwok, who made auction history in 2020 by kicking off Christie’s first global live auction, relayed in sequence from Hong Kong to Paris, London and New York.
Hilton makes sure she holds the gavel ‘right at the end’, because she thinks that ‘makes the most effective bang on the rostrum’
Superhuman vision — an ability to keep track of absentee, phone and online bids, as well as bids from the room — is another prerequisite.
‘Bids come from all directions,’ explains Taiwan-born Chen Liang-Lin, Head of Sale and Senior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. ‘Basically, we have to look everywhere.’
How did you become an auctioneer?
‘I was trained by Hugh Edmeades, the International Director of Auctioneering at the time, who would come to Hong Kong twice a year to support our sales and to train up the next generation of auctioneers,’ explains Chen. ‘It took me about three seasons of training to take my first sale.’
For Georgina Hilton, who was born in England and is now Head of Marketing Strategy, Events and Partnerships for Asia Pacific, auctioneering runs in the family: she ‘spent her childhood sitting at the back of a room’ watching her father in action on the rostrum.
So when she joined Christie’s after university, and heard that auctioneer trials were open to all, she thought ‘perhaps this was something I could have a crack at’.
What are your auction routines?
Observing an auctioneer in action can feel a little like watching a stage performance; like actors, auctioneers have their own routines and rituals.
Some of these are whimsical (on the morning before an auction, Kwok lets her three kids ‘kiss the gavel for good luck’); others are more practical. ‘We always have a meeting before each auction to prepare our notes,’ says Mao. ‘I make sure that I can accurately and clearly read the Chinese and English descriptions for all the lots.’
Hong Kong’s female auctioneers have also personalised the tools of their trade and the way they use them. Mao’s gavel was inscribed with her initials by a Shanghai colleague, while Wang’s secret weapon is a special pen, a gift she received on becoming an auctioneer. As for Hilton, she makes sure she holds the gavel ‘right at the end’, because she thinks that ‘makes the most effective bang on the rostrum’.
What’s your auctioneering style?
A lightness of touch seems to be fundamental to the auctioneer’s craft — for Chen, surprisingly so. ‘I always felt that my own style was quite serious,’ she says, ‘but then I saw some videos and realised that I was rather light and playful, yet tactful.’
Which auction will you never forget?
The rewards of the job are clearly considerable. Kwok describes being the auctioneer at the November 2018 sale of Wood and Rock by Su Shi(1037-1101) as a ‘great honour’; she finally brought the hammer down on a bid of HK$410m (HK$463.6m with fees), setting a record for Christie’s Asia.
Eighteen months later, it was Hilton’s turn to feel privileged, as she shared an evening sale with Kwok, and took a closing bid of HK$167 million (HK$191.6m with fees) for a still life of chrysanthemums by Sanyu (1895-1966), a new auction record for a still life by the artist.
For Chen, the sale of Chinese paintings from the Chokaido Museum Collection in May 2019 was the biggest adrenalin rush.
‘The auction included Poems in Large Running Script by Weng Zhengming (1470-1559), which was valued at HK$5m at the time,’ she explains. ‘I started the bidding at HK$3.8m and after nearly 35 minutes of incredibly intense competition, ended with a final hammer of HK$71.5m,’ (HK$83.2m with fees).
How do you ensure a work-life balance?
All five of Christie’s Hong Kong-based female auctioneers are mindful of making time for family and friends. With a role that requires such focus and dedication, however, getting the balance right isn't always easy. ‘It's important to be flexible,’ says Kwok, ‘and to make time for yourself as well.’
It helps that they’re passionate about their job. As Mao puts it: ‘It can get very busy and intense working in an auction house but I also think that’s part of the fun! I feel very lucky to have a job I enjoy very much that allows me to continuously learn new things.’
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
One suspects that Christie would be both charmed and impressed.