‘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).

Elaine Kwok selling Potted Chrysanthemums by Sanyu for HK$118,645,000 on 24 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Elaine Kwok selling Potted Chrysanthemums by Sanyu for HK$118,645,000 on 24 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.’

Chen Liang-Lin selling a rare huanghuali-wood jiaoyi (folding horseshoe-back armchair) for HK$65,975,000 on 28 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Chen Liang-Lin selling a rare huanghuali-wood jiaoyi (folding horseshoe-back armchair) for HK$65,975,000 on 28 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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’.

Georgina Hilton selling Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) by Jean-Michel Basquiat for HK$234,290,000 on 24 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Georgina Hilton selling Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) by Jean-Michel Basquiat for HK$234,290,000 on 24 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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’.

Sarah Mao selling Seven Poems in Running Script by Wen Zhengming for HK$18,250,000 on 26 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Sarah Mao selling Seven Poems in Running Script by Wen Zhengming for HK$18,250,000 on 26 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.’

Elaine Kwok selling Wood and Rock by Su Shi for HK$463,600,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Elaine Kwok selling Wood and Rock by Su Shi for HK$463,600,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper. Painting 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in). Painting and colophons 26.3 x 185.5 cm. (10⅜ x 73 in). Overall with mounting 27.2 x 543 cm (10¾ x 213¾ in). Sold for HK$463,600,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper. Painting: 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in). Painting and colophons: 26.3 x 185.5 cm. (10⅜ x 73 in). Overall with mounting: 27.2 x 543 cm (10¾ x 213¾ in). Sold for HK$463,600,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

Georgina Hilton selling White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere by Sanyu for HK$191,620,000 on 10 July 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Georgina Hilton selling White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere by Sanyu for HK$191,620,000 on 10 July 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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).

Weng Zhengming (1470-1559), Poems in Large Running Script, 1553.Handscroll, ink on paper, 46 x 900 cm (18⅛ x 354⅜ in). Sold for HK$83,227,500 on 27 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Weng Zhengming (1470-1559), Poems in Large Running Script, 1553.Handscroll, ink on paper, 46 x 900 cm (18⅛ x 354⅜ in). Sold for HK$83,227,500 on 27 May 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.’

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One suspects that Christie would be both charmed and impressed.