Christie’s Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on living in Hong Kong for two decades, why Christie’s specialists are romantics — and her love of Portobello Road
The art market has changed. I joined Christie’s as an administrator in 1993. Since then, it’s changed a lot — the global art market has expanded, experiencing a number of rollercoaster rides along the way. Now the market moves so fast it can be difficult to keep up!
When I came to Hong Kong in 1997, I thought, ‘What have I done?’ I had finished studies at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London, and was asked to move to Christie’s Hong Kong. At the time, the Asian financial crisis was at its peak. People were sitting on their hands in our fall auction — nobody was bidding. It was interesting to live through that time.
It’s great to see a new generation of collectors — even if it does make me feel very old! I now see the sons and daughters of collectors I first worked with coming through the doors of Christie’s Hong Kong. There’s still an intense interest in collecting, and sourcing the best pieces.
There are two types of collector. As Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art I meet both established collectors, who know exactly what they want, and those who are buying for the first time — either as an investment, or because they’ve found something they love.
I’m often asked to define ‘a good buy’. The answer really depends on what a collector likes — whether that be ceramics or Buddhist works of art. Of course, the value of certain areas has grown exponentially in recent years. As specialists we work to find the best pieces at the collector’s ideal price point. They can set the bar as low or as high as they want to.
There are always pieces you develop an emotional attachment to. I remember being bowled over the first time I saw the ‘Dragon’ jar from our 30th Anniversary sale. It was clear that I was looking at something really important; the size and the quality of the paintings was absolutely astounding.
Our job is like detective work. We’re always learning, and it’s humbling to realise that there are still things we don’t know. We work with ancient objects, and trace their history through the centuries — consulting museum archives or external experts for more complex cases. It’s fascinating to find out why an object was made and for whom. Records might reveal, for example, that a vase was made for an emperor, who specified a dragon handle.
As specialists we live and breathe art. It’s not just about buying and selling. I love going to the markets of Portobello Road just as much as the British Museum. It’s great to look at pieces, and to handle them — sometimes I have to remind myself that I can’t run my fingers across the works in museums!
In my work I see the good, the bad and the ugly. But the ugly is, of course, subjective. The good is a great pleasure; the bad helps us to know what is good; and the ugly keeps us on our toes! It’s important to see the unusual and the bizarre. As specialists, I think it makes us better professionals.
Christie’s specialists are real romantics. We live in a different world, built from the stories of the pieces we sell, and the worlds they’ve come from. We’re aware of the past, and how the past can affect the present. All objects can become reminders of a specific moment, or of the lovely characters we’ve come across in our lives. I don’t have a time machine, but this is perhaps the closest I’ll get.