What's the greatest auction you've ever been part of in HK?
There are two that spring to mind. There was a sale of Imperial clocks in May 2009 which had a high-estimate of HK$28 million but it raked in HK$284 million. The collection consisted of just 15 lots but it took me an hour and a quarter to finish so it’s my record slowest sale. Then, last year in May, we had a collection of rhino horn carvings that once again only consisted of 30-odd lots but it made about 20 million pounds sterling. Those two stick out because they were 100% sold and there were hands going up all over the place and that’s what auctioneering is about. Competing bidders ducking and diving – that was good fun.
HK seems to be the place to be for an auctioneer at the moment, how long do you see that lasting?
Asia now accounts for 20% of Christie’s global turnover, whereas seven to eight years ago it was just 10%. It has grown enormously and I think we’re suggesting that within three to four years it could represent a third of our business. We have just two sales series per year here so if figures reach that level it might mean that we need to revamp the whole business and create permanent sales rooms out here.
What's the most challenging part of being an auctioneer in HK as opposed to other parts of the world?
English isn’t the native language of the majority of people you’re speaking to so you have to slow down and annunciate a bit more. It makes the whole selling process a lot more inefficient. For instance, in London I sell between 70-100 lots per hour whilst here if you do 40-50 you’re doing well. I try to encourage momentum but the other difficulty is that a lot of the bidders aren’t comfortable with English so they look continuously from me to the conversion board where it displays their respective currencies. It’s not bang, bang, bang like in the UK.
Do you monitor a screen as well as the pit to see when internet bids have been made?
Opposite me on the back wall is a big plasma and the internet bids come straight in there so when a bid flashes I can see it immediately. It’s great because it encourages bidding from all over the world. It wasn’t that busy today (May 31, 2011) but yesterday we had Greenland, Zurich, Dubai, New York, the Bahamas and so on. We make it very easy for people not to attend the sales. Time is money and there are also reclusive collectors. We have one client in America who doesn’t want any communication with us. She asked us not to send her any brochures. She says she can do all her business online: she can see our catalogue, she can email us if she wants a specific report and if she wants to bid she can do it online. She’s a zero cost client and she spends US$20 million per year with us.
What improvements would you like to make to the industry?
With Internet bidding we’re talking about being able to bid on your iPhone because at the moment you can only do it through your PC. I would think in a year or two you’ll be able to do it through your cell phone or iPad which’ll be really cool. Sad thing is you might not need me as an auctioneer any more! It’ll all be done through a bank of TV screens.
Is that going to happen?
I think in certain categories it might. For things that are commercial like wines I can see them going down that route. Not an eBay, time-based auction process; instead they’ll just have the lot sitting there with a computerized adjudicator. Some other categories like watches might also go that way because they’re mechanical and have a certain commercial price. It’s rare you find a watch going for a lot more than you expect because people know what it's worth.
Isn’t an object’s worth simply what a person will pay for it?
Yes. A lot of people say to me, “Have I paid too much for it?” And it might sound a bit glib but the answer is you paid one more bid than the market decided it was worth that particular day. I think that’s the joy and sometimes the fear of auctions. You’re not told the price the object is worth. It’s not like going into a shop where you’re told exactly what to pay. There’s an unknown element - and it’s part of the fun of auctions that it’s the buyer who sets the price.
Money from Mainland China is skewing various auction markets to an unprecedented degree: is this a good thing for the market as a whole?
I don’t think it’s a particularly good thing for the industry. Certainly wine sales have skewed prices. There’s such a demand in China that they’re paying crazily high prices compared with what buyers have spent in the past. If the bubble bursts a lot of dealers will be left with wine they can no longer afford to sell because they’ve paid too much for it in the first place. The market’s never happier than when it’s going along nice and steadily. It’s always dangerous when there’s an outside influence.
How do you approach an auction?
Luckily I still get the nerves which gets the adrenaline flowing. I say luckily because if I stand up cockily, thinking I can do this in my sleep, I would then come across as arrogant. It’s important that I give the same status to the room as I do to myself. Though I’m sitting in my lofty rostrum looking down on you, I can’t let it seem like I’m mentally looking down on you. I try to be friendly because if I appear arrogant and scowling, you’d soon leave. I try and make everyone feel welcome. I certainly can’t afford 90% of what Christie’s are offering so I’ve got no reason to judge people for not making an additional bid.
Do you have any quirks in your routine?
I do a very strange thing to loosen my tongue. I stick it out as far as it will go and recite Humpty Dumpty. It loosens the muscles in the back of the throat where the tongue is attached. I go behind the scenes to do that and I also do a few stretches where I bend over to pump blood to the head because when you’re nervous, blood tends to drain to the legs. I also loosen my shoulders and my jaw by chewing a toffee. It’s rather like a knock-up in tennis. You can’t start serving without a stretch.
What do you look for in a budding auctioneer?
Obviously numeracy helps. It’s not the be all and end all but it’s an advantage. You’ve got to have a bit of energy, a bit of humanity, a bit of humour - and a voice. I’m actually trying to find more female auctioneers. They're at a natural disadvantage because their voices are weaker but we can help them with voice exercises and coaching, and the microphone will also enhance their speech.
What are the gender based demographics of auctioneering?
In London we’re a bit chauvinistic because unfortunately at the moment we’ve only got two out of about 25. New York is more like 50/50 while Amsterdam is 80% female. Auctioneering has always been seen as a bit of a male bastion but one of our top auctioneers who actually flies in with me to Hong Kong is Andrea Fiuczynski. She runs our Los Angeles office, and in my book, she is one of the top four auctioneers in the group. She’s particularly stylish, fun to listen to and fun to watch. Anyone can stand there and pump the numbers out but you have to deliver effectively. There are similarities with acting - a lot of people in the crowd might only be there for a few lots so you have to keep them entertained.
You sound like you enjoy it?
I get a huge buzz out of it, and it’s funny because at school if there was a school play I used to head for the hills or volunteer for lighting. Nothing could get me to stand on the stage and I didn’t join Christie’s to become an auctioneer. My boss decided to leave after five years there and I was told if I wanted his job I had to proceed as the auctioneer at the head of the department. I reluctantly got up there for my first one and suddenly realized I could do it - and that I quite enjoyed doing it. I’m never happier than when I’m in the rostrum.
What are your favourite things?
o Music – A band called the Oyster Band. They're a rock/folk band with a hint of Irishness that play mostly in small clubs. In my mind they are huge.
o Comfort Food – I’m a bit of a piggy for Jaffa Cakes. My children keep hiding them from me.
o Holiday Destination – I’m a hacking golfer so we go to the Algarve in Portugal a lot (above).
o Drink – Champagne. I’ve got a very uneducated palette but I like Lanson Black Label. Not expensive but I love it.
If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?
To answer it in a slightly different way, the most impressive person I’ve met is Nelson Mandela. I was lucky enough to be an auctioneer at his 90th birthday gala in this huge marquee in Hyde Park in London. You’ve never seen so many A-list celebrities but when he walked in everyone just stopped. The aura of the man, the charisma, was amazing.
What product can you not do without?
My Blackberry. I’m not addicted to it but I think it’s an amazing tool.
If you could pass on one characteristic to your children that you think you have, what would it be?
What items do you carry with you when you travel?
More recently a Kindle. I love it. It’s revolutionized my reading. It’s one of the first things I put in a bag.
What book are you reading at the moment?
A Tale of Two Cities. I’m enjoying it but it’s taking me longer to get through than I thought it would. English was different then. You can’t just scan the text.
What’s the most important part of being a gentleman?
Treating people as you would like to be treated yourself. I hate arrogant people. I’m quite laid back but arrogance does get up my hooter. It’s about status again – give people the same status as yourself and they’ll respond. If you shake hands with a waiter and a maître'd when you go into a restaurant you’ll get fantastic service. I only discovered this six months ago and it embarrasses the sh*t out of my kids, but if you treat your waiter as an equal rather than a servant they will look after you.
What do you enjoy most about coming to Hong Kong?
It’s sadly not really Hong Kong as I never get to see it. It’s long, hard hours but the adrenaline rush I get in the rostrum delivering to a dissimilar crowd compared with London is really enjoyable, as is the challenge.
What’s your favourite place in Hong Kong?
The China Club.