her dressmaker who is Shanghainese, who customizes a Qipao for her.
Take a plunge
She confessed to hating the job at the beginning. It wasn’t easy for her, “because I’m not a born public speaker”, said Kwok. Her first few auctions were notably unpleasant and she prefers to forget them. “This thing is not fun” kepts swirling through her head. Her anxiety gave her stomach problems.
Since then, she’s concluded that public speakers are made, not born. Today, looking back on how she got here, she concludes it was partly fate and partly coincidence.
She was taking her Master’s Degree in Art History and Archaeology at the University of London, when she was asked to give a series of talks at a museum. “I was terribly nervous. My ears got very hot. I started speaking very fast because I just wanted it to be over.”
Even at that however, she’d spent a month alone in Paris, visiting museums and art emporiums. “I just wandered around. I couldn’t even understand the aesthetics of the works. I was simply captivated by them.”
Kwok thinks of her father, an arts lover and collector who was her major influence. She even attended auctions with him, entering bids on his behalf at auctions in Beijing. She caught the rush. Stage fright, however, was her big impediment — standing there, in the spotlight, feeling very much alone.
She forced herself to take classes in public speaking while at Stanford University Business School, a year later. She stood in front of the class, talking on random topics, every week for three months. It paid off.
The more she practiced, the more comfortable she became. “The first time I was bad, the second time I was bad…when it came to the 200th time, I had finally made it.”
An inexperienced auctioneer usually starts selling low value items, wines and watches. She remembered she was given 60 case of wine. She thought it would be easy. She hadn’t expected that exhaustion would set in by the time the sale was only half finished. It went on for more than two hours and she felt wiped out.
Local auctioneers were rare a decade ago when Kwok started dabbling in the business. Most auctioneers at the time, went elsewhere for training. Christie’s wanted to train Chinese speaking auctioneers.
Jonathan Stone, chairman and international head of Asian Art for Christie’s Asia, recommended that Kwok give it a shot. The company flew her to London for training. “It’s not so much that I chose the job. The job chose me,” reflected Kwok.
It was the third auction sale in London that gave her a big boost in confidence. She was selling and plenty of Chinese people came. It was considered a rarity for Chinese bidders to turn up in large numbers at an auction house, back then, particularly an overseas auction house. When she began speaking some Chinese, “everyone perked up,” Kwok laughed and continued, “it was incredible to see people holding their hands up and looking at me.”
Apart from selling precious lots at auction. Kwok is committed to advancing arts education at Christie’s Education. She hopes to nurture better understanding of the arts among people interested in artistic collections and aspire to become practitioners in the broad field of Arts. With the rise in the number arts galleries and arts related activities in Hong Kong, there’s a higher demand among people wanting learn to appreciate and evaluate art pieces, Kwok said.
Elaine Kwok is not a born public speaker, but she has become a successful auctioneer at Christie’s through training and practice.