She mastered basketball courts and Parisian catwalks—and now she’s auctioneer Christie’s secret weapon. Christopher Dewolf meets Xin Li, the woman selling masterpieces to China’s billionaires
ot many people can claim to have had three careers by the time they are 38. Then again, not many people can match the talent of Xin Li, the deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia-pacific, who has already retired twice—first from a career in basketball, then from a long stint as a fashion model. Retirement might be a misnomer; graduation is more appropriate, given the escalating demands of Li’s present position, in which she deals with some of the world’s biggest-spending art collectors. In one evening last year, she spent more than US$30 million on behalf of one of her clients, Chinese restaurateur Zhang Lan, who bought a Martin Kippenberger self-portrait and a piece from Andy Warhols’ Little Electric Chair series.
It’s a high-pressure job. “I had no idea that the art industry could be so physically taxing,” says Li, who is based in New York but spends most of her time travelling around the world. But if there’s anything Li can handle, it’s hard work. Born in Changchun, capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, to high-achieving parents, Li was a lanky child and drafted into the national basketball programme at the age of 12. It clearly runs in the family—her father was the deputy director of the provincial sports bureau. “Sports had always been part of my life,” she says. It was by no means a carefree adolescence; Li’s days started before sunrise, with 5am exercises in the frigid winter, and lasted through seven hours of strict drills and running plays. “I took the challenge seriously,” she says. Three years later and standing at 180cm, Li was deemed good enough to play for the national junior team.
That could have been the prelude to a life in sports. When Li moved to Beijing for university, she followed her father’s footsteps and studied sports administration. But people often commented on her striking figure. At one point, a friend handed her a copy of Elle and suggested she become a model. In 1995, during her final year of study, Li entered a beauty contest and placed in the top 10. An agent insisted she go to Paris. At the age of 20, freshly armed with her sports degree, a two-week visa and a list of modelling agencies, Li made her way to the French capital. It turned out to be a fortuitous time for a beautiful Chinese woman; fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton were looking for “an exotic Asian face,” says Li. She found work on the runways of Paris, London and New York.
These were solitary months for Li, who spoke neither English nor French when she arrived in Paris. She spent most of her free time at museums. In Changchun, “art was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind,” and even in Beijing, Li had only seen a handful of Chinese classical works. The great museums of Paris were a revelation. “I literally grew weak at the knees,” she recalls. “I felt emotions I had never felt before.” She saw old masters at the Louvre, Manet at the Musée d’orsay, Monet’s water lily room at the Musée de l’orangerie, contemporary art at the Pompidou. Li knew modelling wouldn’t last forever; she decided she wanted to eventually work in the art industry. “I went to many exhibitions and learned as much as I could.”
The moment of transition came 12 years later, when Li met Diana Widmaier Picasso, the granddaughter of Pablo, at a dinner on St Barts in the Caribbean. The model mentioned her dream of switching careers, and Picasso introduced her to a job at Sotheby’s. “I was recruited to be a liaison for the increasing number of Chinese clients coming to Europe and America to acquire wine and art,” says Li. Two years later, the head of Christie’s AsiaPacific division, François Curiel, convinced Li to jump ship to the rival auction house, where she became head of Asia business development. The year she joined, Christie’s Asia sales grew 111 per cent to US$721.9 million. They now stand at nearly US$1 billion, with Chinese collectors alone representing a quarter of the company’s sales.