Slam Dunk

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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Faces -

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.

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