Do­ing It Her Wei

Might we ever see a us$170 mil­lion modigliani auc­tioned on­line? not a chance, says christie’s Re­becca Wei, whose mantra is mod­er­a­tion in all things—from the use of tech­nol­ogy in busi­ness to work and play, writes Sa­man­tha Leese

Hong Kong Tatler - - Concierge Close-up -

hristie’s Asia pres­i­dent Re­becca Wei has had a busy year. Af­ter all, 2016 marks the com­pany’s 30th year in Asia and its 250th an­niver­sary world­wide. De­spite talk that China’s slow­ing econ­omy would lead to a slump in re­gional art sales, Wei says she hasn’t seen one so far; the ap­petite for good art re­mains strong. Christie’s most re­cent spring auc­tions, in­clud­ing a land­mark cross-cat­e­gory an­niver­sary sale, re­alised a com­bined to­tal of HK$2.8 bil­lion, with the three sub­cat­e­gories of Asian art (Chi­nese Paint­ing; Chi­nese Ceram­ics and Works of Art; and Asian 20th Cen­tury and Con­tem­po­rary Art) ac­count­ing for two-thirds of the busi­ness. Wei de­scribes Chi­nese buy­ers as de­ter­mined, im­pres­sive and ef­fi­cient. These are ed­u­cated peo­ple who know what they want and they come in “al­most car­ry­ing cash”.

The open­ing of Christie’s new of­fice and gallery in Bei­jing next month is a mile­stone in the com­pany’s long his­tory with China, which in a round­about way dates to 1779 dur­ing the Qing dy­nasty un­der the Qian­long Em­peror. In Lon­don, James Christie had bro­kered a deal to sell an art col­lec­tion to Cather­ine the Great from the es­tate of Robert Walpole, Bri­tain’s first prime min­is­ter. The Rus­sian em­press then traded part of her spoils for mas­ter­pieces from the Qing em­peror’s trove.

Housed in an el­e­gant stand­alone build­ing on Jin­bao Street, the Bei­jing gallery will be Christie’s fifth in Asia when it opens next month, join­ing spa­ces in Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Shang­hai. “Phys­i­cal pres­ence is im­por­tant to us,” says Wei. “It means we can do lec­tures, ex­hi­bi­tions, pri­vate sales and auc­tions on site.”

The com­pany’s non-phys­i­cal pres­ence is grow­ing too. This spring, Christie’s held the first ded­i­cated on­line sale of Chi­nese Paint­ing, with 45 per cent of the works sell­ing above their high es­ti­mates. In just three years, be­tween 2012 and 2015, the num­ber of dig­i­tal auc­tions at Christie’s leapt from seven to 74. Each day, col­lec­tors can find up to four sales hap­pen­ing via the Christie’s app, and Wei es­ti­mates that this year they will break 100 on­line auc­tions across all de­part­ments.

Its strength­en­ing dig­i­tal fo­cus comes at a time when the tra­di­tional auc­tion house faces evo­lu­tion in the fine art busi­ness driven by a gen­er­a­tion of tech-savvy col­lec­tors. Not to men­tion the gaunt­let thrown down by per­haps more nim­ble play­ers such as Pad­dle8 and Artsy, to name just two of the on­line art deal­ers that have emerged in the past five years to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo of how peo­ple buy art.

Wei’s in­sight into the im­por­tance of e-com­merce in Asia came partly from her nine-year-old daugh­ter. “I’m watch­ing her and she has an iphone, an ipad, a Kin­dle, an imac and even an Ap­ple watch. Ev­ery­thing for her is [on a de­vice], and she’s only nine.” Even now, Wei ob­serves, col­lec­tors in their 20s and 30s don’t read the phys­i­cal cat­a­logue. They use the Christie’s app, and some don’t even do that. “We have clients who come in and say, ‘Just Wechat me the list of Bordeaux.’”

Wei doesn’t think the in-room model will be re­placed, but rather that on­line and tra­di­tional sales chan­nels will co­ex­ist for years to come. “I can­not imag­ine a US$170 mil­lion Modigliani sell­ing on­line,” she says, re­fer­ring to the artist’s Nu couché, which smashed auc­tion records at Christie’s last year to be­come the most ex­pen­sive West­ern paint­ing sold to an Asian buyer. “An auc­tion is like a per­for­mance, and a lot of peo­ple still love to come and see the show.”

Be­fore join­ing Christie’s Asia as gen­eral man­ager in 2012, Wei spent 11 years with Mckin­sey & Com­pany as a leader of its Asi­apa­cific high-tech and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions prac­tice. She was the first woman in Greater China to make part­ner at the pres­ti­gious firm,

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