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
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,