Today’s interview is with Elaine Kwok – Christie’s auctioneer and director of Education in Asia. I loved having Elaine as an interview subject, and learning more about her fascinating career. Her insights into the world of art, auctioneering, and of course handbags, were so interesting for me, and I could have asked her endless questions! Enjoy meeting Elaine!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
My name is Elaine Kwok, and I am an art lover, auctioneer, and mother of two. I grew up in Hong Kong, and studying and working in the US and Europe for over a decade, I am now back in Hong Kong. Since 2007, I have been working at Christie’s, where I now hold the role of Director of Christie’s Education in Asia. I run art-related programs for clients, art enthusiasts, and people who are interested in working in the industry. During our sales, I am also an auctioneer, selling on the rostrum in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
How did you get to where you are in your career? What path did you take here?
From my university days, I knew that I loved art and culture, and contemplated a career in this direction. Along the way, I tried more sensible jobs, spending a year in an investment bank and two in business school. Ultimately, passion took over and I ended up at Christie’s, initially in London as a business manager. After relocating to Hong Kong, I worked in the Asia President’s office on special projects, one of which was to start Christie’s Education programs in Asia. While one could get a Masters or take short courses at Christie’s Education in London and New York, we did not have a consistent presence in Hong Kong back then. The course we ran in 2010 was a great success, and we saw that there is a lot of interest in this region for specialist art-related programming. So I now run Christie’s Education in Asia full time, helping new clients in the region to navigate the international art world, as well as providing people who are contemplating arts careers behind-the-scenes views into the industry.
Let’s talk about handbag auctions. This is a newer market for established auction houses like Christies… Could you tell us a bit more about your handbag sales? Do you think we’ll ever see handbags reach the type of prices that say, watches can go for? Or is there a limit?
When Christie’s decided to launch handbag sales in Hong Kong, I was thrilled! Just think, what was once a guilty pleasure is now…. work! One of the best parts of my jobs must be sitting next to the handbags warehouse, and whenever I need a break, I would peek in to see what new goodies we have consigned. Having an office right next to the world’s top handbag expert is another perk – whenever I have questions on pricing, restoration, etc – he always has the best advice.
Handbags, along with watches and wine, are exciting collectibles that people have fun with. To be honest, for these items, we will probably never see the same price levels as those achieved for works of art. Ultimately handbags, watches, and wine are commodities with standard retail prices, and while there can be competition for some of the rarer and more desirable examples, it is not like a painting, which is unique and of an artist’s hand.
That said, handbags is one of the fastest-growing categories at Christie’s, and a great way for us to introduce Christie’s to a new set of clients. Handbags are extremely accessible, and visiting a handbags auction preview is a lot of fun for both established collectors as well as people who have never been to an auction. As a regular client of a certain brand, you will understand – when you go to a boutique, it sometimes feels like you’re walking into a lottery system, and you hope you get lucky in finding the one you want. At the auction previews, you see a rainbow of bags in all different styles and sizes – for a bag lover, it is paradise!
What are some of the brands that do the best at auction? What about some attributes they tend to share?
Thus far, our handbags auctions have largely been about Hermes, but the category is certainly not limited to this brand. As with the art market, items that do well in a secondary market are typically ones that have a shortage of supply in retail. If you think about it this way, Birkins, Kellys, and Constances are not so different from hot artists in the primary market – not enough are being produced to meet the demand, so certain buyers are willing to pay a premium for these on the secondary market. As there is often a standard price in retail depending on the size and the material, more popular styles will just sell out faster in the primary market; on the secondary market, the higher demand on more desirable pieces will be reflected in higher prices.
In terms of attributes that buyers are looking for, there is a difference between geographical markets. The buyers in our Hong Kong sales usually like bags in vibrant seasonal colors, typically in smaller formats. Asian buyers also look for bags in near-perfect condition at auction. Many clients come to auction because they are looking for a specific bag, and do not wish to go through the drama of buying at retail. In Paris and New York, buyers are more forgiving on bags that show a bit of wear – in fact, some collectors find the patina of a pre-loved bag to be part of its charm. Classic and neutral shades such as browns, greys, and blacks tend to do well in Europe and America, as do larger bags.
As with all auction items, quality, rarity, and condition play a big part in determining the price of a bag. The reason why exotics tend to fetch higher prices is because they are costly to produce and exceedingly rare.
What is it like being an auctioneer? What is the process of becoming one…what would surprise people about the process?
Auctioneering is fun, intense, and sometimes, nerve-wrecking.
People are often surprised that most auctioneers do not have a license. Licenses are not required to sell in London or in Hong Kong, and in New York, the registration is just a formality. So it is up to the auction houses to determine who can be an auctioneer. At Christie’s, there is a training program that runs every few years, where would-be auctioneers gather together, learn the bid steps, and practice calling out prices. Out of the trainees, our International Chairman of Auctioneering will select the one(s) who get one-on-one tutoring, before letting them loose on the rostrum. To be an auctioneer in China, however, is another matter. That license involves taking multiple painful exams – I went through the experience in 2015, and you can read more about it here.
Another thing that often surprise people is that you do not need to be a specialist in the category to be an auctioneer for the sale. I sell classical and contemporary pictures, Chinese ceramics, jewellery, wine, and handbags – and I am certainly not an expert in all of the above! That said, an interest in the product always helps, and the Head of the handbags department often requests that I take his sale, as it is probably obvious that I enjoy selling bags!
What are some of the favorite pieces in your closet? What does a typical work outfit look like for you?
Our International Chairman of Auctioneering always tells us that as auctioneers, we need to put on a show – auctions can be long and a little monotonous, so it always helps when the auctioneer’s outfit can draw the eye. In Hong Kong, we tend to have a white backdrop, so I usually wear fitted dresses and jackets in vibrant colors. I have a small collection of qipao, all made by the same Shanghai-trained tailor with fabric I source on my travels over the world. Chanel ballet flats are a bit of an addiction for me, and I have them in all different colors, as I can wear them for hours while standing on stage.
I would like to add that my favorite bag is probably my black 32 Kelly in gold hardware. Truth be told, it was Feather Factor who inspired me to get one in that combination!
How has working at Christies influenced how you purchase clothes and accessories? Do you approach “investment” pieces differently?
Buying for investment is quite different from buying for wear. Condition counts for a lot, so if you wish to preserve the resale value of your watch or your handbag, you probably should not use it every day! So I buy for use rather than for investment, and if I happen to get some value out of a bag when I tire of it, I think of it as a bonus rather than something I count on.
Another tip is try to keep as much documentation, such as any receipts, invoices, or certificates, as possible. In particular, for bags with exotic skins, having the original CITES permits would make things a lot easier if you decide to trim down your collection.
What are some dream items you’d love to add one day – art, clothes, jewelry, anything!
I try not to obsess too much about clothes and jewellery, so the dreams that I have are for works of art. Since we are dreaming, I would love a Picasso from the 1930s, or a classic Fauve Matisse, from 1905-1908. If we were to be a bit more realistic, I would love one of the poetic abstract landscapes by Zao Wou-ki (1921-2013), a Chinese artist who lived in France for many years, and I fantasize about commissioning Beijing-based Liu Ye (b. 1964) to paint my children – but to be honest, these are still well beyond my budget. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the works of Wilson Shieh (b.1970), an artist based in Hong Kong, whose images are whimsical and incredibly witty.
What are some of your other passions and hobbies?
When I am not working, I am usually spending time with my two daughters, Clementine (age 4) and Violet (age 1). Clementine has been coming to art exhibitions with me regularly now, and can recognize a good number of artists – the girl will either love museums when she grows up, or run away from them! I love reading Feather Factor, and loyally visit the site every Monday and Friday. I try my best to practice yoga as much as I can, and also journal regularly.
Finally….please share something surprising about yourself!
I am a vineyard proprietor! My father is probably the first Chinese to purchase a vineyard in France, buying Chateau Haut-Brisson, a St Emilion Grand Cru, in 1997 – that was long before Chinese buying French wineries became a trend! So we spend quite a bit of time in France, although we have a very competent team that manages the vinification, viticulture, sales, and management.
For more of Elaine, you can follow her on Instagram @elaineckwok. For more information about educational opportunities at Christie’s Education, please visit here.