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OUTSTANDING OVERSEAS EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR

Passion for the arts, love for the business

Quek Chin Yeow is the force behind the impressive growth of Sotheby's Asia, especially in Hong Kong.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017 - 05:50

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Under Mr Quek's leadership, Sotheby's jewellery department has brought some of the most exceptional and valuable jewels to the Asian auction market.

PASSION is at the heart of what Quek Chin Yeow does - he loves the arts and the business of it. The most beautiful and rarest jewels as well as unique items of historical significance can move the deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia and chairman of International Jewellery, Asia. Just mention a rare jewel and it can make his eyes sparkle like one. When he describes it, you can feel the emotions run through his body.

That is how passionate Mr Quek is about the arts. With a notable background in business, he is able to marry art and business.

"Friends of mine think I'm in the perfect job when I first got it 30 years ago," quipped Mr Quek, who was named head of Sotheby's Singapore at the age of 29 - one of the youngest regional representatives of Sotheby's.

Mr Quek has always been interested in the arts, so much so that he did a thesis in arts marketing for his MBA (Marketing) degree from the business school of City, University of London. He completed his postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics.

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After his graduation, he worked for a credit card company and sold high-end art pieces through a mail order programme that he initiated.

When an opening in Sotheby's came up, Mr Quek applied and he was shortlisted. He was flown to London for the interview and was offered the job on the spot. "It was easier to get into Goldman Sachs than to get into Sotheby's in the 80s", Mr Quek's colleague once commented, as there were very few openings then and people tend to stay for a long time, noted Mr Quek.

In the past, the arts business was exclusive to the elite social classes but things have changed over time.

EVOLVING CAREER

Mr Quek, who is also Sotheby's principal auctioneer in Hong Kong said: "It's an evolving career. Of course now it is all about your talent, personality and passion for the business. And when we interview people to hire, we take that into account." Throughout his years in the industry, Mr Quek has mastered the art of dealing with valuable art pieces and people too. Under his leadership, Sotheby's jewellery department has brought some of the most exceptional and valuable jewels to the Asian auction market. Just sold three weeks ago on April 4 in Hong Kong was the Pink Star (renamed CTF Pink Star), a 59.60-carat oval mixed-cut fancy vivid pink internally flawless diamond, which went under the hammer for HK$553 million (S$99.9 million), setting a world auction record for any diamond or jewel. It was also the most precious item to be auctioned in Asia.

Setting the record price globally then in April 2016 for the most expensive jewel sold at an auction in Asia, before being surpassed by CTF Pink Star was the De Beers Millennium Jewel 4, a 10.10-carat oval-shaped fancy vivid blue diamond, which was sold for HK$248.28 million.

The Meiyintang 'Chicken Cup', a fine Doucai 'Chicken Cup', was sold for HK$281.24 million in April 2014, marking a world auction record for Chinese porcelain.

Mr Quek's personal favourite is the Hutton-Mdivani jadeite bead necklace - its ruby and diamond clasp was designed by Cartier in 1933 - which was sold in April 2014 for HK$214 million, a world auction record for any jadeite jewellery and a Cartier jewel.

The splashed-ink-and-colour painting "Peach Blossom Spring" by Chinese master Zhang Daqian, which sold for HK$271 million, was a treasured work. The price was the highest that the artist's works has ever fetched and it was sold to the Long Museum, Shanghai, after over 100 bids lasting 50 minutes - one of the longest auctions seen by Sotheby's in recent years. Mr Quek said: "It is a sentimental work as it was the first major painting I had set my eyes on when I first joined Sotheby's in May 1987 when it was auctioned back then."

Being hands on, having good business acumen, a good memory and love for the business have put Mr Quek in good stead. "You must love the business. If you love the business, you will remember everything," he said.

For distinguishing himself as a leader in the fine arts auction world, Mr Quek has been named the Outstanding Overseas Executive of the Year (2016) at this year's Singapore Business Awards. The award was also to recognise his efforts in driving the impressive growth of Sotheby's Asia, especially in Hong Kong, and building opportunities in the emerging Chinese market.

Mr Quek said the most exciting part of the business is dealing with the "most beautiful objects of the world, rarest things, historically important".

"Each time I come into the office, I'm so excited about new catalogues sitting on my desk - it could be something wonderful coming up," he said. These are Sotheby's catalogues on all art forms - be they decorative arts, English porcelain, French furniture, photography, design post-1945 and other major collective fields.

BEAUTIFUL THINGS

He said: "Instead of dealing with machine parts or stocks and shares, we are dealing with the most beautiful things in the world. Things that move you, things full of humanity.

"Like when you see wonderful works of Zhang Daqian, you see a wonderful Picasso painting, you look at the rarest pink diamond in the world - the aesthetics of it is unimaginable, that's where the counterbalance to the business side is; the measurable financial side to the unmeasurable aesthetics side - that's an amazing job."

While he dives deep into artistic appreciation, he has his eyes on the profitability of the business too. He said: "At the end of the day, it is a business. So we look after the bottom line. We have to look after sales figures for the year, we have short-term projects, mid to long-term projects.

Some of the long-term ones could require cultivation of relationships for 20 years before they sell a major collection with you, Mr Quek noted. A case in point was when a lawyer and a notable snuff bottles collector in Singapore eventually sold his collection through Mr Quek - 25 years after his first meeting with the collector.

He said: "You want to secure the best things for sale and to achieve the highest prices. It's a business and you are helping your client to maximise the potential of their collection."

As a business leader, Mr Quek is also grooming his "relatively-young" team to become more cultured. He encourages his team to go beyond their usual domain by visiting new exhibitions, finding out about new lifestyle trends and check out new restaurants, for instance, as such stimuli can help them in their work.

INSPIRATION

He said: "Design inspiration can come to you not just from looking at jewellery; it comes from looking at architecture, looking at a building, a wonderful landscape, a beautiful garden - that can inspire you in many ways, especially when we are dealing with beautiful objects."

Mr Quek noted how the eye for aesthetics cannot be taught by theory; it has to be experienced hands-on. He said: "Instead of just being in your own department during exhibitions, go look at the paintings, artists, 3D sculptures, handle a wonderful object, handle an antique object, ask questions."

Besides passion, having great persistence and the ability to work with people are some of the key attributes to succeed in the field, as "we are very frontline people", noted Mr Quek.

And job-hoppers are never a good reflection for the business, he noted. "You can substitute a person who is doing interest rates for another, but for us, we cannot substitute that person so easily.

"The experience counts, the building up of the knowledge and your eye counts. Your visual sense, your business acumen of what the market has been in the last five, 10, 15 years - these are all the invaluable things that you learn in the business.

"You want people who are passionate and have the staying power, that's where it differs from a lot of businesses. You build relationships with the clients, but you also want staff that have the experience. It may not matter so much in the bank but it matters a lot here." Just like Mr Quek, who is here to stay. He said: "The day I pick up a catalogue and not get excited, is the day I should leave the business."

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