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Rebecca Wei became President of Christie's Asia after four years at the world's biggest auction house. She previously held a top position at management firm McKinsey & Company, where she was the first female partner elected in its Greater China office. Under her current leadership, Christie's Asia has flourished through its auctions, private sales and e-commerce platforms. Despite the global slowdown, the contribution of Asian buyers to Christie's global business in the first half of 2016 rose by 5 percent year-on-year.
China's economic slowdown has impacted the Asian auction market. How is Christie's addressing that?
The auction market has slowed down in certain categories compared to the heady years like 2010. One category is Chinese paintings, which were mainly bought by the mainland Chinese. Now that the Chinese economy is stabilising from 10 per cent GDP growth to 6 or 7 per cent, you're seeing the market become more rational. There's much less emotional bidding on the floor, and fewer people going, "I have to own that piece." But maybe this is the norm and what you saw in 2010 was abnormal. After all, 6 or 7 per cent is still a huge growth. At Christie's Asia, we're looking into other categories besides Chinese paintings. Our clients include other Asians too. So while Chinese painting is down, there's still a lot of cash around.
If Chinese paintings are down, which categories are hot? There are hot areas in every category. For instance, in Modern Art, Singapore's Cheong Soo Pieng, Lee Man Fong or Chen Wen Hsi are still popular. Meanwhile, the contemporary art that you might find in Art Stage also appear in our auctions. These prices are lower than Modern Art, so people view these as good investments for the long-term.
Are there specific areas of growth a collector should look at? If I knew, I wouldn't be working for Christie's. In Asia, art is always at the centre. Among Singaporean collectors, jewellery and watches are also popular. If you're a collector, you need to find the category you love. That can be anything - furniture, jewellery, watches - you need to find one that resonates with you. At the end of the day, it's not the idea of investment that motivates people to be good collectors, it's what resonates with them emotionally. Asking whether something's price will go up or down may not be the right question. Consult experts and other collectors. Don't rush to buy works you don't know enough about. If, however, you are thinking of investing, I would say that as far as you can afford it, buy the best. Down the road, the top stuff always gives you the best returns.
I hear South Koreans have the best taste in the region. Yes, the South Koreans do have good taste! They're among the first in the region to collect contemporary art, along with the Japanese. But I also think Hong Kong and Taiwanese collectors know art well. The top collectors are actually horizontal. You cannot separate them by countries. The top collectors in Asia - whether they're from Singapore, Malaysia or China - are very similar. They want to go for the best and they compete for them fiercely. But here's the thing: I have never met a single big collector who wasn't buying a work for the purpose of having it in their house. Very few tell me they're putting it in warehouse and waiting for the price to appreciate.
What's your prognosis for the art market in the next three years? I think it's promising. With the outcome of the US election now clearer, we are getting a sense of where the West is heading. There will be zigzagging, but upwards. Technology is transforming the landscape radically. People can instantly find out what sells in which year and for how much. So our buyers have become more sophisticated and rational on the bidding floor. In China, one of our most popular apps is WeChat. We have Singaporean clients asking us to send the images of the paintings and their details on PDF files via WeChat, as if we were sending an SMS. They're not looking at the auction catalogues the way they used to. At Christie's, a lot of things that were previously done by humans have been systemised to help us do our jobs better. Today, our systems are so smart they remember everything. You type the name of a client and you get their history of what they bought or sold, what categories they enjoy, their spouses' names, their kids' names, who makes the decision in the family, and so on.
Since you joined Christie's in 2012 and became surrounded by the finer things in life, have you also started buying them? Yes, I've become curious about wines, watches and art, so I've started to buy them to learn about them too. My husband isn't happy about that! He jokes: "Ever since you joined Christie's, I've never seen a penny come home."
How are you juggling family life and a high-flying career? I have one school-going daughter. She doesn't need me there all the time. But I think it's important to have an agreement with your family, that they understand and support your career decisions. There's always a choice for me to stay home and be a housewife, but that might make my husband go crazy, because I'll end up trying to transform the family instead of a company. I think he's happy that I'm somewhere else instead of at home. Besides, he's retired from his full-time job so he's home to take care of her. I supported him before and he's finished his chapter. Now it's my turn!