After Bonhams' US$1b record year: Interview with Julia Hu, Managing Director in Asia

2022 marked a watershed year for Bonhams – for the first time in its history, the 200-year-old auction house reached the US$1 billion benchmark in global sales.

2022 was also a milestone year for Julia Hu, the auction veteran who has joined Bonhams as Managing Director in Asia for a year and achieved numerous impressive results.

Many people in the collecting circles wonder: how does she manage to lead her team to success in such a short period of time? Coming from a computer background, how does she make her mark in the auction industry? What are Bonhams' plans for Asia this year? For the upcoming spring sales, what surprises will the house have in store?

The Value recently visited Julia's office to get the answers.

Julia Hu has joined Bonhams for a year

In large companies, a common obstacle faced by executives is internal communication. Speaking of Bonhams' management strategies, Julia recalls, “When Bruno Vinciguerra first arrived at Bonhams as Global CEO, he compared the company to a ‘Thousand Island Lake’: we have offices all over the world, but they weren't operating as ‘One Team’.”

“Since then, Bonhams has been working hard to change this. Antique collectors might call to mind the leading lots from the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Sale in Hong Kong last May – an imperial famille-rose celadon-glazed lobed oval vase and a pair of blue-and-white octagonal candlesticks – both of which sold above HK$30 million after fierce bidding war. They actually came from an European and American collection respectively, which is the result thanks to a closer-knitted, more efficient ‘one-team’ that we’ve now built across the globe.”

After building an effective team dynamic, what comes next is an external challenge.

Yangcai Painted 'Imperial Poems and Landscapes' Incised Celadon Ground Lobed Oval Vase, Qianlong period (1736-1795) | Sold: HK$32,253,000, Bonhams Hong Kong, May 2022

Pair of Blue and White Octagonal Candlesticks, Yongle period (1402-1424) | Sold: HK$30,453,000, Bonhams Hong Kong, May 2022

Last year, many eyebrows were raised when Bonhams took over four regional auction houses across Europe and America within just six months. While the house's global presence has expanded rapidly as a result of the acquisition spree, dealing with geographical boundaries and cultural clashes has remained a major challenge – how does Bonhams breed an environment where various companies can operate productively together?

“Respect is the key. Embracing diversity and fostering an inclusive culture have always been Bonhams’ core values. One thing that strikes me as remarkable is having female executives in our boardrooms; aside from Asia, America, the United Kingdom, and Australia are all led by female directors."

Looking out the window at the commercial skyscraper, Julia adds, “Most importantly, we didn’t acquire these auction houses hoping to become the largest empire at auction. Instead we think of a network, a network that is global and brings convenience to both sellers and buyers. With mutual respect and trust, we have already achieved a close tie and synergy with these new members of the Bonhams family."

A wood figure of a Bodhisattva from the Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) sold to a Mainland collector for €3,342,375 at Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr in 2022

Such teamwork was evident in two robust sales last year. The first is the Rousset Collection of Asian Art Sale, staged by Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr in Paris last October. Among many exceptional lots, the showstopper was an exceptional wood figure of a Bodhisattva from the Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD), which sparked spirited competition and fetched €3.3 million against a €1-million low estimate, with the final bid going to a Mainland collector represented by Julia.

The following month, the trophy lot from Hong Kong Autumn Sales belonged to a gilt copper alloy triad of Shakyamuni Buddha from 18th century – a fine figure brought to the sale by Bruun Rasmussen from Denmark to Asia.

Following hot on the heels of the success, are there any plans for further expansion? “We do have some other names on our wish-list, some are in Asia even. But our priority this year is on consolidation.” Julia notes, “What I mean is that instead of acquisition for acquisition's sake, we value integrating the houses that we’ve already purchased.”

Bruun Rasmussen is a leading auction house in Denmark, which keeps it name after being acquired by Bonhams

Since taking over the helm of Bonhams in Asia, Julia has spared no efforts in talent recruitment and promotion. At the same time,  she zealously arranged business trips to every corner in Asia, while also facilitating overseas specialists to meet local collectors, media, artists, and partners with the hope to explore potential opportunities for collaboration.

“Due to Covid-19 restrictions, it wasn’t easy to go to mainland China last year. Nevertheless, we insisted on bringing high-valued lots there. Meanwhile, we endeavored to organize preview exhibitions in Taiwan and Singapore." Julia explains, her eyes filled with determination, "All of this comes at a price for sure, but I do feel what needs to be done should be done.”

So, what does she aim to achieve this year? “Of course, business growth tops our priority list. There's still plenty of room for development in Asia, whether it be traditional and contemporary art or luxury goods, especially as China’s economy springs into action again. Other than that would be talent recruitment and consignment. We are not only doing it to meet our company’s target – we have our standards to meet too.”

Wang Jie has been promoted to General Manager of China

Bonhams took part in ART021 in Shanghai last year, selling an oil painting in the range of RMB 10 million

Blair Zhang has joined Bonhams as Head of Business Development, Asia and Deputy Chairman

In the 21st century, a time when the whole industry is in boom, how does Bonhams cement its leading position in the market?

“Our strength lies in the core market, which focuses on items priced below US$1 million. That said, we are more than capable of handling high-value consignments. In fact, last year saw multiple lots achieve more than US$1 million,” Julia remarks. “It is the diversity in price range that drives stability in our revenue growth.” Bonhams’ top lot in 2022 was a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, which fetched US$4.19 million in America.

“Innovation and flexibility are key attributes to Bonhams’ DNA. Our experienced teams around the world understand their local markets inside and out and know how to meet a variety of needs.”

“Take Hong Kong as an example, our head and specialists excel at curating themed auctions, especially in the realm of traditional Chinese art. With excellent storytelling, these sales generated excitement and applause season after season.” Julia shows us her computer screen and continues, “Under the pandemic, we've also actively invested in digital advancement and social networking, attracting a younger, more diverse group of collectors. ”

Before the pandemic hit, live auction was core to Bonhams' business; by 2022, online biddings accounted for nearly half of its sales, and over 50% of buyers are new to Bonhams. “Such a remarkable accomplishment was also thanks to our marketing and press teams – the surge in new buyers is a solid proof of our marketing strategy's success.”

1955 Porsche 550 Spyder sold for US$4.19 million at Bonhams in 2022

Bonhams has actively developed social networking in recent years

While most people in the auction industry are from art or related field, Julia was a computer specialist. Upon completion of her bachelor's and master's degree in Computer Science, Julia began her career at IBM as a Product Manager.

“IBM is a professional company with a streamlined workflow where any new joiners could comfortably fit in. My senior at the time once told me, 'There're numerous resources here; as a newcomer, the most important thing is to learn how to identify and make full use of them.' It's a piece of wisdom I've always kept in mind.”

After leaving IBM, Julia obtained her MBA and worked for the distinguished consulting firm McKinsey & Company, eventually making her way into auction industry.

“Aside from project management and problem-solving, nurturing fresh talent at McKinsey provided me a tremendous sense of accomplishment.” After all these years, Julia is equally passionate about cultivating the next generation. “The reason why I joined Bonhams is the team – they are young, motivated and eager to learn. Being able to assist and see their growth assures me that I've chosen the right career path."

Julia said that Bonhams' teams were young, motivated, and eager to learn

Julia (in red dress) attended West Bund Voice in Shanghai in 2019

In the blink of an eye, Julia has now become an auction veteran, having witnessed the ups and downs in the market. “The market is getting more and more diversified. When I first stepped into the auction world in 2012, everyone was raving about Asian art. Gradually, people began to expand their attention to Impressionism, then Western contemporary art, and later street art. A while ago, NFT was all the rage.”

What about collectors? “A decade ago, most collectors in Mainland China were from the mining or real estate industries, whereas Taiwanese collectors were mainly doctors. Nowadays, there're many professional investors, private equity professionals and IT experts. Working in the auction industry, we must keep abreast of the times and follow closely the market trends.”

Being at Bonhams' Asian headquarters in Admiralty, our conversation naturally turns to Hong Kong. In recent years, with Hong Kong's regional rivals on the rise and multinationals pulling out, many have wondered if the city's dominant position as Asia's biggest art market will be toppled.

“There're no doubts that art markets are flourishing across Asia-Pacific, yet Hong Kong's long-standing status as a tax haven remains a competitive edge. Also, there's a well-developed, complete line of infrastructure, including storage, logistics, among others. So for Bonhams' Asian business, Hong Kong is still our strategic priority.”

Himalayan art continues to be Bonhams' highlight at Asian Art Week in New York in March

A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Tara, Nepal, Early Malla Period, 14th century | Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000

As Hong Kong's marquee spring sales week approaches, Julia gave us some sneak peeks into this season's highlights.

“Since the travel restrictions are eased, one of our highlights this year will be on global contemporary art. In March, Bonhams will present a selling exhibition of Deborah Brown and her latest painting series. Viewers will have an opportunity to meet the US-based artist in person too. During New York’s Asian Art Week – also in the same month – Himalayan art will continue to take centre stage. In April, there will be an exhibition about Gandhara art, though not of the usual Buddha sculptures, but of other interesting and rare finds of this genre.”

With a twinkle of excitement, Julia continues, “As for Hong Kong Spring Sales week in May, we’re dealing with some outstanding consignments for Chinese works of art and contemporary art – for now, allow me to keep you in suspense.”