Before the start of Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring auctions, Kevin Ching announced that he will be stepping down as Sotheby’s Asia CEO, a position he has served for 15 years. After the April spring sales in Hong Kong, Ching will take on the role of Executive Chairman for Asia, transitioning into the position of Chairman Emeritus at the end of the year.
Nathan Drahi, son of telecommunications tycoon and Sotheby’s owner, Patrick Drahi, will take up the mantle as Managing Director to lead the auction house and oversee Sotheby’s business development in Asia.
We caught up with Ching and Drahi, to discuss the dynamics of the auction house and Ching’s plans after retirement.
Nathan Drahi (left) and Kevin Ching (right)
“Five years ago, I decided that this would be my last contract.”
“When I first joined Sotheby's Hong Kong, there were just 50 of us and only two sales a year. I feel bad for saying that but it felt already very busy. Today along with our two major sales, we've now expanded to about 10 categories and 160 colleagues in the Hong Kong office. Counting auctions alone, total sales reached HK$7.2bn (US$932m) last year. Now with online sales and mid-season sales, we’re operating on a much larger scale,” he says.
Ching has been at the helm for nearly a third of the house’s 48-year Hong Kong history, since it set foot in the city in 1973. His stint at Sotheby’s has taken the auction house to new heights, and cemented Sotheby’s leading position in the Asian market for five consecutive years since 2016.
Despite travel bans and gathering restrictions amidst the pandemic, Sotheby’s has managed to keep its sales robust through innovating and adapting to new hybrid-sale formats, 2020 online sales' volume increased 440% over the previous year.
“Stepping down was not a hasty decision. When I renewed my contract five years ago, I decided that this would be my last one. I knew that by the time this contract was up, I would be 65. I was also very close to my mom, who asked me to promise her that this was my final contract. With my parents’ recent and unfortunate passing, it affirmed my decision to step down and enjoy life to the fullest.”
“I’m exhausted by 7pm, when Nathan is still hopping around the office.”
The mood of the interview was congenial, with discussions punctuated by laughter and good humor between Ching and Drahi - two different personalities but both eager to grow the auction house. Ching enjoys bonsai gardening while Drahi shines on tennis courts.
“Nathan is a good tennis player. My son, who plays squash, came back the other day after his game with Nathan but was so quiet. I asked, ‘Hey, how was the game?’ He was not happy with the outcome of the match!”
“It would have been a different story if we had played a squash game!” Drahi says.
Ching sees in Drahi a radiating energy that will guide Sotheby’s well into a rapidly-changing future. “It’s a different world now. Someone like Nathan, with his knowledge, background, and prior experience in the financial industry is better equipped to take Sotheby’s forward for the next 10, 15 years. It’s a world that I would survive in, but for which I would not be an ideal candidate to drive a business forward.”
Ching recalls his first day at Sotheby’s: “I was surrounded by young, energetic people. I was so impressed by the ambient energy. When I look at how Nathan is still hopping around the office without breaking a sweat and the way he constantly comes up with innovative ideas, it reminds me so much of my first day here. Now I get so exhausted by 7pm, so I try to limit the number of meetings to just two to three a week.”
"When Sotheby’s came up, I decided to go for it because it completely aligned with my initial ambition."
Drahi joined the company in 2020 as a Commercial Officer, Asia. Prior to that, he was based in London and worked in private equity at BC Partners as well as investment banking at J.P. Morgan. So what brought him to Sotheby’s?
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in corporates, dealing with people and working together to resolve practical issues. Investment banking was the right environment for me to start - very active, intense and with a variety of exposure across companies and projects. The financial world is also very analytical, which allowed me to put my numerical skills to good use. But after a couple of years, I felt the growing urge to get more involved in a corporate, handling day-to-day management. When Sotheby’s came up, I decided to go for it because it completely aligned with my initial ambition.” says Drahi.
With his background and experience in the financial world, Sotheby’s was the place for Drahi to be. Yet among the three major auction hubs - New York, London, and Hong Kong - Drahi decided to call Hong Kong his new home.
“I first came to Hong Kong in 2015. I was freshly graduated and I went on a trip to Asia, where Hong Kong was amongst my stops. I remember how I liked it on the spot and decided in my head that I would come back to work and be based here at some point. When the Sotheby’s opportunity came up a few years later, it was the right time for me make the jump and join. So far it’s been a great experience in every possible sense.”
As we got curious about what upcoming plans he has in mind for the business, Drahi invited us to come back another time. “Today is about Kevin and his amazing contribution to Sotheby’s for the past 15 years.” he says humbly.
“I’m glad to witness the repatriation of national treasures back to China.”
When asked about the most memorable sale in his 15 years, Ching’s mind went right back to 2007, merely a year after he took the position as the house’s CEO. “It would have to be the Lost Treasure sale. You could sense the excitement in the saleroom. Understandably every single lot offered in the sale was of national significance - in particular, the bronze horse sculpture.”
He was referring to the 17th-century bronze horse fountainhead, which was one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animal sculptures cast for a Qing zodiac fountain in the imperial garden of Yuanmingyuan (The Old Summer Palace) in China. It was one of the sculptures looted when the Anglo-French troops invaded China in 1860, during the Second Opium War.
To this day, the incident remains a sensitive subject so one can imagine the controversy it created when the bronze sculpture, with such historical significance, was about to go under the hammer in 2007. The headline-grabbing sculpture, under the watchful eye of many, was finally sold privately to the late Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho, for HK$69.1m (US$8.9m). The tactful coordination by Ching resulted in the horse head being the first of the collection to be donated back to Yuanmingyuan.
“Nicolas Chow who leads Chinese Works of Art department, and I did a lot of research for that sale. We spent a lot of time looking at the history behind each lot. I am glad to facilitate the homecoming of the bronze horse sculpture, and to witness the repatriation of national treasures back to China.”
Late Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho acquired the bronze sculpture for HK$69.1m (US$8.9m)
"I decided to bring the attention back to the Hong Kong market."
Under the leadership of Ching, Sotheby’s was among the first in the industry to set foot in China in 2012, at a time when China overtook the U.S. to become the world’s largest art and antiques market. Yet he was also the man behind the decision to scale back.
“Sotheby’s was the first to set up an office in Shanghai in 1994 and became the first international auction house to obtain an auction license in mainland China in 2012. After having our first auction in Beijing, I soon realized that it didn’t actually make commercial sense to continue, when we’re not allowed to sell the most valuable categories in China.”
A Sotheby’s Beijing sale
Even though the auction house was given a license to conduct art auctions in the mainland, it did not quite come with full access to the Chinese market. Selling of “cultural relics” such as jades, Chinese scroll paintings, and ceramics dating from before 1949, is prohibited, under the Chinese Law for the Protection of Cultural Relics.
“We were already a market leader then and our clients in mainland showed just as much enthusiasm to participate in auctions in Hong Kong. So I decided to bring the attention back to the Hong Kong market, despite the fact that some worried that we might lose our leading position in China. We did a lot more by investing in mainland China in other forms, such as previews and exhibitions to get just as much traction and attention.”
Across his 15-year career, Ching witnessed drastic changes in the industry, accompanied by difficult decisions that he had to make along the way. In 2008, he decided to relocate the Southeast Asian Art sale from Singapore to Hong Kong - a new strategy very much in line with Sotheby's overall corporate strategy of “source globally and sell centrally”. Not everyone was behind his decision, but it turned out that it was the right call to make.
“I was approached by Sotheby’s 25 years ago. I even signed the contract then.”
Having been in the auction industry for over a decade, Ching was a lawyer and is qualified to practice law in Hong Kong and a few countries. When he was a partner in Johnson Stokes & Master, one of the largest law firms in Hong Kong, he spent two years in Beijing as the company’s Chief Representative.
Prior to Sotheby’s, he was a board executive director and group legal counsel of Dickson Concepts (International) Limited, overseeing the business development and operations of luxury retail in the Chinese market and was instrumental in the opening and development of large-scale department stores in mainland China.
Part of Ching’s jade collection
While the industry might have known the man as the business mind behind Sotheby’s, he is in fact, a keen Chinese art lover too - in particular, jade. He is also a member of the Min Chiu Society, a renowned collectors’ organization. His knowledge, experience, and connections combined is like a match made in heaven for the role as the CEO of Sotheby’s Asia.
“I was, in fact, first approached by Sotheby’s 25 years ago. I even signed the contract then, only to be asked by Dickson to stay behind. So in breach of contract, I didn’t come.” Ten years later, both Sotheby's and its rival contacted Ching, and it was an easy decision.
“My dream is to find a place in Hong Kong with a bigger terrace.”
Upon his departure from the fast-pace industry, Ching is looking forward to a rather laid-back time.
“I think I’d be doing calligraphy. After traveling is possible, I’d love to do a bit more traveling and spend more time with my children, who are currently in the UK. And perhaps find a place in Hong Kong with a bigger terrace, where I can do a bit more bonsai gardening - maybe somewhere closer to the beach because I love swimming.”
Kevin Ching’s Fish Rubbing and Calligraphy, 2020
Ink on paper | Sold at a Sotheby’s charity sale
Speaking of the team that went through one auction season after another alongside Ching: “I’m going to really miss them all. Especially Nicolas Chow (Chairman of Asia), Patti Wong (Chairman of Asia), Henry Li (Managing Director - Finance), C.K. Cheung (Senior Consultant, Chinese Paintings Department), and my secretary Dodo, who has been with me since even before Sotheby’s. The bond we have is magical and they really are like my extended family.”
If there was one regret in his career, Ching said he wishes the “Sotheby’s Village” was not just a dream. “Imagine how nice it would be for us to transform Sotheby's office into, almost like a campus, where we'd have a pingpong game or two and we'd be able to grab a beer after work and hangout in the common room."
“Look at all these papers in my hands and look at his tablet.”
After Ching’s retirement, Sotheby’s will embark on a new journey and Ching is optimistic for the company’s future.
“You can tell we represent two very different generations. Loot at all these papers in my hands, and look at his tablet. My office is like a mess, filled with papers, whereas Nathan’s room is spotless. His tablet probably holds way more than all the documents in my room combined.
I’m blessed to have spent those exciting 15 years at Sotheby’s, where I got to witness the rise of China and countless historical moments in the development of Asia.
Without a doubt, we’re entering a whole new era. It's a new worldy with Bitcoin, blockchain, and digital art. I remember when I first joined, I was basically told by the company that you don’t even want to link the words ‘investment’ or ‘money’ to art. Art is pure and we weren’t encouraged to talk about the investment side of it. But deep down we knew that there's an inseparable link between the two.
I think it was only halfway through my career here that we began giving lectures on art and investments. Because people suddenly realized this reality: to buy good art, you have to have money. To have a good return, you have to buy the right thing and hold on to it for a good duration. It’s no longer as simple as just raising paddles like in the old days. The art world, today, has become a lot more complex and ‘business-like.’ Deals are becoming more sophisticated, with the prevalence of private sales, online sales, and everything in between. And we’re now able to talk about art as an alternative investment.
Ching in his office
If you look around within Sotheby’s - of course this is not the only qualification to be the next leader, but it’s a very important part - I don’t think you can find anyone else who’s as good with numbers as Nathan. He’s the quickest and most accurate. A world filled with specialists would always want things to be grand. But when it’s a business, it’s not just about looking good. It’s about creating shared values. It’s about making profits for the company. It’s also about putting the money somewhere else that could potentially benefit the business even more.
You can’t have an organization that is purely run by idealists; you also need a very sharp business mind. The upcoming spring sales will carry the highest low estimate for any sale series ever staged in Asia. Over 2,500 lots with a combined estimate in excess of HK$3.24bn (US$416.42m) and that’s our chemistry.”
The current position of CEO, Sotheby’s Asia did not exist before Ching. And Drahi will lead the company with another title as we bid our farewell to the “one and only CEO of Sotheby’s Asia.”
Three imperial seals, collectively estimated at HK$230m (US$29.6m)
Pablo Picasso | Buste de Matador, 1970
Oil on canvas, 130 x 70 cm
Estimate: HK$100m-150m (US$12.9-19.3m)
Sanyu | Nu Avec un Pékinois, circa 1950s
Oil on masonite, 84 x 122 cm
Estimate: HK$100m-150m (US$12.9-19.3m)