The launch of PW&A: Interview with ex-Sotheby's rainmaker on her road to entrepreneurship

Last month, Sotheby’s rainmaker Patti Wong retired from her position as international chairman, ending her 30-year tenure with the house. When the news came out, many industry insiders speculated on what she would do next: was she going to take early retirement, or team up with a leading art gallery or public institution?

It turns out the Queen of Auction did not keep us waiting for long. At the beginning of the new year, Patti announced her next move: for the very first time, she will launch her own business – Patti Wong & Associates (PW&A).

Co-founded by Patti Wong and another auction veteran Daryl Wickstrom, PW&A is a top-notch art advisory firm that addresses the needs of both established and new clients based principally in Asia across their collecting pursuits – from Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary Art, to Chinese Works of Art, Chinese Paintings, Jewelry, Watches and Wine.

As a long-time leader in the auction world, why did she choose to start a business? What opportunities does she see in today’s art market? What distinguishes an art advisory firm from a traditional art dealer or auction house? Why base in Hong Kong despite the region's murky business environment? How will the firm's collaboration with The Fine Art Group complement one another?

The Value spoke with Patti Wong and her partner Lisa Chow to find out more about their road to entrepreneurship.

Patti Wong launched her own art advisory firm, PW&A, after leaving Sotheby's 

Having joined Sotheby’s right after her graduation from the London School of Economics, Patti has worked exclusively for the house her entire career – but that does not mean she has never tried her hand at entrepreneurship.

“Although I devoted my entire career to Sotheby’s, I didn’t feel stuck in a rut. In fact, I enjoy challenges and new ideas. Back then, when I saw the market potential for wine and watches, I convinced my company to bring the two categories to Hong Kong. Looking back on the experience, the effort and pressure involved is pretty much the same as starting a business, from data collection and preparatory work to execution and review and improvement . But, of course, this is the first time I've spent my own money to rent an office space and hire employees.”

Thanks to her efforts and discerning eye, Hong Kong has now grown into an important wine auction market on par with London or New York.

Hong Kong has now grown into an important wine auction market

As her former colleague praised, “Patti is simply a force of nature,” and she never ceases to amaze us with her creativity and ability. In 2005, Patti extends her reach further into the jewelry retail market, leading Sotheby’s to work with the world-famous Diacore to launch Sotheby’s Diamonds, of which she served as the chairman.

When it comes to auctions, there will be no going past the sales of two over-100-carat D colour flawless diamonds: one offered without reserve, the other for purchase with cryptocurrency – both were industry firsts. The bold moves turned out to massive successes, with each generating an eight-figure sum in US dollars.

“When Lisa and I decided to offer a diamond of this calibre with no reserve, many people questioned if we were being overly aggressive; some even thought we were insane. Yet, after careful evaluation, we had much confidence that such a pioneering auction format would pique the interests of collectors far beyond the traditional pool – and it did.”

Following the trail blazed by Patti, it has now become increasingly common for auction houses to sell high-end lots with no reserve or accept cryptocurrency as payment.

The sale of an over-100-carat D color flawless diamonds accepting cryptocurrency as payment was an unprecedented move in the industry

Speaking of seizing the opportunity, what does she see in the market today that led her to part ways with Sotheby's?

“I joined the house with a goal to level up Hong Kong as a major art hub as important as New York and London. I've witnessed and played a part in that growth over the last three decades. Today, Asian collectors have amassed extraordinary collections at the top of their game, and what they need now is a first-class art advisory service, which has long been popular in Europe and Americas but absent in Asia.”

So, what is the difference between the role of an art advisor and that of traditional galleries or auction houses?

“Take auction house as an example; the financial services they provide alone is a complex maze. In recent years, it has undergone a major evolution, offering such a diverse range of services – such as auction-house guarantee, irrevocable bids and loans – that even regular auction visitors may not know the drill.”

“Aside from buying and selling, there is a lot more to managing a sizeable collection.When collectors want to lend their art to a museum, which one is the best choice? What about transportation and insurance if their collection is dispersed across multiple cities? As a neutral party, PW&A is able to provide objective advice to our clients, while also leveraging on our expertise and experience to get the best deal for collectors.”

Lisa Chow will serve as Managing Director at PW&A

What surprises us the most in the press release is the breadth of categories PW&A covers. Both well-versed in the field, their expertise in client services is undeniable – but how do they handle so many fronts?

“Few people know that Patti and I began our auction journey in the Classical Chinese Paintings Department,” they exchanged smiles, recalling their early days at the house. “I spent five years there, first as a Specialist and then as a Deputy Head. When Sotheby’s decided to introduce Western jewelry to Hong Kong, they trusted my ability in expanding the segment, so eventually I joined the Jewelry department.”

Lisa Chow is undoubtedly a key figure in establishing the city as an international jewelry hub. During her 30-year tenure with Sotheby's, she was not only the Deputy Chairman of Jewelry in Asia, but also the General Manager and Sales Director of Sotheby’s Diamonds in Asia, where she oversaw its opportunities on both sides of the strait as well as in Singapore.

PW&A's co-founder Daryl Wickstrom has partnered with Patti Wong for many years

Daryl Wickstrom, another founder of PW&A, was a corporate lawyer before spending 20 years with Sotheby’s in a number of senior management roles across businesses and regions, including International Managing Director of Jewelry and Watches, Deputy Chairman of Asia.

Throughout his career at the house, he has partnered with Patti on multiple ground-breaking initiatives, such as the creation of Sotheby’s Diamonds, the production of the selling exhibition Modern Masters, the first major offering of Impressionist and Modern masterworks in China, and the expansion of Sotheby’s programming in Hong Kong from biannual sales to a comprehensive auction center. Since leaving the auction industry, Daryl served in senior roles with the art-tech start-up Artory, and with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.

"Back in the old days, when Sotheby's had only about ten staff in Hong Kong, we had to do everything on our own, from packaging to delivery. As a result, we have a better understanding of our clients' needs in every detail," Patti smiled mysteriously, hinting that there is more to be announced. "Of course, we'll be joined by a team of specialists and elites – stay tuned for our annoucements."

Hong Kong Art Week in March is now a major event in the art market

Over the last three decades, not only have auction houses and dealers changed, but so have collectors.

“In the past, when information was not that accessible, collectors had to take baby steps into the world of art collecting. You have to immerse yourself in the market for many years, going through auction after auction, before you can gradually build up art knowledge.”

“These days, we have everything at our fingertips. Simply scroll on our smartphones and all art information is there: high-resolution photos of public collections around the world, art reviews, transaction records, and so on. Every month, there are top art exhibitions or fair in major cities in Asia. Nowadays, collector can acquire a refined taste more easily than ever before.”

“That applies to the luxury market as well. In the old days, the Asian jewelry market was dominated by jadeite and jade, and you would be hard-pressed to find a colored diamond even in a first-tier jewelry store. Today, everyone knows how valuable they are. The best of them will also go under the hammer in Hong Kong. That’s why Asian collectors now have a great diversity of interests, often forming cross-category collections – many of my clients are collectors of luxury goods as well as modern art and even Chinese works of art.”

“While Asian private collection can now rival with its European or American counterparts, what it lacks now is the comprehensive advisory service that PW&A can provide.”

PW&A is based in Hong Kong

Talking about the art market, not to be missed was the inaugural edition of ART SG in Singapore.

In recent years, with Hong Kong's regional rival Singapore on the rise, many have wondered if Hong Kong's dominant position as Asia's biggest art market will be toppled. Watching them sitting excitedly in PW&A's Hong Kong office, we can't help but ask: why do they have so much confidence in the city? 

“In fact, there is an intricate web behind the sky-high figures,” she paused, taking a walk down memory lane to find an appropriate example. “Many years ago, the Hong Kong government asked me, ‘Patti, why don’t we have wine auctions in our city?' ‘Actualy there are, and all the available warehouses are full,’ I replied. The issue at the time was that our industry couldn't keep up with the high demand because there weren't enough duty-free warehouses."

“That’s right. Apart from a competitive edge as a tax-free port, it requires a complete line of facilities, including storage, logistics, maintenance, restoration, and more. As simple as it may sound, each of them is a specialized field that cannot be developed overnight. ”

Up to the present, Lisa Chow is still a hands-on leader. “I've visited quite a number of art storage facilities recently and many of them are struggling to find space for expansion, indicating that people are very optimistic about the Hong Kong art market."

Philip Hoffman, the founder of The Fine Art Group, previously served as deputy CEO and CFO at Christie's

“Another announcement is our partnership with The Fine Art Group. As we will invest in each, PW&A and The Fine Art Group will work closely together like sister companies. They are experts of art investment and financing, which Lisa and I value. In addition, they have a team of 80 advisors and art finance experts with a global footprint in six countries, such as Europe and Middle East – I believe we can draw on their complementary skill sets and services.”

With the launch of PW&A, 2023 will surely be another thriving and exciting year for the Asian art market.