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Under the Gavel: Emmanuelle Chan of Christie’s on the Art of Auctioneering

She bewitched everyone with her energy at ECHELON’s Anniversary Charity Gala this past December and she is back for more. Ahead of her upcoming wine and watches auctions, we speak to Emmanuelle Chan, one of Christie’s newest auctioneers, about the similarities between auctioneering and showbiz, the quick-thinking it takes, and who the real star of the auction is.

May 20, 2022

In this last year you made the move from Christie's Paris to Christie's Hong Kong. Can you tell us about your background in art history?

I grew up in Hong Kong and then I moved to Paris when I was 17. I studied both law and art history at the Sorbonne for my BA and master's degree and at the same time, I was also doing a bachelor's degree in Chinese art and civilisation at INALCO. After that, I had my very first internship at Christie's in New York. I had applied to work in the contemporary art department, but it's the most sought after department and was completely full. They saw that I spoke Mandarin so they asked if I would try out Chinese works of art. When you’re 22 years old and Christie’s New York is willing to take you, you say yes.

I loved it. I met specialists who are passionate, who are intellectually challenging. I saw works of art that were incredible. You know, Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty ceramics, but also Shang Dynasty bronze. It's a very large spectrum. And I just thought “Wow, if I put my heart into this, I could have a lot of fun,” and turns out I did.

When I moved back to Paris, I applied for a job at Sotheby’s and I worked for over five years in the Chinese works of art department. But after five years, I saw that my heart was still a bit torn between Chinese ceramics and contemporary art. And then Christie's Paris called me with an incredible opportunity and I thought “Okay, why not? Let's switch back to modern and contemporary,” and there's not a day where I regret this decision.

I stayed there for two years, and I used to do some business trips twice a year to Hong Kong. A little over a year ago, they asked me if I would move here. The professional opportunity was very challenging and exciting and it also made sense to me on the personal side. So I moved to Hong Kong late 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, but actually the art market has been so exciting, I think especially the Asian art market. We’ve seen a lot of new buyers, people are very interested, not only on the investment side of art, but also just in the fun and lucrative part of it.

Photo: Christie's

You recently became an auctioneer, was that always a goal of yours?

On my first day of school in university, we had to go around the table and introduce ourselves and at the time I said I'd love to be an auctioneer, but I didn't really think much of it after. Actually in France, an auctioneer is very different from the rest of the world. It's an official job, like a ministerial function. You have to have both degrees in law in art history, which I had, but then you have to pass another very selective exam, like the bar exam. Once you graduate, you become a generalist so you have to be able to appraise everything from Picassos to heavy machinery to carpets to African antiquities. It's a super generalist type of job and I found out that it wasn't for me, I really wanted to specialise. So I kind of put that idea aside.

When I moved to Hong Kong, I found that the status of an auctioneer was very different here. You're more like a show person. Christie's held some auditions, and then we had training for six months. At the end there were four of us, chosen to hold our very first auction at the end of last year in December. 

The energy is different at every auction so you really have to know how to read the room. How do you use your hosting skills to match the general ambiance?

There are two different kinds of auctions, the charity auctions and the professional Christie's auctions. My very first auction was actually a charity auction and it's completely different because you're in a room where people are not here to spend money, they're here to have fun, to have dinner with friends. Of course, they're here to support a charitable cause, but it's not the purpose of their being there. You're on stage, people are eating, catching up with friends they haven't seen in a while. So you have to grab their attention and just put on a show. You try to be funny as much as possible. You must play with their competitive side. So one thing that I like to do, for example, is put tables in competition. I would say “The bidding was with table one, table two, are you going to let table one win? Come on, you have to take it back.” 

What you're selling doesn't have a specific value. For example, if you're selling a bracelet that's worth $50,000, your hope is not to sell it for $50,000 but for $500,000. You have to try to detach that value of the object that they're buying and just remind them that all of this is going to charity.

The Christie's auctions are very different. You're buying something that has a tangible value so if you're selling a watch or a bottle of wine, it's worth something on the market and it's very rare that it's going to exceed that amount by tenfold, but you still want it to exceed that amount, so it's all about timing and finding the right pace. You don't want to be too slow because people are just going to fall asleep and you don't want to be too fast because you don't want to miss any bids. You just have to be a bit fast on your feet.

See also: ECHELON’s Anniversary Charity Gala Takes You on a Flight of Fantasy

Emma at the ECHELON Anniversary Charity Gala

What are some tricks that you use to keep the energy and competition in the room?

It’s practice honestly, it's like running you know, the first time you go running you run 10 minutes and then with practice, you run a marathon. The very first time you take an auction you need to take 30 lots, and then maybe you build up to 50. Last time I did a wine auction I had over 100 lots and actually after 90 lots I started losing my voice. So I realised I really needed to practise because you're basically talking for over an hour non-stop. You don't have a break.

Sometimes the auction is taking place simultaneously in other cities like New York or London and online. How do you manage to keep an eye on the screen and on the floor, all the while talking and counting?

I’m going to tell you a secret, the auctioneer has the easiest job. The most important person in the room (after the specialists on the phone bidding with clients) is the most discreet person in the room called the sales clerk. That’s the person that's sitting on my left and who is my eyes and ears and whispers everything in my ear. You don't see them on camera. If you look at me, I'll have my auctioneers book and then when I finished with the page, I'll take it away and give it to the person who's on my left and she's the person who's keeping track of all the bids, looking online for me, and if I miss anything, she's going to say, “Hey Emma, look to your left.” She's going to point wherever the bid is. People don't give enough credit to the sales clerk. I’m just a puppet.

The bidding increments are in percentages, and they’re not fixed percentages either. You must be really good at math to calculate so quickly in your head!

So the next increment is more or less plus 10%, usually between 5 and 12%. So if you're at $10,000, the next bid will be $11,000. And if you're at $1 million, the next bit is $1.1 million. And the reason for that is you know if you're at 1 million and you keep going up $10,000 then you just have the longest auction  in the world, right? So fixed increments are a way to keep a certain rhythm. It's not about being good at math. It's just about having a good memory. And the more auctions you see the more you get used to the increments. So we also have little tests between us young auctioneers. We'll be like “$45,000, what's the next increment? $48,000! $60,000 what's the next increment? $65,000!” And then once you know them, they're supposed to be ingrained in your brain.

But if you go up 10% and you see that no one's really biting, can you go lower?

You can do what we call splitting the increment. If you're at $2 million, the next bid will be $2.2 million. But if you've got a client who says he wants to bid $2.1 million, that’s when someone is asking to split the increments. It's really up to your judgement. If you still have 10 telephones and 10 people are bidding, what's the point of splitting the increment, you're just going to slow down the sale. But if $2 million is already the world auction record for a painting, and you've got this person who really really wants it, and you feel that $2.2 million is a psychological cap that they're not ready to go past, but they can do $2.1 million, of course, you're going to take it because the most important person that you're serving is your seller. If your seller sees that you sold it for $2 million when you could have sold it for $2.1 million, they won’t be happy. So it’s up to the auctioneer to decide whether to take it or not. 

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Can you describe the high that you feel after an auction?

You’re exhausted, just mentally and physically exhausted, but I think there's so much adrenaline that I usually don't sleep the night before, nor do I sleep the night after. My very first auction was a charity auction, after a long tiring day at work. The first time is always nerve-racking. After the sale, I just could not go to sleep, so we ended up going dancing until 3am. It was a high that I'm not going to forget.

If you had a dinner party, which artists would you invite (dead or alive)?

I'd prefer to teleport somewhere instead of inviting them. I'd like to be an observer in their era, probably the 20s in Paris. To see Josephine Baker, Kiki de Montparnasse and all of the artists that gravitated around them. Ernest Hemingway, of course, but then you know, Picabia, Man Ray, the surrealists Fujita, Sanyu all of these foreign artists who emigrated to Paris and were there to have fun, create great art and eat good food. 

For her sophomore season, Emmanuelle will be at the Hong Kong Convention Centre for a full week of sales, auctioneering part of the wine auction on Saturday afternoon and then taking on the watch sale on Tuesday afternoon.