Kevin Ching, who retired from the position of Sotheby’s chief executive officer in Asia in 2021, will join arch-rival Christie’s as its new chairman of Asia, the house announced Monday. Ching starts on May 24, the first day of Hong Kong’s spring sales week.
The surprising announcement comes as the increasingly competitive auction business in Asia is growing rapidly. Major houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips have been making ambitious plans to expand their reach in the region, with all three establishing new regional headquarters in Hong Kong this year or next in order to to accommodate a year-round sales calendar and more client activity.
The appointment of Ching, the most senior addition to Christie’s, comes about a year ahead of the opening of the house’s new Asia Pacific headquarters at The Henderson in Hong Kong. Christie’s said sales at its Asia Pacific (Hong Kong and Shanghai) salerooms totaled $833 million last year, the third highest ever for the company. Asian buyers contributed $1.8 billion (equivalent to 26 percent) to the global business in 2022, with half of that attributable to auctions held outside of Hong Kong.
In Ching, Christie’s has secured an established veteran of the auction circuit. Also a well-known collector of jade, Ching was Sotheby’s CEO in Asia for 15 years, shepherding the house’s expansion in the region, particularly into mainland China.
“It’s the perfect match and perfect fit,” said Francis Belin, president of Christie’s Asia Pacific. “We believe in Asia. We believe in specialist expertise and in client relationships. We are very excited.”
Ching, meanwhile, is ready to get back into action after a year and a half on the sidelines. “Yes, I was retired, and between hiking and Netflix, I started to realize that I actually still missed a lot the action of the auction and the art world, not only the business but the very interesting, exciting people that I’ve met along the way,” he told Artnet News.
Ching stepped down from his position at Sotheby’s two years after the house was acquired by French-Israeli collector and entrepreneur Patrick Drah in a take-private deal. Drahi’s son Nathan took over as managing director of Sotheby’s Asia in 2021 and began overseeing the house’s development in the region, where it has a 50-year history.
Following Ching’s departure, fellow Sotheby’s rainmakers including former Asia chairman Patti Wong, who was with the house for three decades, and ex-head of contemporary art for Asia Yuki Terase also departed.
Ahead of embarking on a new adventure with Christie’s, Ching praised the house for “never losing sight out of the importance of the brand value” in its quest to grow its business in the region. While being adventurous, “you want to stick to what you do best,” he said, stressing the importance of conducting business in a “thoughtful way” without jeopardizing the integrity of the brand. “A lot of our competitors don’t necessarily place the same emphasis on that, which I think is very important.”
Even as a growing number of young Asian collectors are buying western art, auction houses need to resist the temptation to only chase trends, lest they forget what they have been doing best, such as selling Chinese and other Asian art, Ching warned.
“Just because one particular category is hugely popular, you should not neglect another category, which is equally good but perhaps less fashionable,” he said. “Fashion comes and goes. Don’t forget that at the moment what’s happening is among perhaps the younger, super wealthy collectors in Asia. But, look at China, for example, there’s a huge untapped market of potential buyers of a different age group and different social background who might want other things.”
Despite the uncertainties about the business environment in Hong Kong at the moment, Ching said he was very optimistic about the city’s future in the wake of Covid restrictions, referencing Hong Kong’s importance as an “East-meets-West centre for international cultural exchange” as outlined in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan announced in 2021.
The new headquarters will also allow Christie’s to program sales all year round.
“We don’t believe [the advantages of Hong Kong] will change, otherwise we would not have committed to taking a full initiative and sign a 10-year lease,” Belin said. “The ecosystem is here.”
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