I always remember
this as I think it is a good thing to be in front of a bunch
of people and not always be perfect. Some auctioneers like
to set themselves as, shall I say, imperious. However, the
very best auctioneers somehow find a way to connect to almost
everybody. When you are selling at your very best you sort
of know whether the person is going to bid again or not.
Some people wish to be flattered or paid attention to, some
people wish to be ignored and will only bid if they are ignored.
You need to look at people and make a decision how they wish
to be approached on that day.
T.N.—What are the necessary qualities to be an effective
W.F.R.—You need to have respect for the property, but
you really need to be able to read people. If you can't
do numbers you are probably going to be in trouble, but
I have not met anybody who is so bad at numbers that
they couldn't do a workmanlike job at auctioneering.
The best auctioneers don't know even what words are
coming out of their mouth. It is all intuitive I think
and you are largely working on looking rather than
being worried about what words are coming out of your
mouth. For example, if I look at you and see you starting
to coil and become tense then I would think that you
are thinking about bidding. Then I would have to look
at you, wait and acknowledge you and see whether or
not you will participate.
T.N.—Very well put because I want you to know that
I declare Henry Howard-Sneyd one of the very best auctioneers
in Hong Kong .
W.F.R.—That's fantastic. I am very pleased as well
Henry is at Sotheby's. He represents us very successfully.
T.N.—Being a successful auctioneer is what makes
your best pieces realise the highest prices and he did
it at your 30th anniversary Hong Kong sales.
You can read about it in our January–February 2004
magazine's Saleroom News reports. In fact through these
reports we have made Sotheby's and Christie's auctions
better known around the world. This is one of the ways
dealers and collectors refer to them. They are very
W.F.R.—Can I ask you a couple of questions?
T.N.—For my subscriptions it is very good. A lot
of people do not want to travel so our subscriptions
have been increasing steadily.
W.F.R.—It is probably none of my business but you said
you are going to ask me direct questions. So does most
of your revenue come from advertisers or subscribers?
T.N.—More revenue comes from subscribers.
W.F.R.—How do you build a subscriber base? Do you do
mail or do you have to show up places and ask people
T.N.—We distribute our magazine worldwide. For example
in America we have over six hundred
outlets selling Arts of Asia.
W.F.R.—But that is single copy, right?
T.N.—Each outlet may carry a number of copies of
the latest issue. We send over three thousand copies
to America alone.
And then we have over two thousand subscribers in your
country. Each time when they renew their subscriptions
I also write to them and ask them to please introduce Arts
of Asia magazine to their friends. And they respond
because they enjoy the magazine and appreciate its content
of serious and valuable information on Asian art and
antiques. To take out a gift subscription to the magazine
is very reasonable so many of them do this. Their friends
when they receive the magazine will think of them. It
only costs US$70.
W.F.R.—That's cheap. How many issues do you get?
T.N.—For a US$70 gift subscription you receive
six issues a year including mailing.
W.F.R.—Do you have to keep a group of writers or journalists
T.N.—No, we have so many articles being sent in to
us. People who write for us have to be knowledgeable
and experienced in their subject. They should be specialists
and professionals. I am very pleased to tell you that
for nearly thirty-four years now we have had to turn
down so many articles because we only publish six issues
every year. We have more articles than we can use.
People want to be seen in our magazine because we have
international exposure. The publicity they receive is
W.F.R.—I think it is a terrific publication. I have
read it for years.
W.F.R.—Absolutely. Henry for years has been telling me
that he wants to advertise more in your magazine, but
I would not let him.
T.N.—Now that you have met me you really should not
W.F.R.—I have long arms, but not long enough to completely
grab the purse.
T.N.—Also exposure on our online website is very
good. We have at least thirty-five thousand hits every
month and we sell a lot of back issues and subscriptions
through the Internet. But most of all we have so many
outlets and bookstores. Arts of Asia is the only specialist
Asian art magazine that truly has international distribution.
We are now even in China .
W.F.R.—Whom do you compete with in China ?
T.N.—From what we know in China we
are the first and only English-language Asian art magazine
W.F.R.—Are there lots of art magazines in China ?
T.N.—There are a few but they do not have the same
level of content and information. They tend to focus
an awful lot on the people. Our nearest competition
only prints around four thousand copies. You should
also look at the quality of our publication. We are
printing on both sides coated real art paper ordered
from Japan .
W.F.R.—We need to have a talk about your paper quality.
It is so good. I'm not sure you need to have quite this
quality. I know it is very good. Do you print here?
T.N.—We print in Hong Kong . My
son Robin spends three days and three nights at the
factory supervising the printing and quality control.
Take a look at our September–October 2003 National Museum of Indonesia issue.
It is unique. The Director of this museum instructed
her staff to bring out each piece for us to photograph
their collection. We had to go there and spend seven
days to take the photographs to produce this special
W.R.F.—Actually, you did very well.
T.N.—It took seven working days. We had one photographer
with two assistants and eight security guards from
the museum. Just to remove the glass case around the
stone sculpture exhibit for the cover picture took
six men. We have very good relations with the museum
and wrote about their collections over twenty-five
years ago. I also know many of the important collectors
in Indonesia and
even encouraged them to come to bid at auction in Hong
Kong . Henry has also given a talk to the members
at the Oriental Ceramics Society of Indonesia .
I know Dr Handojo Susanto, the Chairman of that society,
and I was working to make that happen.
W.R.F.—I have to ask you another question. What do
we need to do to be better?
T.N.—Do you mean at Sotheby's?
W.F.R.—Yes, tell me what we should be doing that we are
T.N.—I think the first thing you need to do is spend
more money in your publicity. For example many of my
richer friends forget about your jewellery sales. Nowadays
you don't advertise your jewellery sales, which is
a pity. I really mean it. We have a smaller budget than
you but we also advertise and do publicity. Once or
twice a year we send out one thousand copies to special
names and addresses, which take time to prepare. Those
are the people we have been told are interested in Asian
art. That is direct publicity and usually the response
has been good. This is what we have been doing, but
you need to have a budget to do that. We also travel
and we meet people. We give a lot of free advice and
people introduce us to their collector friends. At Sotheby's
I think your budget for publicity is too small.
W.F.R.—Well I asked.
T.N.—Your budget is too small. You even combine
a number of important sales into one advertisement.
People hardly see it. People are busy these days. You
know they are attracted by lovely subjects in the advertisements
and want to see more. This encourages collectors to
bid at auctions.
W.F.R.—And if I could do anything in my business that
could help your publication what would you like us to
do, other than taking twenty pages of advertisements
in your magazine?
T.N.—No, you do not need to do that.
W.F.R.—But what could we do to help your business?
T.N.—I would like to do more direct marketing. If
you have the list of people you would like us to send
a complimentary magazine we will be very happy to do
W.R.F.—Well, we might be able to cooperate in some
T.N.—Sure, I will be very happy to do that worldwide.
W.R.F—Clearly people who buy Chinese snuff bottles,
paintings, porcelain and furniture for example, will
have an interest in your publication.
T.N.—We are also introducing new subjects in our magazine.
In our November–December 2003 Australian Museums issue
we published an article on contemporary Aboriginal
painting. Tim Klingender, the expert at Sotheby's Australia,
also wrote a Saleroom News report for us on his best
ever sale in this field. We can certainly do some cooperation
with you. Now in China people react
very favourably to our magazine because it is available
at the bookstores of major hotels, airports and museums.
This is how we also get new subscribers. The auction
houses and galleries also have to count on us to help
create new collectors. If we have one hundred new subscribers
a few of them will become collectors. Often when we publish
special museum issues they can order over one thousand
extra copies for sale in the museum shops and to give
to important donors and members. Even contributors sometimes
buy hundreds of copies to give to friends and collectors.
That is a great way to promote the magazine to the right
Just yesterday Dr Stephen Markel, the Director
at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called me
and said how very proud they were of our January–February
2004 issue featuring on the cover his museum's Japanese
netsuke from the Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection.
The reason why I wanted to do this is because I went
to the museum's Japanese Pavilion two times and very
few people seemed to go there. So I said I wanted to
make publicity so people around the world will visit.
Since we have been doing the promotion more people
are already going there. Through our efforts the dealers
have been talking about it. Because that issue will
be printed and distributed around the world more people
will make the effort to see the collection.
W.F.R.—That is terrific.
T.N.—When we write about something people read
it. Our magazine is not one of those you throw away.
It is a reference book and people learn from the articles.
W.F.R.—Yes, I know.
T.N.—Our in-house Saleroom News reports about your
successful Hong Kong 30th anniversary
sales will bring more people who want to place their
collections for sale at Sotheby's. I am absolutely certain
about that. After reading the article and if they are
thinking of selling their collections they will definitely
think of Henry and give him a call. It does help. Every
day we have people coming to our offices to read through
the back issues as well as the auction and dealer catalogues
we have on display. We have a place for them to sit down
and they even take down notes. We are providing services
to the auction houses and art dealers that nobody in
the world is doing.
W.F.R.—Do you reprint the magazine?
T.N.—No, we never reprint. This has been my principle
because I want people to treasure our magazine. Some
of our readers have every copy of the magazine in their
W.F.R.—I didn't know people do that. It is wonderful
to have a magazine which people collect.
T.N.—I want to show you this earlier 1971 issue of Arts
of Asia where you can see the first Sotheby's London Saleroom
News report written by Mr John K.T. Ma. I want you to see
that our association with Sotheby's dates back a long way.
T.N.—And you need our magazine and our collector
readers. Every day we produce new subscribers and those
new subscribers may be a good potential buyer.
W.F.R.—I have an idea I want to talk to Henry about,
because I think I can help you get more new clients.
T.N.—Yes, please do. I would love to discuss your
ideas with Henry.
W.F.R.—We will figure it out.
T.N.—You will not regret it if you advertise your
sales more in our magazine. You will receive millions
of dollars in return because the majority of our subscribers
are wealthy. I really mean it. I have a few more questions.
Now that I realise you have been exposed to Asian art
through your experience in textiles and rugs during
your twenty-three years at Sotheby's including four
years as President and CEO, what are your plans to
make the company more successful?
W.F.R.—As you know the last four years have first been
about finishing some difficult times where the whole
business and industry was in a very challenging position.
We have finished all of that.
T.N.—Are the difficult times over?
W.F.R.—Well they were over in the large part, but it
is really only in the last three months that the art
market broadly has really changed. Starting in September
we have seen significant stronger prices in almost every
collecting category in Italy , France , London , Hong
Kong and New York . We have been seeing a lot stronger
interest in many different fields. Frankly the strength
of the bidding has truly surprised us. So we think we
are looking at a different business and a different level
of sales to what we have seen in the last three years.
That is very good news because it will allow us to invest
again in the future of the business. For the last several
years our investments were largely related to keeping
our staff together and to keeping the organisation feeling
there is a strong future because we had some very difficult
challenges. But we survived that and our staff did stay
together and now we are looking to build and broaden
our reach in a number of different parts of the world.
But the most exciting part of the world right now without
question is right here.
T.N.—You believe so?
W.F.R.—Oh yes, absolutely.
T.N.—So what are your plans to promote Sotheby's
W.F.R.—You have seen me twenty minutes after I have
arrived in Hong Kong, so I think it is best for me
to say that I am here to listen and learn rather than
to give pronouncements. Over the next year or two years
I expect to be here a number of times and I will have
a more coherent view of where we will want to be. But
I think Henry will be leading our efforts in the region
and I am here as much as anything to support him as
opposed to redirect or change the directions he is
pursuing. I think he has a very good feeling for the
Asian market and we are confident in his leadership.
T.N.—You plan to visit this part of the world more
often. Is this your first visit to Hong Kong ?
W.F.R.—Yes it is.
T.N.—From here where are you going to?
W.F.R.—I am going to Beijing and Shanghai .
T.N.—You should really go to Beijing and Shanghai .
Will Henry be taking you?
W.F.R.—Yes. I will have a very intense tour!
T.N.—You will have a wonderful time, but no matter
how busy you are you must allow two days for sightseeing.
You must go to the Temple of Heaven ,
the palace and the museums.
W.F.R.—My schedule is largely prepared by Henry this
time and I will swap notes with you at the end of the
T.N.—I first visited Beijing in
the winter of 1965. We were one of the first capitalist
families to go to Beijing at the beginning
of the Cultural Revolution. We have been lucky and have
been able to return many times since then and that is
one of the reasons why we understand Chinese culture
very well. I am glad to hear you plan to focus more on
this part of the world. Do you believe there is going
to be an increase in economic growth here?
W.F.R.—The growth in this part of the world is unlike
anything in any other part of the world.
T.N.—Even more so than in Europe and America ?
W.F.R.—Not even close.
T.N.—So you are confident?
W.F.R.—I think there may be good days and there may be
bad days. China has every possibility to do extraordinarily
well in the next twenty years. I am not the first to
say that I think it will be China 's century.
T.N.—I do tend to agree with you. Now, my son Michael
collects paintings by American Modernist artists. Do
you know anything about this area?
W.F.R.—A little bit.
T.N.—I wrote down that he likes Stuart Davis, Alfred
Maurer and Albert Bloch.
W.F.R.—I know Stuart Davis very well. Stuart Davis
is a very important American painter from the first
half of the 20th century. His pictures can sell for
many million US dollars.
T.N.—I didn't know.
W.F.R.—If he wants to sell the paintings just tell him
to bring them to me and I will take care of him.
T.N.—His collection also includes the American self-taught
artists William Hawkins, Sam Doyle, Minnie Evans, William
Blaney and S.L. Jones. Many of these artists are Afro-American.
W.F.R.—My god, what is he doing in this part of the
world collecting American paintings?
T.N.—He lives in New York City and
has a wonderful apartment on Park Avenue .
W.F.R.—What type of business does he do?
T.N.—He is in finance. He used to work for Arts
of Asia and fifteen years ago he married an American
girl from Boston . He made some money
and was therefore able to collect these American artists.
W.F.R.—Does he work for himself or one of the big financial
T.N.—Now he works for himself. So he has more time
to collect American art.
W.F.R.—Do you come to New York to visit him?
T.N.—Normally a minimum of once a year, but he
comes to see us at least two times a year. He has two
beautiful daughters. Are you planning to bring any
of those well-known Impressionist paintings to this
part of the world, not for auction but to view and
W.F.R.—I think we need to bring more art to Asia .
I am not confident Impressionist art is the best choice.
It may be more contemporary things we should be bringing.
T.N.—What do you mean by contemporary?
W.F.R.—Things from the 20th century as opposed to things
from the 19th century. I think we do need to bring works
of art here from different cultures. Increasingly there
is a real interest in people buying.
T.N.—Do you subscribe to the magazine?
W.F.R.—I am not your subscriber but I get handed your
magazine every time it comes out.
W.F.R.—I get about two hundred magazines every month
and it is handed to me by my colleagues who get everything,
but I always look at it. I look at every single issue
and it is a pleasure.
T.N.—Can I ask you how old you are?
W.F.R.—I am getting old enough to lose count. I will
be forty-eight in a couple of weeks.
T.N.—Amazing, you have already achieved so much.
That means you were only forty-four when you became President
of Sotheby's. I have to ask you what is the key to
being a successful executive?
W.F.R.—I think it is important to just show up on time
and work hard. Just keep working. You make much of your
own luck. You cannot predict the future and sometimes
things happen outside your control, but if you work
hard and have friends, it helps you get along in this
T.N.—How do you view integrity?
W.F.R.—If people don't trust you, particularly in our
line of work, you don't have a business. You can build
up a reputation and blow it up in a day. Don't do it.
T.N.—That is beautifully put. Here is my final question.
Though still a Director at Sotheby's I understand Mr
Taubman is retired and left the business to his son
whom I have met and is a very nice man. In fact he even
asked his young son to give me two kisses. How is your
relationship with Mr Taubman?
W.F.R.—I have a lot of respect for Mr Taubman (Sr.),
and I work regularly with Bobby Taubman his son, who
is on our Board. He is smart, talented, and has helped
T.N.—Do you think Mr Taubman wants to sell his shares
W.F.R.—Ask Mr Taubman! But we are working very well
together at this point.