Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Q&A with Christie's photography expert

This Q&A with Philippe Garner, Christie's expert in photography, also appears in the September "Landmark" magazine. (Photo: "Glass Tears" by Man Ray. Article copyright: Hongkong Land.)

Sometimes (rarely in Hong Kong), you get a subject so eloquent, concise and witty that even a brief "phoner" interview is a pleasure. Philippe spoke to me from London.


Q. How did you begin?

A. My first photography auction was also the first of the modern era, in 1971. I was 22 years old.

Q. How has the market evolved over all those years?

A. If you look over several decades, there are shifting patterns of availability. When I started in the business, we focused on 19th-century works, which became ever rarer. Then we shifted to avant-garde works of the ‘20s and ‘30s which are now scarce – so many collections have gone into museums.

In the last decade, the strength has been in works from the post-war years. There has been a dramatic increase in the appreciation of photographs by Robert Frank, William Eggelston, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn.

Q. Can you talk about some of Christie’s headline-making sales, like the Man Ray that sold for $1.2 million in 2013? Or the Richard Avedon portrait of Dovima modeling Dior and posing with elephants, which sold for 841,000 euros in 2010 in Paris?
A. Those exceptional pieces might catch the public attention, but they reflect a wider interest. We see a strengthening, a broadening of the market.

Q. What is popular now?

A. The highest prices for photographic works have been in the contemporary art context. When a Man Ray sells for a million plus, that is a record for Man Ray – but contemporary artists can sell for several million. However, there is a relatively small cast of these artists: notably [Andreas] Gursky,  [Cindy] Sherman and [Richard] Prince.

Q. Do you have major Asian collectors?
A. We’ve had some significant Asian buyers, most specifically Japanese, Hong Kong, and Korean buyers. The strongest interest is from Japan, where photography is a major part of the culture. Mainland Chinese buyers are statistically negligible at this point. 

Q. Aren’t collectors worried that they may not be buying an original work, like a painting?

A. One concern newcomers have is questions of relative rarity – the idea that photographs can be produced ad infinitum.

To create beautiful prints is a high craft. Production is more limited than they imagine. Take Man Ray, for instance. In the ‘20s, he would make a tiny number of prints per negative. You can count them on your fingers.

Q. What advice would you give new collectors?
A. The subject is very wide – it is one-and-three-quarters centuries old. It’s like saying ‘I want to collect paintings. Where do I begin?’
They should hone in on a particular period, subject or artist. And they need to be familiar with what is in the marketplace. 
Q. What’s special about photography?
A. It’s a window into the world and into history. I’m living evidence that photography is an engaging subject. Once you’re hooked, there’s no known cure.
Christie’s next major photography auction will be on Sept. 29 in New York.

More writing: Old shoemaking guys

After nearly a decade in the bubble that is the International Herald Tribune / The New York Times, I am dipping my toe into other publications.
There's lots to get used to -- for example, the fact that many local magazines don't automatically put everything online, like the Times does. 

Here's a short, sweet profile of a Hong Kong family keeping a generations-old shoe-making tradition alive.  The article appears (print only) in the September issue of "Landmark," a glossy magazine you can pick up free in -- you guessed it -- the Landmark mall. Photo credit: Gareth Brown. Copyright: Hongkong Land.

"If the Shoe Fits: Kow Hoo continues to keeps Hong Kong’s shoe-making traditions alive, as Joyce Lau discovers

Hanging in the doorway of the Kow Hoo Shoe Company’s small Prince’s Building shop is an entire crocodile hide. If a customer were interested in turning it into a pair of shoes, it would be sent to a Quarry Bay workshop  to four sifu, or craftsmen, so elderly that they can only work three or four hours a day meticulously punching tiny stitches through the leather.

Kow Hoo is the last business in Hong Kong to make entirely custom-made, hand-made shoes. There is no menu from which to choose designs, just a pile of leather and the customer’s imagination. 

“Many of our clients draw the designs themselves,” says John Lau, Kow Hoo’s director.

Kow Hoo was founded in Shanghai in 1928 by Lau’s great-uncle, who moved to the then-British colony of  Hong Kong in 1946. The business was then passed to Lau’s father, and finally to Lau himself. “I watched them work as long as I can remember,” Lau says. “As children, we’d play in the workshop. I started working there when I was 20.”

The process of perfectly fitting a shoe to an individual takes several months and costs about $11,000.

First, Lau measures the feet – not only the length, but also the width, shape and circumference of the instep. He then creates a “last” or unique 3-D model; originally, “lasts” were sawed from wood, though modern ones are cast in plastic.

A sample shoe is made with a cork and cardboard sole and a cheaper leather top. The customer comes for a second fitting, and Lau adjusts for idiosyncrasies like a high arch, flat feet, uneven legs or a desire for a “secret” internal heel to boost one’s height. “Because they are hand-made, we can make minute adjustments,” he says.

According to Lau, “English-styled soft formal shoes with European leather” are the most popular. 

“Most of our leather comes from Italy, some from France,” explains Kitty Wong, the store’s manager. “Some people want a very soft shoe, so we use the leather that’s usually used for clothing, like leather jackets.”

A good shoe can last for decades, says Lau, so long as the owner is diligent in replacing the sole and bringing it in for repairs.

All about mooncakes for the NYT

I had fun with my latest New York Times story - about the $2 billion Chinese mooncake industry.
How is it that so much money is spent on a food that, frankly, so few people actually like to eat? 
I talk about elite mooncakes (The Pen's sold out in August), mass mooncakes (Maxim's makes 45 million a year) and ironic hipster G.O.D. mooncakes shaped like buttocks.

I look into the weird Mooncake Economy, in which 80-90% of all products are bought as gifts. And, according to Maxim's, 80% of all traditional mooncakes are bought as coupons.
People often ask me if I feel limited as a journalist in Hong Kong. I have to say that the HK government has never once bothered me about anything. But corporations try to stop or control coverage all the time.
Here is a small, pretty funny example: In the ridiculously P.R.-controlled / paranoid world that is Hong Kong, I actually got kicked out of Godiva in IFC, whose salesgirls were freaked out that a  journalist might actually ask a customer something about chocolate mooncakes.

You can see the full NYT text here. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Interview with tycoon Lui Che-woo

As I am officially a freelancer now, I've started dipping my toe into the waters outside The New York Times. 
My first assignment for The Peak Magazine (run by The South China Morning Post) was a cover story on Lui Che-woo, one of that generation of elderly self-made Hong Kong tycoons in the mold of Li Ka-shing. Lui is the third-richest man in Hong Kong with a net worth of US $17.3 billion. And he took me out for dim sum!
The story is not posted online -- you have to buy an actual magazine to read the entire 2,000-word feature. But there's a brief summary here. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sanrio wins the war on terror

I thought I was biased as the mother of two young girls.
But now I am convinced. Hello Kitty has achieved world domination. Every single person -- even gun-toting tough guys -- at some point has used a Hello Kitty notebook.