The gavel rang once, sharply and clearly. “And sold, for HK$296 million.” The number seems fictional, as remote as the Song dynasty from which the expensive piece of pottery originated.
For Jacky Ho, Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s contemporary art specialist and auctioneer, it certainly feels like fiction to be handling the city’s most valuable art.
“Our role in Hong Kong is different from our counterparts’ in New York and London; they have many more galleries and museums, so they can really focus on the commercial part of it,” explains Ho. “Here, we play a bigger role in shaping art culture.”
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Ho was an integral part of #TTTOP, the 2016 auction curated by K-pop star T.O.P. (of the group Big Bang) that caused local interest in modern art to skyrocket.
He compared working with his fellow art auctioneers to being in an orchestra; everybody works in harmony to make the auction process as enjoyable as possible for the customers. His responsibilities range from acquiring new works from artists, to adjusting light in a gallery to best showcase the items on sale.
Ho began his journey into the art world with an internship at Sotheby’s during his university days.
“It was one of those summers where all your friends are in banks, and you want to look for something that’s interesting, because in Hong Kong, you’re either a doctor or a banker … I started with [this] internship, and I absolutely fell in love with it,” he says
That was nine years ago, and Ho hasn’t looked back since.
His focus on contemporary art has allowed him to experience the very best in modern creativity. It also taught him people’s tastes change quickly – year by year, or even season by season.
Contemporary art has its fair share of detractors because of its “anything goes” reputation – some art is so abstract that its meaning sometimes gets lost. Ho, on the other hand, believes this gives younger viewers many ways to engage with, and appreciate, the works.
“If you talk about Chinese works of art, there’s a rule; this is 10 million dollars because it has this glaze. It’s very objective. But it’s not really about that, it’s more about how [the work] echoes how you live your life,” Ho says. “What you like doesn’t have to be what the museums like. You can actually have your own opinion.”
While auction houses and the art markets have at times been demonised as “the dark side” of art, Ho believes his company in Hong Kong plays an important role outside just buying and selling art.
“[Sotheby’s does] a lot of curated, educational auctions as well … that’s something you don’t see in New York because that has been taken care of by the academics [in museums],” he says.
Ho’s advice for young art enthusiasts is to find out what they’re passionate about, then actually do it. In his case, a summer internship ended up turning into a lucrative career, a decade long and counting. Who knows, your next internship could become the job you’ve been looking for all along.