When we talk about auctions, the image that most often comes to mind is super-wealthy men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns sipping Krug and bidding more than the GDP of some small nations on a vase. Auctions do have the veneer of elitism; the common perception is that the goods for sale (sold in Euros and sterling, stored in Swiss banks) are out of most of our leagues. Auctions are big business too. Sotheby’s generated US$71.5 million in revenue in 2011, but were off 7.6 percent in 2012 — the year they sold The Scream for a record US$120 million. No word on whether Christie’s profits are hurting, but the house has counted sales totalling US$3.5 billion so far this year. None of this news has scared off Stephen Freeman.
If he has anything to say about it, fine antiques will no longer purely be the domain of HNWIs and museums, at least not in Hong Kong. On June 22, Hong Kong-based Gresham’s Auction House launched with its first sale. Proudly middle market, Gresham’s plans on bi-weekly sales of furniture, jewellery, art and antiques from China, Southeast Asia and beyond. Gresham’s expects to showcase upwards of 300 lots each sale, with previews online, making it a decidedly contemporary spin on the business. “With Gresham’s, we bring the enjoyment and tradition of the auction house back to the general public,” commented founder Freeman in a statement. “The quick, interactive nature of live bidding is an engaging experience, one that I know Hong Kong’s shopaholics will make their new favourite pastime.”
From its 8,000-square foot industrial space in Ap Lei Chau, Gresham’s is banking on its interactive shopping vibe to win over the public — in addition to beautiful items for the home that won’t cost a kidney. Former publishing mini-magnate Freeman, a long-time art collector and founder of ArtWalk, is the brain trust behind Gresham’s, and he has a clear direction he’s like to see the house go in. “At Gresham’s, people can bring home something beautiful, not just browse the unaffordable.”
For shoppers, of course, the beauty of an auction house is the lack of duplicates. Chances of someone else in the city owning the same early 20th century Scandinavian rocking chair as you are low. And Hong Kong is uniquely suited to a wide spectrum of pieces: it’s a classic port city that for over a century relied on people coming and going. People from around the world have lived here for decades — and some have left stuff behind. This in addition to the city’s proximity to China and the rest of Asia. “Hong Kong is renowned as Asia’s auction hothouse, with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods going under the hammer each year,” said Freeman, who will also serve as Gresham’s auctioneer. So if it’s an original Le Corbusier sofa you’re seeking, get your numbered paddle ready. You might just get lucky.