Hong Kong Diary

On a short trip to Hong Kong, I discovered that Christie’s auctions are nothing like the glamorous events we see in the movies. Here's what Vir Sanghvi found out...

india Updated: Jan 03, 2011 12:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Back in Hong Kong after a year for a flying visit to learn a little something about jewellery – a subject in which I have been proud to take no interest at all so far! But more about that in a minute. I still remember, when the new Hong Kong airport opened over a decade ago, I passed through on my way to Los Angeles. There was such widespread criticism of the airport, its impractical design etc., that I wondered how history would judge the airport.

I need not have worried. The airport is easy to negotiate, no longer seems particularly new and – dare I say it? – actually seems less fancy than the new Terminal Three of Delhi airport which I have just left. But the contrast does make me wonder about how lucky we’ve been with the new terminal. Elsewhere in the world, every new Terminal building opens to a chorus of disapproval (remember the disastrous opening of Terminal 5 in Heathrow). Delhi seems to have had only teething problems, in contrast.

vir sanghviI’m back at the Mandarin, one of the two iconic Hong Kong hotels. The Peninsula, on the Kowloon side, is grander and probably a little more of an institution but its location means that it concentrates on leisure traffic. The Mandarin is in the centre of the action in Hong Kong and is a bustling, more business-centric hotel run with such remarkable efficiency that the smoothness of the service leaves one gasping.

One instance. I go down to the Grill Room to have lunch on my own. Within seconds of finding me a table, they’ve asked for my room number. Clearly somebody goes and checks the computer because from there on, the staff addresses me by name. As I am eating alone I watch the door – each guest who leaves the restaurant is called by his name and given a warm goodbye.

I’ve been invited to the Christie’s jewellery auction in Hong Kong and have accepted, largely out of idle curiosity because I’ve never been to any kind of real auction ever. My idea of an auction is still shaped by Hollywood movies in which bejewelled ladies make their bids with a slight wave of their little fingers while a haw-haw British gent plays auctioneer and says things like “Going, Going, Gone!”So, the first surprise is that the auction is not in a grand ballroom or at some Christie’s auction room in Hong Kong. Instead, it is conducted at a convention and conference complex in the city where Christie’s has hired a hall.

The second surprise is that none of the auctioneers is an old British aristo. For the early part of the auction, a youngish guy of international demeanour (Indian origin, I would guess) handles the bidding and then, a European (probably French) guy takes over for the big lots.

The third surprise is that something like 95 per cent of the buyers are not even present in the room. I sit in the chairs facing the auctioneer’s table along with various (admittedly very rich) people but though it is Hermès Central (the Chinese love labels), these are not the real buyers.

The auctioneer spends all his time looking to a bank of telephones on the side manned by an army of young Chinese employees of Christie’s, all of whom he clearly knows well and refers to by name. These young people are on the phone to buyers and do the bidding on their behalf. Rarely is anything sold to the people sitting in my area, most of whom treat the auction as a spectator sport.

Far from being the elegant, Hollywood-movie affair of legend, this is rather like a telephone operators convention presided over by their own boss!

The final surprise is the nature of what is being auctioned. When you hear of a jewellery auction (or at least people of my generation do), you have visions of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sitting in the front row at Christie’s waiting for huge diamonds to come up for bidding. So, I sit back and wait for the giant rocks too. In fact, the items on auction (about 300 of them) can be of relatively small value. For instance, the reserve price for a gold necklace is $2,000 (US), an aquamarine brooch has a reserve price $5,000 (US). It is not all big diamonds and multimillion dollar deals.

The biggest single piece on display – it is the cover photo in the Christie’s catalogue – is from India. It is a diamond necklace “upon a pear-shaped diamond weighing 12.29 carats within a pear-shaped diamond surround, extending to a highly flexible lattice-work graduated band of rectangular-shaped intense to vivid pink diamonds. The total weight of all the pink diamonds is 22.8 carats and the total weight of all the colourless diamonds is 86.90 carats.”

This is the biggie with a reserve price of $4 million (US) and it creates the most excitement at the auction, sparking furious bidding before being sold to yet another mystery buyer on the end of a phone line.

The jeweller is a man called Nirav Modi, a strange Indian name among all the Harry Winston, Tiffany, Chanel, Cartier type global brands that are being thrown around by the auctioneer. Afterwards, I go out for dinner with Nirav Modi, who is excited by being the star of the auction but also a little disappointed because he thought that the necklace would fetch another half a million US dollars more than the price he got.

We go to The China Club, one of David Tang’s (Shanghai Tang) operations on top of a multi-storied tower. The restaurant is meant to evoke the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Shanghai, the décor is retro and there is live entertainment. Though round-eyes (as white people are called in these parts) outnumber the Chinese guests by a significant proportion, the food is surprisingly good.

Modi is a self-made jewellery guy from an old Gujarati family that specialises in the diamond business. (The kinds that divide their time between India, Antwerp and other global capitals). Though he has extensive international interests (he tells me he has just bought into an American jewellery chain) he thinks that India represents a large part of the future of his business.

His view is that while Indians have a traditional interest in jewellery, we have lagged behind the rest of the world when it comes to the top end. Indians will still go to Graff or Harry Winston for serious world-class jewels. The local jewellery sector has not kept pace with the explosion of wealth. He thinks that if he can build his own brand, selling high-quality, world-class jewellery to Indians in India itself, there is a vast market to be tapped.

Further, he says, the new India is full of listed companies and people with official wealth. The days of jewellery being bought in cash and hidden from the tax authorities are over. If people can buy cars, designer goods etc. in the open, why should the jewellery sector lag behind? If his jewellery is good enough to be the centrepiece of a Christie’s auction, then surely it is the sort of jewellery that super-rich Indians will want to buy in Delhi or Bombay?

I know nothing about jewellery and frankly, feel a little faint when I see the prices that people pay for jewellery these days. (Surely, there must be better things to do with all that money? But then I am not a woman.) But I cannot argue with this logic. It makes a certain amount of sense.

Talking to others at the Christie’s auction, I learnt that among the biggest buyers for expensive jewellery are the Chinese. Though the identity of the buyer of Modi’s diamond necklace is supposed to be a secret, it is widely rumoured that a Chinese billionaire bought it. Not only do the Hong Kong Chinese spend big bucks on jewellery but the craze for top-of-the-line jewels is on par with the Chinese obsession with designer clothes and fancy cars. Now, the big money from mainland China is also moving into the jewellery market, one reason why Christie’s has organised this auction in Hong Kong. Just as jewellery auctions in Geneva tend to be Arab-dominated, this one taps into the new, emerging market of the 21st century: China.

It remains to be seen whether all this is translatable in terms of the Indian market. My sense (superficial, admittedly) is that while the Chinese have embraced the Western designer culture lock, stock and barrel, Indians have been slightly more discerning. Indian brides still want traditional dress for their weddings and jewellery tends to be ancestral in style, if not in actual origin. But then, the world is changing very fast and who knows if India can remain immune to the trends sweeping the rest of Asia.

I spend only one night in Hong Kong. Then, it’s off to the airport for a flight to Bangkok, a brief transit halt and then Delhi again.It’s been the shortest of my Hong Kong trips. But it has been a revelation. The jewellery market could well be the next big thing. And no, these Christie’s auctions are nothing like the glamorous ones we see in the movies.

- From HT Brunch, December 19

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First Published: Dec 18, 2010 14:53 IST