Tatler columnist Peter Cheung demystifies the world of art auctions for newcomers and shows you don't need to be an art expert or a tycoon to start an art collection

Peter Cheung thought his friend Mara Hotung, then jewellery expert at international auction house Sotheby’s, had asked him to lunch with her boss, Carlton Rochell, purely on a social basis. Little did he know he was in the running for what some people would consider a dream job. Having impressed Rochell, Cheung flew to the Sotheby’s headquarters in New York the following week to meet CEO Diana “Dede” Brooks.

“I was scared to death as I had no prior auction experience and didn’t know anything about the industry. I relied on my knowledge of jewellery and watches to bluff my way though,” Cheung says. Nevertheless, Brooks hired him, and from 1999 to 2001 Cheung served as the deputy director of public relations and special events for China and Southeast Asia at Sotheby’s. These days Cheung, a PR and communications expert who specialises in the luxury industry, still collects art and now imparts his auction world wisdom on Tatler readers.

Read more: Peter Cheung's Guide To Hong Kong Art, Science And History Hotspots

“During a recent Zoom, a friend asked me for some advice on how to collect art after she noticed a gallery wall of art behind me,” Cheung says. “I had never considered myself a serious art collector and in hindsight, I guess my training was from my days at Sotheby’s. Hence I must recommend all beginners to attend auctions and exhibitions as a wonderful way to get started.”

Here are Cheung's six tips for art auction newcomers.

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Above Attending an auction is a great way to learn more about the world of art, including the movers and shakers within it. (Photo: Getty Images)

Meet the experts

I bought my first two pieces of art at auction in 1999 during my tenure at Sotheby’s. I had my eye on them but was reluctant to put in bids for them, as I knew nothing about Southeast Asian contemporary art. It was only when I spoke to the expert that I realised that these contemporary Indonesian pieces really spoke to me. In the end, I didn’t have to bid, as both pieces did not sell at auction. I made an offer to the consignor post-sale and ended up getting them for very attractive prices.

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Go to exhibitions

For the beginner, going to an auction exhibition is a great way to get your feet wet in art collecting. It is free, offers exposure to different categories, and again, is a great way to learn from experts. Appreciation of calligraphy, porcelain or even antique furniture might not be initially on your mind but a viewing and learning from an exhibition might surprise you.

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HONG KONG, CHINA - APRIL 02: Andy Warhol's screen print sells for $HKD86 million ($USD 11 068 200) at the Spring auction in the HKCEC Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China on April 02, 2017. Andy Warhol's 'Mao' screen print comes up for auction at Sotheby's. (Photo by Jayne Russell/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Above Auction houses may seem intimidating, but offer exciting insights into the art market. (Photo: Getty Images)

Register to bid

Even if you don’t intend to bid (live or online), register just in case. If you are nervous about bidding in person, try absentee bids or telephone bidding. I loved doing telephone bidding for clients; it was so much fun.

There are a lot of rules, though, and the staff bidding for you are forbidden to give you any advice during the bidding, describe what is happening in the room or say who is bidding against you—and it’s all recorded. To stick to a budget, leave an absentee bid, where a staff member bids on your behalf and you leave it to fate to see if you win. All fun!

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Attend a live auction

Even if you don’t intend to bid, going to a live auction is a wonderful way to get a sense of current prices, the appetite of the market and the pace of bidding, and to just absorb the atmosphere. If you are lucky to be present for a world-record sale, it’s totally exhilarating. It’s also great to people-watch to see who the private bidders are, who are art dealers and, of course, check out what people are wearing. (Back in the day I loved comparing the wardrobes of the clients at a jewellery sale versus a stamp sale.) After attending your first live auction, you will be itching to pick up a paddle yourself.

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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 05, 2021: A staff member holds 'Portrait of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1593-1641), half-length, in armour' by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), estimate £3,000,000-5,000,000 during a photo call for Classic Week at Christie's auction house, a marquee series of nine auctions which feature works of art from antiquity to the 20th century  on July 05, 2021 in London, England. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Above Sold! To the man in the hat. "If you are lucky to be present for a world-record sale, it’s totally exhilarating," says insider Peter Cheung. (Photo: Getty Images)

Buy at a charity art auction

If traditional auctions still intimidate you, bid at your next charity art auction. I support the Asian Art Archive and its annual fundraiser; I think I have bought something for the last ten years. Its auction is open to the public—the pieces are usually on view at Christie’s beforehand—and its always features an interesting variety of Asian artists. Whatever happens, it’s all for a great cause, so you don’t have to stress about it.

Up Next: Tatler’s Ultimate Guide To Hong Kong Museums

Have fun with it: buy what you love!

Don’t speculate on investment and resale. Explore new and varied categories and, again, learn from experts who might ignite a new passion. My collection is pretty eclectic; I have everything from contemporary paintings, photography and illustrations to objects and memorabilia, and I just purchased my first calligraphy. It’s a mish-mash and I have a lot of fun mixing it all together, and it just dawned on me I have three pieces depicting Queen Elizabeth II? Have I subconsciously been collecting images of Her Majesty without realising?


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