Telum Talks To... Benedict Tsang, Head of Communications, Asia, Bonhams
Telum caught up with Benedict Tsang, who looks after Asia communications for auction house Bonhams. An avid art aficionado, Benedict spills the beans on the auction industry, including common misconceptions, the weirdest item he's seen put up for bid and the arts landscape in Hong Kong.
Your current and previous role saw you involved in the auction and art space. Have you always been interested in this?
At university, I read comparative literature, not art history, which basically shapes students to be sensitive to diversity and differences. This education was immensely helpful for my comms roles in an industry that is so full of storied objects. I often joke how we time travel at work every day: in the morning we could be working on a story about an ancient celadon vase from the Song Dynasty, and after lunch we could be discussing Banksy and street art with a specialist, what makes a bottle of Japanese whisky collectable or the growing market trend for vintage Rolex watches. If you have an insatiable curiosity, the auction industry can be your haven.
What is one misconception about the auction industry?
Auctions are not as intimidating as people think. Most auction previews are open to the public, and they are a free way to get close to truly stunning art that you can't find in a museum. It is also a place for people who appreciate art to gather, so chances are you might meet like-minded folks in an auction or a preview.
Some would argue that the arts sector in Hong Kong is not as developed yet. Do you agree, and if so how can brands raise this?
Every city and business has limitations. But commercially, Hong Kong as a city has the world's third largest art market - just after New York and London. Recently there has also been a creativity boom in Hong Kong that speaks in response to social affairs. This is not just top down from the sector, but a rising energy from the general public.
Given you work with creative industries, does that also influence your communications strategies?
The auction industry is as much an industry about art as it is about business and each sub-category (contemporary art, modern art, Chinese art, wine, whisky, jewellery etc.) has its own market. What’s true is that you would speak to different audiences for different categories and stories. Sometimes the demographics overlap; for instance, a whisky collector might collect watches too. The key really, as always, is to understand who your audience is, and that includes, but is not limited to, both the consignor (the person who gives us objects to sell) and the buyer.
Under the current social and economic landscape, how have you adjusted your communications strategies?
The world has been moving faster than ever in the past year or so. What was effective last season might no longer apply. The important, and also the challenging thing, is to keep up with the speed of change and be very flexible.
Finally, what's the strangest or weirdest item you have seen put up for auction?
A pair of narwhal tusks! The mystery of narwhal tusks dates back to ancient Inuit folklores, and they are thought to possess magical properties, including the power to purify poisoned water and to endow its owner with luck and authority. But really, auctions are full of surprises, so you never know… Sometimes it's not an object itself, but the collector's story that is the most compelling.