Carson Chan was sorry to give up his car hobby, but a love of watches opened up a thrilling career as Asia managing director at auctioneers Bonhams
When Carson Chan returned to Hong Kong from the US in 1997, he knew he would have to give up one of his biggest passions: cars. The move did, however, present the opportunity of specialising in another of his favourite areas. “I love mechanics, but in Hong Kong I could not play with cars, so I turned my attention to watches,” he says.
Having lived and worked in the US for many years, Chan decided to return to Hong Kong to see the handover. He worked at an injection-moulding company, but business declined with the onset of the Asian financial crisis. Fortunately, Bonhams auction house was, at the time, looking to expand its business in Hong Kong, and Chan was offered a position as its representative.
Auctioning is an incredibly dynamic job, but a lot of preparation needs to be done prior to an auction, Chan says. “Auctioning takes place twice a year, in May and November,” he explains. “The months before the auction are spent promoting the items. I like to describe the job as being similar to a movie director, plotting the story from the beginning and slowly bringing it to the climax,” he says.
The auction process begins with collecting suitable items to auction. “You have to decide whether clients will be interested in them, and whether the price range is right. Afterwards, the items have to be promoted. They need to be showcased at various exhibitions and you have to decide how to advertise them through different channels,” he says.
Transporting products to exhibitions in various countries involves a huge amount of work, as each has its own regulations on imports. “When transporting precious stones, for example, you have to be extra careful with the regulations. Advertising is another tough assignment – the photography of the products, the size of the advertisement, which publication to use – you have to do it all,” he says.
Once promotions are over, it’s time to prepare for the auction. “Hosting an auction is like being a student waiting to receive a report card – you’re waiting to see if all the hard work put in over several months will pay off,” he says.
He explains that when it comes to auction time, the key is to keep everyone’s attention. “The auction officer must create an exciting atmosphere for bidding. It is common to start with cheap products, and then gradually move up to the prized items. It is important to bring in some special products along the way to keep people in their seats,” he says.
Being able to multitask is a vital trait, he adds. “There are bids coming in from people attending the auction, over the phone and through the internet. You need to have a calm, clear mind and be excellent with numbers to withstand being bombarded with bids,” he says.
One of the most exciting auctions Chan has hosted was one for vintage cognac. “It was a trilingual auction hosted in English, Cantonese and Putonghua because it attracted many buyers, including locals and mainlanders. Having to present the items in three languages slowed down the pace, but the bidding atmosphere was really intense. The auction tuned out to be a great success and our efforts were greatly appreciated by the sellers,” he says.
Throughout his years working on auctions, Chan has dealt with countless sellers. Everyone has their own reason to sell their collection, but most are not doing it for financial reasons. “One person had a wine collection, but was told by their doctor to stop drinking, so they decided to sell it. There are also people who have got divorced and want to sell their ex-wives’ jewels,” he says.
An auction house’s duties do not stop after the bidding has ended, he adds. It has to collect payment and deliver the items to the buyers. “We also need to do a review of why some of the items could not sell, and think of solutions to sell them in the next auction,” Chan says.
Over the years, Chan has built on his passion for watches by studying horology in depth. He has completed several repairing and training courses at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education, as well as a number of training courses offered by Swiss watchmakers. Last year he was even recognised by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie in Switzerland as a master trainer – the first Chinese person in the world to be recognised so.
As a watch collector, Chan is often approached by friends wanting to learn about tactics for investing in watches. He says, however, that he is not keen on idea. “I have never recommended buying a watch as an investment. People might have heard stories about others selling a limited-edition watch and profiting handsomely, but the question is how much has the person invested in other watches before he is able to get hold of that limited edition. It is like casino syndrome – people only focus on the one watch that they have profited on, and forget others that they have suffered losses on,” he says.
Chan has his own set of rules when it comes to choosing watches for his personal collection. “I am interested in brands that are consistent. If they produce classic watches, they will always make those and nothing else. Rolex is a good example; over the years, it has continued to create watches that are similar. I do not necessarily collect old brands, though – I like new brands too, as long as they are consistent. I buy watches from various places – auctions, shops, even second-hand shops,” he says.
In his free time, Chan likes to browse through his watch collection. “Looking at watches is like listening to music,” he says. “In my mind, every watch has a story. When I look at a watch, it takes me back to the time when I bought it. It is quite similar to people listening to a song and recalling what they were doing when they first heard it.”
A SHOW OF HANDS
Carson Chan shares some highlights from his watch collection.
Omega Speedmaster 32 “I considered this a poor man’s watch. I bought it for about HK$10,000 – now its Lemania movement costs HK$1million. I made a little adjustment to the watch on my own by installing a glass case so that I can admire the movement of the parts.”
De Bethune DB28T (pictured) “It houses an inverted movement where the barrels and bridge are visible on the dial side of the watch. The tourbillion cage is visible at the 6 o’clock. This is one of a very few high-beat tourbillions which beats at 36,000 beats per hour. Instead of the more common 60 seconds, the DB28T’s tourbillion makes a full rotation every 30 seconds.”
H. Moser - Perpetual Calendar 2013 model “It has a very complicated design, yet its display is clean. It has an instantaneous date change feature – the flash calendar – which allows it to be adjusted back or forth without risk of damaging the movement.”