Olyvia Kwok didn’t exactly tiptoe meekly into London’s art world — but she’s learned from her mistakes, she tells Michael Watts.
In June 2014, Sotheby’s issued a High Court writ for £3 million plus interest against the purchaser of two paintings for which it had not been paid. The artworks — Water-Worshipper by Jean-Michel Basquiat, with a price tag of £2.49 million, and Idilli by Cy Twombly (£386,500) — had been bought by a London art dealer for a European based in Hong Kong; allegedly, this individual then defaulted on the payment, sticking the purchaser with the bill.
The art world is no stranger to such litigation, but the story made headlines because of the dealer’s exotic identity. She was a young and glamorous Chinese woman named Olyvia Kwok, born in Beijing, the granddaughter of a Red Army general. Unfriendly newspaper descriptions insinuated that hers was the brazen, acquisitive face of the new China.
In fact, Kwok had arrived in Britain at the age of twelve without knowing a word of English, but her precocious rise through Europe’s art and social scene discomfited as many people as it beguiled. When she was 22 and a maths graduate, fresh from completing her MA specialism in 15th-century Chinese art, she had helped create an art investment fund
in Geneva. In 2005 she opened an eponymous gallery in St James’s that capitalised on the explosion in Chinese Contemporary art and the emerging art markets of Russia, India and the Middle East; Kwok now refreshingly admits that she was clueless at the time, not even knowing how to hang a painting, but she had balls. Even better, she had access to money and contacts.
Her mother’s side of the family had traditionally been doctors to the emperors, who had bestowed presents and antiques, all confiscated or destroyed under Mao. But after the Cultural Revolution her mother (who, like Olyvia, had westernised her name) made a fortune in China from distributing the humble Motorola pager device. She loaned her daughter the money for the gallery, while advice about the art business came from her polo-playing godfather, Conor Mahony, once a vice-president in the Chinese art department of Sotheby’s; he calls her ‘Button’ and remains her mentor.
All seemed set fair until the market in Contemporary Chinese art collapsed in 2009. A year later Kwok closed her gallery and, in conjunction with various partners, began buying paintings to sell on (or to go directly) to institutions and HNW clients. She has now refined this. She targets Contemporary art for American collectors, while sourcing Modern and Impressionist works from private European collections for museums in China. Her individual Chinese clients want only art with big-ticket prices. This new focus ideally positions her to interpret the now highly volatile art market in China.
Last year, in an act symbolic of China’s economic clout, a former Shanghai taxi driver named Liu Yiqian used his Amex to buy a Modigliani at Christie’s for $170 million. Yet that same year, China’s art market contracted by 23 per cent. There’s now a conservative focus on classically fine painting and calligraphy, antique furniture and porcelain. Sales have been affected by China’s slowing growth and the government’s campaign against widespread graft, or ‘elegant bribery’, which has commonly lubricated deals.
Kwok’s new ambition is to address a perceived lack of transparency when buying and selling art. She is co-funding a paid-for app that will give the price and history of artworks coming up for sale in any country, creating a huge, expanding database that she says will be ‘like the Bloomberg of the art world’. For all but the biggest galleries, the Gagosians and Zwirners, the future for showcasing artists is online, she maintains. The Chinese market, she adds, has particular difficulties. For example, before Chinese collectors make a big purchase, almost all of them must painstakingly consult their pet academics (university professors who specialise in art history), and subsequent negotiations with the seller are often abrupt to the point of bloody rude: ‘They will simply walk away and not say anything at all.’
Decorum has never much bothered Kwok, either. Expelled from her first boarding school in Kent for biting someone, she leaves an excitable impression wherever she goes. On the phone to clients, she shouts, screams and jumps about. During her gallery ownership, she sported rainbow-coloured hair, a pierced belly button and baggy jeans, with a big chain drooping from a pocket. Chinese artists were understandably suspicious. To impress on them her seriousness, she secured, through her mother, a car with a privileged military licence plate, a driver, an armed bodyguard and a secretary, and went visiting the artists whose work she sought.
‘They were still quite poor, just trying to realise their dreams,’ she recalls. The secretary would show the artist a contract confirming that Kwok would represent him in London. She mimes the incredulous reaction. ‘He’d say, “But what does that mean?” And I’d tell him, “I’m going to sell your paintings and make you really, really rich!”’ Then she’d carry away all the paintings in her chauffeured car. ‘That was the beginning.’
She is 33 now, and calmer, with a five-year-old son and a Danish husband, a hedge-funder, whom she’s shortly divorcing. She has named her company Willstone Management because it suggests to her maturity and positivity: ‘Stone means “solid”, right?’
There is an office with three female employees in Knightsbridge, ‘just by Harvey Nicks’, and she occupies a townhouse nearby with her son and her pets. ‘I live like a nun now,’ she says with a comical pout. She has also patched up her quarrel with Sotheby’s and sold the Basquiat ‘for a lot more than I paid’. She confesses: ‘I’ve made every single mistake that one could make and come through it. But it’s not about how many mistakes you’ve made; it’s about whether you repeat them.’
Kwok now dismisses most young Contemporary artists as derivative and overhyped: ‘You know the kind — those hip, hot-for-two-minutes artists, represented by galleries that might not exist tomorrow.’ She prefers what she bluntly calls ‘a dead artist’, someone with provenance, like the Abstract Expressionists Agnes Martin and Clyfford Still and the Minimalist Donald Judd; even so, the walls of her chic Knightsbridge living room feature startling depictions of vaginas by the cutting-edge feminist, Wangechi Mutu, who is very much alive.
Sitting opposite them and stroking, Blofeld-like, a pure-white cat on her lap, she exudes purring, provoking sex appeal, endlessly amusing in her gossipy candour. In short order, she rubbishes Indian and Arab art, badmouths a particular Monet as ‘dull and boring, like a sad, middle-aged woman’, and then explains, in her voluble, staccato English, why she recently refused to pitch an Andy Warhol screen print of Mao to a certain Chinese collector: ‘They said, “It’s Mao! The Chinese are gonna love it.” And I said, “Dude, he’s not gonna buy this Mao because he doesn’t give a shit about Andy Warhol!”
‘And it’s true. The Chinese consider Americans to be vulgar and uneducated, and Warhol is a typical product of American capitalism and mass production. This is not in any way what the Chinese like. They like substance, like the French Impressionists. They like a sense of history. From a taxi driver to a billionaire, they will always own something that represents the past, their heritage. They’re craaaazy for anything aristocracy. But they don’t get the Pop thing. And, anyway, Warhol, he’s done his peak already [sic].’
When Kwok had her little contretemps with Sotheby’s, some newspapers called her the Chinese ‘It’ girl. I wondered what ‘It’ was, her particular gift. She must be a terrific entrepreneur, certainly, but is the trading more important than the art? She is frank in her response: ‘The great thing about me is that I never pretend to know something I don’t, but I have been told many times that I have a good eye, so I believe it. And I love what I do. You’re dealing with beautiful things and beautiful people, going to beautiful places. You can call up billionaires and politicians. In what other industries can you have those powers?’ Not shallow, perhaps, just realistic.