Sure Hammer: Having been around the auction block for 27 years, Robert Sleigh now drives Philips forward in Asia
It was perhaps a “somewhat undercover” wine-appreciation society started by Robert Sleigh and a schoolfriend that heralded an illustrious career spanning the idyllic vineyards of France, the hurly-burly of New York, and now the international melting pot of Hong Kong.
Aptly ensconced in smart new headquarters at WKCDA Tower in Hong Kong’s cultural hub, the Managing Director, Asia, of Phillips talks fondly of those early years. Sleigh’s brief now extends beyond the world’s finest bottles as he oversees the regional strategy of the historic auction house known for its 20th-century and contemporary art and luxury sales.
The Briton’s early passion for wine steered him into a driving job in London with wine merchant Haynes, Hanson & Clark. Crucially, the role allowed him to take his Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams, as at the time only those employed in the trade could sit them. Then, as the UK economy stagnated in the early ’90s recession, he sought broader experience that would differentiate him from the crowd. Meeting some Burgundy producers at a wine-tasting event, he promptly asked if he could work for them.
Sleigh found himself at a small domain in Beaune where the grapes were handpicked from its own vineyard and the wine crafted and bottled onsite. “I did one viticultural year in a way; it was vineyard work and cellar work, and when I first got there, they were still pruning the vines,” he recalls.
The labour was rewarding and he learnt the essentials of vinification. “Winemaking is 90% cleaning,” he says with a smile. “It is cleaning everything spotless so that you do not get bacteria in the wine and it all turns to vinegar.”
He spent three years in France and is now an unashamed Francophile who would happily drink only French wine. His second job in Burgundy was at Maison Louis Latour, a leading négociant-éleveur with many English-speaking buyers. He liaised with clients and assisted with customer service and marketing.
It was this experience that likely helped Sleigh secure a “career-defining” move to the US, where in 1996 he joined the wine department of Sotheby’s auction house in New York. Aside from demand for the cult wines of Napa Valley, he noted other distinct differences in the US wine market compared to Europe. “The Americans are very much led by critic scores; the likes of Robert Parker at the time, who exerted a very powerful influence. They are buying on the 100-point scoring system,” he says.
Hong Kong hub
He was called to Asia in 2010 to manage the huge demand in the Hong Kong wine auction sector following the reduction and then elimination of tax on wine in the territory.
With the West still reeling from the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, coupled with the pent-up demand for Western luxury goods from Chinese consumers with huge disposable incomes, this “perfect storm” propelled Hong Kong into the wine hub of Asia.
“The wine market has never seen anything like it and probably never will again,” says Sleigh, relating how prices took off and Hong Kong became the most important market within 18 months. “Just the amount of stimulus that happened then – it was an extraordinary time.”
After more than 25 years at Sotheby’s, Sleigh assumed his new position with Phillips at the start of the year, tasked with a broader role in the art and luxury sector. Asian-based clients clinch about a third of Phillips’ sales, and he believes their new Asia headquarters with a purpose-built exhibition space – the largest premises of any auction house in Hong Kong – increases their visibility and power in the Asian market. “Being the first auction house to have our own permanent galleries and auction room leaves no doubt about how committed Phillips is to Asia,” he stresses.
This site, occupying the lower six floors of WKCDA Tower near the M+ museum and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, has definite advantages. “The possibilities that this location holds for Phillips are endless, especially as the West Kowloon Cultural District continues to expand and thrive,” he says. “We are excited to be at the heart of it and play an active role in its evolution.”
Early indications suggest the move to West Kowloon will be a successful one. Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art exhibition in March and April, as well as previews of watch and jewellery lots, attracted 30,000 visitors, and their inaugural evening sale there yielded notable results – Yoshitomo Nara’s Lookin’ for a Treasure sold for HK$84 million, and Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin fetched HK$56 million.
According to Sleigh, the art world once operated in two separate ecosystems – East and West – but Hong Kong is now part of a unified global market, with a huge collecting base that extends from Asia to all parts of the world and vice-versa. He talks of a transformation of the playing field: “It now comes as no surprise that the highest-value lot in our long history – a masterwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat – came from the collection of Yusaku Maezawa and was sold to another collector based in Asia for US$85 million.”
Since arriving at Phillips, Sleigh has noted a much younger clientele viewing contemporary art, 20th-century art, design, photographs and watches compared to those interested in wine. He is excited by how collecting is becoming integral to the Asian lifestyle – with many people travelling to the art fairs in Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore – and sees huge growth potential and less of a weight of tradition in the art market here.
Eternally fascinated by the cycle of the auction industry, Sleigh has conducted literally hundreds of sales during his career. He believes the auction ritual remains “a compelling call to action” for unique and valuable items and will always play a role when there is competition for a desirable collectible. There are those who say that all auctioneers are frustrated actors, and though Sleigh remains unconvinced by this characterisation, he concedes he has known some who like “being there in front of the world!”
He describes how having fallen asleep on a plane whilst watching the documentary The Truffle Hunters, he woke with a start, possibly due to hearing his own voice eerily on the headphones. It transpired that the director had taken an excerpt from a recording of a truffle auction for charity he performs every year.
Indeed, charity is close to his heart. He is regularly involved in charity auctions and his wife, Libby Alexander, is the co-founder and CEO of Splash Foundation, which provides swimming lessons to those in need. “We are lucky we live in Hong Kong and we are very fortunate in many ways,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are less fortunate, so I think it is important [to give back].”
Interview by: Neil Dolby Photographer: Jack Law Art Direction: Joseff Musa Fashion Stylist: Jhoshwa Ledesma Videographer:Jack Fontanilla Hair & Make Up: Owen Ko Venue: Phillips Asia HQ in West Kowloon