Not many people can claim to have had three careers by the time they are 38. Then again, not many people can match the talent of Xin Li, the deputy chairman of Christie's Asia-Pacific, who has already retired twice -- first from a career in basketball, then from a long stint as a fashion model. Retirement might be a misnomer; graduation is more appropriate, given the escalating demands of Li's present position, in which she deals with some of the world's biggest-spending art collectors. In one evening last year, she spent more than US$30 million on behalf of one of her clients, Chinese restauranteur Zhang Lan, who bought a Martin Kippenberger self-potrait and a piece from Andy Warhols' Little Electric Chair series.
It's a high-pressure job. "I had no idea that the art industry could be so physically taxing," says Li, who is based in New York but spends most of her time travelling around the world. But if there's anything Li can handle, it's hard work. Born in Changchun, capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, to high-achieving parents, Li was a lanky child and drafted into the national basketball programme at the age of 12. It clearly runs in the family -- her father was the deputy director of the provincial sports bureau. "Sports had always been part of my life," she says. It was by no means a carefree adolescence; Li's days started before sunrise, with 5am exercises in the frigid winter, and lasted through seven hours of strict drills and running plays. "I took the challenge seriously," she says. Three years later and standing at 180cm, Li was deemed good enough to play for the national junior team.
That could have been the preclude to a life in sports. When Li moved to Beijing for university, she followed her father's footsteps and studied sports administration. But people often commented on her striking figure. At one point, a friend handed her a copy of Elle and suggested she become a model. In 1995, during her final year of study, Li entered a beauty conest and placed in the top 10. An agent insisted she go to Paris. At the age of 20, freshly armed with her sports degree, a two-week visa and a list of modelling agencies, Li made her way to the French capital. It turned out to be a fortuitous time for a beautiful Chinese woman; fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton were looking for "an exotic Asian face," says Li. She found work on the runways of Paris, London and New York.
These were solitary months for Li, who spoke neither English nor French when she arrived in Paris. She spent most of her free time at museums. In Changchun, "art was the furthest thing from anyone's mind," and even in Beijing, Li had only seen a handful of Chinese classical works. The great museums of Paris were a revelation. "I literally grew weak at the knees," she recalls. "I felt emotions I had never felt before." She saw old masters at the Louvre, Manet at the Musée d'Orsay, Monet's water lily room at the Musée Pompidou. Li knew modelling wouldn't last forever; she decided she wanted to eventually work in the art industry. "I went to many exhibitions and learned as much as I could."
The moment of transition came 12 years later, when Li met Diana Widmaier Picasso, the granddaughter of Pablo, at a dinner on St Barts in the Caribbean. The model mentioned her dream of switching careers, and Picasso introduced her to a job at Sotheby's. "I was recruited to be a liaison for the increasing number of Chinese clients coming to Europe and America to acquire wine and art," says Li. Two years later, the head of Christie's Asia-Pacific division, François Curiel, convinced Li to jump ship to the rival auction house, where she became head of Asia business development. The year she joined, Christie's Asia sales grew 111 percent to US$721.9 million. They now stand at nearly US$1 billion, with Chinese collectors alone representing a quarter of the company's sales.
These days, Li works with a handful of extremely rich Asian collectors—many of them self-made women in finance and technology—who can spend up to US$100 million per season on art, according to The Wall Street Journal. The ferocity with which these collectors have entered the market has taken many veteran collectors by surprise. “They’re Hoover vacuum cleaners—they’re buying everything,” marvelled one US collector at a Christie’s auction last year, after Li bought most of the evening’s top works on behalf of her clients.
Chinese collectors have a reputation for being conservative and name-oriented, always going for established artists such as Picasso over those less prominent. But Li says their tastes are in fact quite diverse. “They are well educated and open to exploring categories that are new to them, from decorative arts to impressionist paintings to contemporary and avant-garde works,” she says. Li works by introducing her clients to new artists through research, documentaries and museum exhibitions. She sometimes takes them out to dinner or visits artists’ studios with them. “I never push anyone,” she says. “Collecting art is a highly personal experience, the creation of a bond with a tangible object of beauty. Both beauty and value are in the eyes of the beholder, and it takes a genuine passion in art for this kind of endeavour.”
Global art sales reached US$54 billion last year, a record high that has fuelled speculation about a bubble in the market. Li thinks the boom is in no danger of collapse. “I do not believe there is a bubble, but what we see is many more people becoming more interested in art and making art part of their daily lives,” she says. “This leads to higher demand for quality works of art and is the reason behind such high prices at auctions.” The art world’s trends appear to be working to her advantage. While sales are booming, the TEFAF Art Market Report 2015 notes that the sales volume has actually declined, meaning that the market is now dominated by a smaller number of works selling at extremely high prices—exactly the kind of art Li’s clients are known for buying.
China is now tied with the US as the top market for modern art, while it is tied with the UK as the second-largest market overall. All of this conspires to mean that Li is busier than ever. How does she manage it? “Sleeping less,” she says. “I’m on my cellphone—with a strong battery—and email most of the time.” On those rare occasions when she isn’t working, Li spends time building an art collection of her own. “I love modern and contemporary art,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the questions that the living artists of our time pose to the audience, in reflection of the challenges of the world we live in. I started collecting Chinese contemporary art many years ago, and in the last four years have been acquiring works by Western contemporary artists as well.” She also makes time for bonefishing, scuba diving and sailing, not to mention museums and galleries.
And basketball? “I rarely play now,” Li admits. But she still draws from the lessons she learned during training for the basketball team. In her job today, “sales come in multiples, and auctions are often marathon sessions that run into the night,” she says. “I juggle time zones between Europe, Asia and America, and often run on no sleep. One has to do intense work within short spurts of time. My basketball background trained my body for this, but it also taught me to focus under pressure.”