Going once, twice, sold!

Carson Chan, Asia chief of global auction house Bonhams, has a personal interest in watches and cars and a professional interest in wine with a forthcoming wine auction on April 24.
Fast cars and branded watches are the accessories of the good life the world over. But Carson ChanÆs interest in them is not only as a connoisseur. Chan is the Asia managing director of Bonhams, a global auction house, as well as being the firmÆs watch specialist. In his younger days, Chan was an amateur car racing enthusiast. He won the slalom championship of the Porsche owners club in Los Angeles in 1993 and in his spare time ôhas taken a Porsche apart and put it back together around three timesö.

ChanÆs life has brought him full circle. He was raised in Hong Kong until his parents moved the family to the US in 1983. He did not return to Hong Kong, even for a holiday, for the next 14 years. Then a glass ceiling he perceived in the US made him decide to move back to the city of his birth in 1997.

Back in Hong Kong, Chan joined hands with a friend and set up a business making injection-moulded products. But he wanted to stay in touch with his love of things mechanical and cars proved prohibitively expensive in Hong Kong. So, Chan turned his interest to horology, which is the science of measuring time. He started learning about the nuances of watches and attended mechanical movement repairing and training courses in Hong Kong, the US and Switzerland.

By this point, Chan had amassed a collection of pocket watches. ôI decided to put my training to use û I felt that if I can overhaul a Porsche I should be capable of tuning a watch,ö says Chan. This led him to set up his own watch maintenance workbench in Wong Chuk Hang as a hobby.

In 1999, Bonhams appointed Chan to be its Hong Kong-based agent for Asia. At the time, Chan was involved on a part-time basis largely in helping potential clients get their items appraised.

ChanÆs manufacturing business was now well-established and with his partner willing to take responsibility for running it, Chan decided to turn to something new. Swiss watch firm Richard Mille asked Chan if he wanted to take on the general managerÆs position for Asia. Richard Mille was launched worldwide in 1999 and did not yet have a following in Asia when Chan joined in 2005.
ôWe had to create the Richard Mille brand identity from scratch which was extremely difficult as we were in competition with brand names with a long history and heritage,ö Chan recalls. ôWe had to build the brand on a different platform û one of technological supremacy.ö The entry-level watches are priced around HK$300,000 (around $40,000) but one step up can cost HK$1.2 million. With his detailed knowledge of what makes watches and watch-buyers tick, Chan was up for the job.

He spent two years establishing the brand among the Hong Kong market. ôThe Pacific Place Richard Mille showroom we set up at that time is today one of the most profitable shops in the mall, measured on a per square foot basis,ö he proudly proclaims.

With Richard Mille established, Chan was ready for a new challenge. When Bonhams decided to set up an office in Hong Kong in 2007, Chan was the obvious choice to spearhead the effort. ChanÆs role spans the gamut from sourcing to cataloguing to ensuring the right buyers are contacted. His new job also gives him the ability to stay in touch with both his passions, as he is a consultant to global auctions of watches and Porsches.

ôI know my customers, who owns what, what they are looking for and what they are willing to put into re-circulation,ö says Chan. He adds that recently Asian tastes have run more to limited edition, high-value watches rather than vintage watches for the new generation of watch collectors.

Bonhams has held two auctions in Hong Kong since Chan joined them. For the second auction, held in the autumn of 2007, Chan led the effort of putting together a catalogue of watches. His expertise contributed to both procuring and ensuring the right audience was in attendance.

ôMy focus on sourcing exclusive watches, and on quality rather than quantity, paid off and we successfully auctioned 80% of the watches on sale,ö reckons Chan.

Come 2008 and Chan hopes to be a pioneer again. As soon as Bonhams got whiff that the wine duty in Hong Kong might be removed, the firm put into motion a plan to hold a wine auction in the region. Bonhams will hold the auction on April 24 in partnership with Crown Wine Cellars. Wine experts Frank Martell, BonhamsÆ international director of fine and rare wines, and Richard Harvey, a master of wine and BonhamsÆ European head of wine, are sourcing wines from Europe, the US and locally.

For Chan, who personally prefers Margaux wines from the Bordeaux region, wine falls in the category of cigars and golf: something to be enjoyed in company and sometimes even used as a business tool. Watches are his solitary-time hobby and some of his best moments are spent tinkering with watches on his workbench at weekends.

The day we meet, Chan is wearing a vintage Omega Speedmaster. ôOmegas are not super-premium but have a great history,ö he tells me, going on to comment that this was the model Neil Armstrong wore on the maiden voyage to the moon in 1969. Chan has a dozen 1970s Omegas in his collection of about 70 watches.

ôI wear all of them, although some are obviously my favourites,ö he adds. Currently, he favours a Patek Philippe 5970 among his collection. A sentimental favourite is a Casio watch he bought when he was 13 and which is still working.
Chan credits part of his success to an encounter with a Chinese tycoon in the US during his college days, who Chan introduced to vintage car collecting and who suggested ChanÆs name to Bonhams in 1999. ôIÆd rather not share his name but heÆs played a mentoring role in my career,ö says Chan.

Before I leave I ask him what luxury watch he would recommend for me. Chan thinks for a moment and then makes a suggestion ù a Cartier Tank ù reasonably in sync with my taste. IÆm impressed. He does know how to gauge a customer. Chan then follows up with some canny advice: ôBuy it in white gold as it will hold its value better if you later decide to auction it.ö

This article first appeared in the April issue of FinanceAsia magazine.
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