The Art Historian in the Auction House

Alumni9 MIN READ

Sandy Ma ’08 draws on her art history degree in a dynamic, global career at Phillips

"It's an exciting life," said Sandy Ma '08 (center), regarding her career working in auction houses. Based in Hong Kong, the art history major worked for Christie's and is now an international specialist for Phillips. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Ma)
By Laura Meader
November 27, 2023

At its recent fall marquee sales in Hong Kong, Phillips auction house sold $31 million of 20th-century and contemporary art to buyers worldwide. Works by some of the most trending international artists dominated the top-10 sellers list.

Sandy Ma ’08 can take pride in these numbers. She was part of a small team that founded Phillips’ Asian business in Hong Kong almost eight years ago. She even headed the first three years of auctions there.

“I look back at the early years as one of the most important times in my career at Phillips,” said Ma, an international specialist, associate director of 20th-century and contemporary art, and charity auctioneer for the auction house. “I think the first few sales were the most nerve-wracking but also the most exciting and, really, very rewarding.”

Since then, Ma has sold hundreds of pieces of art, design, photographs, and editions at dozens of auctions, also called sales. She has appraised art and advised collectors across Asia, starting with Christie’s in 2008 and moving to Phillips in 2016.

As a charity auctioneer for Phillips, Sandy Ma ’08 is proud to bring her skills to help important causes and organizations that promote the arts and arts education, such as the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she auctioneered at its 2023 Gala. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Ma)

See. Perceive. Articulate.

Ma has an eye for art. As an art historian, that means she can easily translate the visual into evocative verbal or written form. As a specialist in an auction house, strong “visual analysis” skills are critical. Writing especially so with a relentless demand for catalog essays to accompany each piece in a sale.

At Colby, her art history professors stressed visual literacy as a foundational skill. Ma embraced those lessons in her coursework and as a research assistant for art historian Ankeney Weitz, the Ziskind Professor of East Asian Studies. In her senior year, Weitz asked Ma to write an essay for the Colby Museum’s 50th anniversary catalog. Ma was stunned by the request—but ready.

“We wanted her voice,” recalled Weitz, who, in conjunction with former museum director Sharon Corwin, approached Ma with the assignment. “We just knew that she would do an exquisite job.”

And did she?

“Yes. Of course,” said Weitz. “She’s a superstar. She always has been, in many different ways.”

When worlds collide

The painting Ma wrote about was Traces dans la ville (Tracks in the City) by the Sino-French painter Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). “I took it very seriously,” Ma said via Zoom from her home in Singapore. “I spent time in front of the painting in storage to study its every stroke, and I pored through every publication about the artist that I could find from interlibrary loan.” The essay would be her first published work, and Zao would become one of her favorite artists and a top seller at both Christie’s and Phillips.

Zao Wou-Ki, Traces dans la ville (Tracks in the City), 1954. Oil on canvas. Colby College Museum of Art, gift of The Honorable Sherwood Tarlow; 1993.016

The painting is important to Ma personally, but it’s also significant in the artist’s career, coming from the 1950s when he was working in Paris and developing his artistic voice, she said. After Weitz and Melissa Walt, a research associate and Jan Plan professor at Colby, collaborated with the Asia Society on a major retrospective show on Zao at the Colby Museum in 2017, “it put the museum on a very different pedestal than I could ever imagine,” said Ma. 

Even today, 7,500 miles away, when she mentions Colby College, some people in her field recall the exhibition.

The pull of art history

In that first essay for the Colby Museum, Ma wrote that “the experience of immigrating to Paris in 1948 made Zao realize what he left behind in China.” In a way, the same could be said of Ma.

Growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia, Ma was 14 when her family returned to her hometown of Hong Kong to flee riots and social unrest following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. She studied art in high school at the Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong, and as a Davis Scholar at Colby, she majored in art, focusing initially on painting. As she painted, she wondered about her professors’ artistic lineage and the origins of painting techniques and styles, drawing her firmly toward art history.

“The professors were just phenomenal,” she said of her art history teachers. “They made everything come to life. And their lectures explained the entire worldview to me in the form of images—their background and their context.” Lectures on East Asian art piqued Ma’s curiosity, and the artwork she studied stirred a familiarity in her. She began to realize the importance it played in her life.

“I guess at that stage of my life, I was thinking about what I could explore and what more I could learn about myself and my culture.”

As a junior, Ma studied abroad at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for in-depth training as an art historian in East Asian art. That summer, she landed an internship at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Like Zao’s journey to Paris allowed him to reflect on his Chinese inheritance, coming to Colby brought Ma full circle back to Hong Kong.

Bringing art to the public

At Christie’s, Ma saw a career for herself in auction houses. Christie’s did too. When she graduated from Colby in 2008, they immediately accepted her as a trainee.

Ma is one of several Colby art history majors specializing in Asian Art who work in auction houses. Eileen Chung ’22 is a trainee at Christie’s in Hong Kong; Fiona Braslau ’10 is an Asian art specialist and gallery operations manager at Christie’s in Paris; and Justin Cheung ’14 works in Chinese art at Sotheby’s in New York.

Relevant to their success in the field is fluency in multiple languages, said Weitz, who keeps in touch with students interested in Asian art. Ma, Chung, and Cheung speak Cantonese and Mandarin; Braslau French and Mandarin. Since the art market is international, emphasized Weitz, multilingualism is essential for working with auction house clients around the world.

During auctions, Phillips staff members communicate with their offsite clients about bidding on items. At this auction, the first in-person event after the Covid-19 lockdown, Sandy Ma ’08 (center, with blue paper) acts as a proxy and places a bid for a client. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Ma)

Specialists like Ma are the link between clients and art placed for sale. To understand each new artwork that’s consigned to her, she not only has to research the work, the artist, and its provenance but also appreciate what makes the artwork valuable—including knowing market trends. This process includes inspecting artworks to verify whether the work is authentic, to check its condition, and to experience its aesthetic beauty up close.

“It’s an endless, endless opportunity for learning,” she said.

Her work with clients involves knowing their background, collection, and interests, what’s on their wish list, and how they see their collection growing. She advises clients on the best time to sell, for example, and the best sales platform. Some of her most memorable experiences involve selling important, long-forgotten works sourced from overseas, bringing them to Asia, and realizing their potential value. When these objects sell for six or seven figures in a Hong Kong sale room, the result can be life-changing.

“I’ve seen a family who have flown into Hong Kong to watch a painting they inherited that was previously stored in an attic for years being sold, and they are just crying as the gavel came down,” said Ma.

Weitz added that she once met a retired couple who were thrilled to be able to send all of their grandchildren to college on the proceeds of their sale of an inherited Zao Wou-Ki painting that they had sold at auction in Hong Kong.

The business of art

It’s all part of the role auction houses play in the art world. Auction houses, for example, bring art into the public realm. When art is in a private collection, it’s often inaccessible. When it changes hands, especially through open auction, that’s when art historians know about it. Auction houses also help determine the value of a certain style of art or an artist, steering market trends in the process.

Weitz commented that finding a balance between the business side of art and an appreciation for its aesthetics is often difficult for art history students wanting to work in auction houses.

“It’s about coming to terms with your love for the spiritual in art or the beauty in art, and then also being able to see it as money—a commodity. That’s hard,” she said. “It takes a special person to be able to make that transition and not just be all about money or all about the art.”

Ma is one of those people, and her ability to connect with clients is perhaps her greatest asset. “There’s sort of an aura about her,” said Weitz. “She glows. She just has a lovely personal presence.”

Sandy Ma ’08 (fourth from left), Ziskind Professor of East Asian Studies Ankeney Weitz (in red), and Colby students at lunch following a chance encounter in Beijing in 2016. Over the last 15 years, Ma has been generous and helpful to Colby students interested in careers in auction houses. (Photo courtesy of Ankeney Weitz)

Weitz recounted unexpectedly crossing paths with Ma in 2016 at a gallery in Beijing when Weitz was leading Colby students on a research trip. They all lunched together, and Ma gave several students her contact information; one of them even got an internship following the chance encounter.

“The way that she interacted with the students and the grace and kindness that she showed them was just all part of it. And here she was showing them what it looks like to be in an art career—half a world away!”

Ma once told Weitz that auction houses are called “houses” because they consider themselves a family business, whether they are or not. In that case, Ma is the big sister everyone wants to have.

For Ma, part of her family tree is rooted in Mayflower Hill. Hers is a story of how Colby’s Zao Wou-Ki painting pointed toward her future. “How it came about in my life was a real treasure and a gift,” she said. “I knew that it was important then. I just had no idea how it would link up in my life.”