It’s a November night inside the auction hall at Sotheby’s New York. The atmosphere is electric. Zhao surveys the buzzing crowd from one side of the room, a telephone pressed to her ear. It’s a familiar spot for her. A VP for Sotheby’s Asian business development division, Zhao is a native Mandarin speaker who advises private collectors in Asia. Her specialties are Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art. On this night in 2015 her eyes are on Lot 12, Amedeo Modigliani’s Portrait de Paulette Jourdain.
Auctions are the most stressful part of her job. “It’s like you are trading stocks or commodities, but you are trading art,” says Zhao. But there is more to her job than auctions. “It’s all about relationship managing. It can take years to understand a collector’s taste and deepen trust.” Zhao works to find clients a “tangible asset with an emotional attachment”—a good investment they will love.
On the night of the Modigliani auction, she acted as the eyes and ears of her client, describing who was in the room and how the bidding was shaping up. Valued at $25 million, the painting quickly blew past that mark. “You have to know the client well,” says Zhao, “because they have to make a decision on the spot.” Zhao and her client emerged victorious—she made the winning bid of $42.8 million, her largest successful bid to date.
Zhao finds balance by hiking with her husband in New Hampshire’s mountains. “One thing I found amazing is that people don’t ask each other what they do. You’re all just hikers.” You can’t put a price on that.