“She’s very good at art.”
“I think clients like her! She’s very patient when it comes to talking to clients.”
“But I don’t have good eyes like her!”
“Oh, but she has a good eye for jewellery.”

So two friends who work together enthusiastically point out each others’ good points.

Yaovanee Nirandara has a passion for all things philatelic and a growing interest in paintings; Punchalee Phenjati has a discerning eye when it comes to all kinds of jewellery. They’ve been friends since they were in kindergarten – but it was 234- year-old auction house Christie’s that brought them together professionally.

“I’d been a Christie’s client for more than ten years, so I had gotten to know the people at Christie’s very well,” says Yaovanee, an avid philatelist who judges international exhibitions. Her search for stamps led her to Christie’s offices in London, Geneva, Singapore and Hong Kong. “They wanted to start an office here, and they were looking for a representative for quite some time.”

It was the Financial Restructuring Authority (FRA) art auctions in June 1998 that moved things along for both Christie’s and the two friends.

“I spoke to Punchalee about the FRA auctions because we both like art and we like to promote Thai artists,” explains Yaovanee. “We saw the auctions as being a good opportunity to promote Thai artists and at the same time assist the government. So we asked Christie’s Singapore, the nearest office, to come in and assist with the FRA auctions.”

And how did the first Christie’s-managed auction in Thailand go?

“Very well,” says Punchalee.

“It was very good,” echoes Yaovanee. “One hundred per cent of the items on offer were sold, at about five times the estimated prices.” Approximately 60 million baht worth of goods were sold. After working with Yaovanee for the FRA auctions, Christie’s approached her to be a representative. “And Yaovanee asked if I would like to help her,” says Punchalee. “She said if she was going to do it, I would have to do it to! So I joined her as a consultant for jewellery.”

The new Christie’s office doors opened softly in December 1998, and the official opening was held on 28 April, 1999. The first auction was held later in the year, with the hammer wielded by a professional auctioneer from Geneva. Buyers from as far afield as Belgium and England came.

“About 92 per cent of books and manuscripts were sold. For paintings, about 84 per cent were sold,” says Punchalee. “Usually auctions average about 74 or 75 per cent.” The house’s second auction was held on July 30 at the Hyatt Erawan, with an auctioneer each from Australia and Hong Kong “Our clients include Thais and foreigners, museums, expats… everyone,” says Yaovanee.

The most expensive item sold to date has been a painting by Thai artist Tawee Nandakwang, which went for 2.5 million baht – not quite comparable to the Christie’s record of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, which sold for US$82.5 million in 1990, and remains to this day the most expensive item ever sold at auction – but respectable for such a young office, nevertheless.

A look at their catalogue books indicates that you don’t need to be incredibly rich to procure a numbered paddle board and have a bid: a first edition Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina (Siam), Cambodia and Laos by Henri M Mouhot was expected to fetch between Bt6,000 and 8,000, while 50 Eagle Bird Cigarette cards, each depicting a letter of the Thai alphabet were looking to sell for Bt3,000 to 5,000.

In Bangkok, just one auction per year is currently being held, while Singapore and Hong Kong hold two. “It takes about six months to prepare for one,” says Punchalee, so a typical day will vary depending on the time of year. “When we are doing the sourcing, we have to meet people, meet artists, visit museums.”

“After that, we have to take photographs of the items to be auctioned, and compile the catalogue,” adds Yaovanee. “We have clients [often they both sell and buy] from across Thailand, but they eventually come to us in Bangkok because they have to bring the painting or item here.”

Although Christie’s maintains a website with preview and auction schedules across the world, and some pictures of items, they don’t hold auctions over the Intertnet – yet. “Because items may not look the same as the original,” says Yaovanee. “People do like to come and see the goods. It’s very important to take a look, particularly for the more expensive pieces.”

As for misunderstandings in the auction room – you can’t really scratch your head and accidentally buy something but, Yaowanee says, occasionally a client has bid for the wrong lot. “Unfortunately, that’s their fault; not ours. They can’t do anything about it.” Except, perhaps, start collecting something new!

It was Yaovanee’s passion for philatelics that led her to represent an auction house: how did she get interested in the first place?

“I started collecting when I was very young and stemmed from my interest in history. When I would read about a certain period, I would want to learn more about it. But I only started collecting seriously when I started work – that was when I had money and I could afford to buy stamps!”

Her philatelic knowledge has led her around the world, judging and competing in places as far flung as Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the US and Luxemburg. She explains that the path a serious Thai philatelist must follow in order to become a judge is a long one: “You have to exhibit internationally to get to a particular level. Then you have to judge in Thailand for two years, and then you have to judge in Asia for another two years. Next you need to pass an exam – and then you’re an international judge.” Meaning you’ll be invited around the world to various exhibitions – with airfares, hotel costs and your time compensated for.

She tries to do her bit for the future of philatelics by promoting it among young people, and emphasises that stamp collecting is alive and kicking among the children of Thailand. “In nearly every school there’s a stamp club – collecting stamps is also an elective subject, up there with scouting and dancing. It’s a good way to learn about history, the routes of mailing and so on. ”

But these days Yaovanee is devoting more time to paintings than stamps – Christie’s no longer deals in the latter, she says. Although her academic background is in economics, and she holds an MBA, she is now busy studying all she can about painting.

“She has learned from experience,” says Punchalee. “She is a good artist herself. She paints. She can. I can’t! But my mother is a dressmaker, and likes beautiful things. That’s how I got to be interested in this. She’s very artistic. But I only got half of me from my mother!”

Punchalee’s academic background is in education. “But it’s really experience that matters,” says Yaovanee. “The more you look at things, the more you read. That’s what’s important.”

“I’m not good at art, at all,” continues Punchalee. “I take care of the jewellery part because in Thailand, jewellery is something that Thai women really like. It’s doing very well. We can’t hold auctions here yet, but we participate around the world, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong. We hold previews here for our clients and if they like the pieces they will give me a written bid, and I will bid for them in Singapore or Hong Kong, or wherever.”

What’s the force that drives a collector?

“Pleasure!” replies Punchalee without hesitation. “Actually I appreciate art as well, I just can’t collect it as I don’t have anywhere to hang it in my house!”

The second reason is financial. “It’s better than money in the bank,” Yaovanee emphasises. “It’s a good investment.”

The next big event on the Christie’s calander is a charity auction being held in honour of General Prem’s 80th birthday on August 19 at the Dusit Thani Hotel. “It will be the event of the year,” promises Yaovanee who will take the hammer herself and conduct the auction in Thai.

And the friendship of the two women remains firm as they steer themselves through the stormy seas of business. “Oh, we’re still the same,” says Punchalee. “I think we’re actually getting closer.”

/ People