Behind the Gavel: Meet Sotheby’s Auctioneer Uni Kim

The deputy director for Jewelry in Hong Kong talks about her career path, her favorite pieces, and the figures who inspired her.

September 20, 2023  |  Sonia Esther Soltani

The first Korean auctioneer at Sotheby’s as well as one of its youngest, Uni Kim is passionate about jewelry history, from ancient gemstones to non-fungible token (NFT) jewels. The graduate gemologist from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) is also a jewelry designer and illustrator who has garnered a global audience of over 60,000 followers across her various social media platforms. Hong Kong-based Kim joined the auction house’s jewelry department and its Sotheby’s Diamonds division in 2016.

How did you start your career as an auctioneer?

When I first joined Sotheby’s as a cataloguer, I had the opportunity to travel to Seoul to work on an exhibition project alongside the Contemporary Art Department — this was three weeks into the job. I was asked to read the press release as the emcee at the time, as I was fluent in Korean, and although I was really nervous, I ended up calm and composed on stage.

After that event, my supervisors told me that I would make a good auctioneer based on my reactions on the podium in an event that had a lot of press coverage and also involved a K-pop idol I’d been a fan of since I was young. Years later, as I learned more about the auction industry, my supervisors vouched for me to be trained as an auctioneer. Since then, I have learned so much from my mentor Ian McGinlay, as well as my peers throughout this journey. I’m proud to be the first Korean auctioneer here, as well as the first female auctioneer to achieve a white-glove sale at Sotheby’s in Asia.

What was the first piece of jewelry you brought the gavel down on?

The first piece I hammered was a seahorse-themed brooch designed by Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. I remembered reading the book Jewels of Jean Schlumberger by [Chantal] Bizot and colleagues, and seeing the design sketch while I was researching the piece, so it was a fabulous brooch to [have as] the first item I auctioned.

I remember clients sitting in the room bidding, as well as phone and online bidders competing for it, as it was the first lot of our Magnificent Jewels sale series. It was a very unusual season, as that was also the same year we had two massive typhoons hit during auction week in Hong Kong. To commemorate this, I named my gavel after the name of the typhoon.

Who has been the biggest source of inspiration in your career?

This may be a strange response — not so much if you follow me on social media — but I would have to say it’s Steven Stone. He’s one of the champions from the Pokémon game series when they were first named after gemstones — ruby, sapphire and emerald — and his character has an unyielding passion for rare stones.

Through a series of significant events, I also became extremely interested in gemstones, which ultimately brought me to study gemology after doing my degree in business and economics. Perhaps because my source of inspiration was originally from a place of fiction, I continue to see gemstones in their idealized manners and have emotional connections to these incredible displays of natural wonder and human ingenuity.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

I genuinely enjoy doing research for the special auctions that we have each year, as that is when we showcase one or two key lots for the season. This gives me more time to get close to one object, dig deep into its story, and get to know it intimately. Until the jewel finds a new owner, I have the amazing privilege to appreciate some of the most fantastic jewels in the world in a deeply personal manner.

I still miss some of the jewels that have been auctioned, and I hope to see them again sometime in the future. Some of the most memorable jewels that I had the pleasure of researching included the CTF Pink Star, the Williamson Pink Star, and the Woolworth-Yard jadeite bead necklace. This season, it was the Infinite Blue, which is an extraordinary fancy-vivid-blue diamond from the Cullinan mine that weighs over 11 carats.

Which is your favorite era of jewelry and why?

I love ancient and antique jewelry very much, so it is not easy to pinpoint a specific era. I am a huge fan of Egyptomania pieces from the Art Deco times. My father was huge on archaeology and Egyptian history, so I grew up being accustomed to those aesthetics, and came to love how it had been interpreted by various cultures.

My favorite signed jewels are from the 1920s, when Cartier brought back ancient faience carvings and amulets that were thousands of years old from Egypt to create modern pieces: brooches, pendants, earrings and even hat pins.

In terms of ancient pieces, I have a love for the gold jewels of the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, created during the fifth to seventh centuries, and their usage of carved gokok — comma-shaped jade — as adornments. The most magnificent examples can be seen through their crowns, and my favorite is the gold crown from Hwangnam Daechong.

How has social media impacted your job?

I have lived most of my life on the internet, as is normal of my generation, and it’s very much a part of how we relate to each other. Information travels extremely fast on social media, and while it can be overwhelming at times, with moderation, it’s a very effective impact maker. I like connecting with people in this way and have met many people inside and outside of the industry — some who have even become my closest friends. I mainly interact with others through Instagram and Twitter (now X), and it’s interesting to note how each community has its own communication cultures and styles.

What extraordinary jewel do you wish you could buy, if money were no object?

It would be a micro-ivory carved ring depicting the crucifixion of Christ that is currently in the Albion Art Jewellery Institute collection. This ring was created in the early 17th century, and the magnificent detail preserved in the carved ivory never fails to amaze me; I have been obsessed with it for years, and it has always remained, to me, one of the best pieces of jewelry that I would like to own.

I recently heard that this might be one of the favorite pieces of Kazumi Arikawa, the president of Albion Art, in the collection as well, though. I guess it will be on my wish list forever!

What advice would you give to an aspiring auctioneer?

I once asked Henry Howard-Sneyd — chairman of Asian art, Europe and Americas at Sotheby’s, [as well as] the global lead auctioneer in Asian art — how I could become a great auctioneer. He simply replied, “Be a good person.” I didn’t quite understand the advice in the beginning, but as I have grown in doing more auctions, I began to realize that great auctioneering requires us to be sensitive and to look after the competing interests of many parties and people in a manner that is fair and upstanding.

I offer, then, that same advice to aspiring auctioneers: Be a good person.

Main image: Uni Kim. (Sotheby’s)

This article is from the September-October 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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