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Bonhams Tries To Carve A Niche Amid Changing Times

Bonhams Tries To Carve A Niche Amid Changing Times
Matthew Girling, Global CEO of Bonhams.
(Courtesy Bonhams)

Bonhams was established in London in 1793, a mere four years after the French Revolution. Now, more than two centuries later, the auctioneer ranks as one of the world’s best-known houses, and prides itself in being the only remaining house that is privately held and British-owned. But in May, a Sunday Times article reported that NM Rothschild, a financial firm, had been brought in to help Bonhams find a buyer. In an interview with Blouin, Matthew Girling, Bonhams chief executive, declined to comment on the report, and in keeping with practice, he neither disclosed nor discussed the auction house’s sales figures. 

 Still, Bonhams has“changed beyond recognition” in the past couple of decades, according to Girling, who has been at the helm of the auction house since August 2015. Back in 2000, Bonhams was exclusively U.K.-based, though selling to an international clientele. Today, the house has offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia.  While that has definitely spelled growth, it has also made running the business an infinitely more challenging proposition. 

 “In the past, if I think back, the audience was all people we knew personally, whom we’d probably met. We knew a lot more about their lives,” Girling said. “These days, our target audience is totally global, and you don’t know where these people are going to come from.” In short, “we don’t know what their home looks like, how they dress and what they like.” 

 Bonhams’s four core pillars are motorcars and motorbikes, paintings, jewelry and Asian art. By hammer sales, the motorcar department is the largest. In 2014, a Ferrari GTO from 1962-63 sold for $38 million, setting the world record for any car ever sold at auction. Why that much? “There are only 38 or 39 of that particular Ferrari GTO. It is the golden fleece for our collectors — the absolute pinnacle,” Girling said. For people in that very exclusive wealth bracket, it’s “the one car they really want to get their hands on.” 

 Today, Bonhams puts on some 400 sales a year in 60 different categories, and says it has a broader and more diverse offering than any other house. “There are only two other truly international auction houses, and we’re now one of those three,” Girling said. “This is a road we put ourselves on 10 years ago, and we are continuing our development to put us at the very top of the art auction market.” 

 Ultimately, however, the market is “totally dominated by the 20th century,” meaning Impressionists or Postwar and Contemporary Art, he said. “There’s much more availability there,” while Old Masters are more scarce and harder to source. As a  result, he said, “you can put together  a magnificent Old Master painting  sale, but then be unsure of your next  sale six months later: You can’t  predict that you’re going to have  access to the same material.” 

 Given the size of the Postwar and Contemporary 20th-century art market, “I don’t think it’s feasible for just two companies to service that alone,” Girling noted, referring to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “There’s plenty of room not just for Bonhams but for others to exist within a market that is of that size.” 

 So Bonhams has seized the opportunity by “creating a niche, and exploring particular artists and genres that may be getting overlooked by the big auction houses.” According to Girling, Bonhams has helped raise the market profile of the Zero Group and of Gutai — post-war movements that originated in Germany and Japan, respectively — and achieved a world record price for the Polish-American artist Wojciech Fangor, who died in 2015. 

 There are other positive surprises, too, such as the May sale in Hong Kong of a whisky bottle for $1.1 million: “There’s a huge market for whisky now, not just in Asia but around the globe, and we very much pioneered that market.” Another surprise: the sale of the original Robby the Robot suit and Jeep from “Forbidden Planet” (the 1956 science fiction movie) for $5.4 million. 

 Asian art is another of the auctioneer’s fortes, and for good reason: Bonhams has been selling it for 225 years. Girling attributed the house’s success to the depth of in-house specialist knowledge of the subject, and the scholarly, thoroughly researched catalogs.  “That is what that market wants,” he said. “People will want to consign their collections with a team that had that knowledge.” Buyers, in turn, “know the thing they are buying is being backed up by people who really know their stuff.” What makes the CEO’s job so much harder now,  Girling said, is that “tastes change much more quickly these days”  because of the Internet, the exponentially faster dissemination of content and advertising, and the influence of the world’s luxury goods brands. “I look at things that were an absolute staple in the auction business, such as antique silver: there is simply not the demand for it that there was,” Girling said. “As a CEO and somebody running a company, you’ve got to react to those changes.” 

This article appears in the August edition of Art+Auction.

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