A Look at Bonhams

The NY Times takes a look at Bonhams and their global chief executive Matthew Girling. From the article it appears there will be more of an emphasis on the NYC location and US auctions. One strategy includes using its smaller size and ability to pivot faster than other major international houses to its advantage along with knowledgeable category specialists.

The NY Times reports
Sitting in his Midtown Manhattan office overlooking the police barricades and traffic caused by the nearby Trump Tower, Matthew Girling, global chief executive of the Bonhams auction house, likened wielding his gavel on the salesroom podium to holding an antenna for the entire auction sector.

“When you’re up there taking a sale, you can tangibly feel the market,” he said. “Even if a sale is going well in everyone else’s eyes, you know it’s been tough to get people to bid, and you’ve had to work your audience quite hard.”

“That’s the market telling you something that no spreadsheet figures possibly could,” said Mr. Girling, who added that he is proud to be the only head of a major house who also conducts auctions.

Mr. Girling joined Bonhams in 1988, and besides working at Christie’s from 1990 to 1996, he has been at Bonhams ever since. He was appointed to his current role at Bonhams, a privately owned auction house, in August 2015 (he had been joint chief executive previously). And he believes his ability to read the market from the podium has given him an advantage in driving growth.

Bonhams, founded in London in 1793 and largely British-based for most of its existence, is still relatively small compared with its main competitors, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But with salesrooms today in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and regular sales elsewhere around the world, the company already has made considerable headway in its expansion plans.

In May Bonhams will auction the estate of the writer Jackie Collins. It includes this emerald, diamond and platinum plaque clip brooch, valued at $20,000 to $30,000.
As part of this next chapter, Mr. Girling recently moved his offices from Bonhams’s New Bond Street headquarters in London to New York, the center of the art market in the United States, the largest such market in the world.

“I’m here to grow the business,” he said unequivocally. “Our competition set up shop here in the ‘60s and ’70s, so they’ve got quite a head start on us in terms of time, but that’s all it is. It’s just time.”

Mr. Girling presides over sales for everything from modern artworks to a rare Ming dynasty four-poster bed that fetched $1.4 million in New York last year, but his specialty is jewelry. Having auctioned off jewelry with a total value of more than 250 million pounds ($304 million) over the years, he continues to be the group jewelry director with responsibility for worldwide sales.

Now 57, he started out as a self-described “callow 18-year-old” at a jewelry shop in Norwich, England. A stint prospecting for diamonds in Australia followed, as did positions in London at the jewelry company Garrard & Co. and at the department store Liberty. But, he said, it was only when he arrived at Bonhams that he knew he had found his home.

“I love stones, I love jewelry and I love meeting people,” Mr. Girling said. “It’s the passion and variety that you get in an auction house that really got me.”

It also satisfied his inner showman: “I love getting up on the rostrum.”

He learned early on how to capture an audience’s attention. A 1990 video recording of his auction training at Christie’s shows him walking into the crowded salesroom and climbing the rostrum’s steps, which hadn’t been secured properly.

“You just hear a massive crash,” he said. “The whole crowd had been chattering away until this point and suddenly there’s total silence. The next thing you see are my hands on top of the rostrum as I haul myself up onto it.”

The experience left him with an abiding superstition. “Wherever a rostrum is, no matter how high it is, I always jump into it,” he said. “I never use the steps.”

When Mr. Girling returned to Bonhams in 1996 as head of its small jewelry department, he recalls being clear about its growth potential even then. At his request, the jewelry team started tracking its annual market share of auction sales in Britain. It has been satisfying, he said, to see it reach 43 percent in 2016, as 20 years ago, that number was 3 percent. For six of the last eight years, the Bonhams jewelry department has been the market leader in Britain.

Mr. Girling said he hopes to repeat such success elsewhere in the company using what he sees as Bonhams’s secret weapons: the flexibility that its smaller size brings and the passion and knowledge of its staff members.

Being relatively small means it can adapt to sellers’ needs, he said, enticing them to consign items with an individually tailored approach. “If I look at the list of items that sold for over a million dollars last year, I can see that in every case, we fought for it,” he said, “and I don’t think any other company could have got a better sale than us, because of the focus our teams put into marketing and to finding the right clients.”

In May, Bonhams Los Angeles will sell the estate of the author Jackie Collins, estimated at $3 million, including her art and jewelry collections.

While Mr. Girling acknowledged that the Collins auction has the profile-raising potential of Lauren Bacall’s 2015 sale at Bonhams New York, he wrote in an email following its announcement that above all the sale would be an opportunity to showcase the house’s strengths. “(We) are more interested in developing a reputation for providing a bespoke service to our clients which goes above and beyond what the other houses might offer,” he wrote.

An essential part of that service is having specialists alert to changing tastes. In jewelry, for example, Mr. Girling said that employees who once focused on 19th-century jewelry have learned about 20th-century jewelry by designers like Pierre SterlĂ© and Andrew Grima. “They have adapted their sales and their own jewelry knowledge to appeal to emerging tastes,” he said.

Mr. Girling hopes that the global auction market, which struggled in 2015 and 2016, will start to improve if and when interest rates start to rise — so people with, say, a diamond in storage will be encouraged to sell it if they can earn higher rates on the money they get from the diamond’s sale. “In the auction market, we need fuel on the fire,” he said. “We need things to be coming in for sale that people want to buy.”

And from the supply as well as the demand perspectives, jewelry is an important category. “It’s a colossal market with global appeal,” he said. “Everyone walking down Madison Avenue right now will potentially buy jewelry at some stage. You can’t say that about European ceramics.”

Mr. Girling said one of the biggest changes he has witnessed in his almost 30 years as an auctioneer is in technology. With potential bidders around the world (some of whom may never have participated in an auction before) now able to place bids from their laptops, he has to keep one eye on the camera in the ceiling that is sending the proceedings to the house’s online stream. “I’m playing to that as well as to the room,” he said.

So, despite advances, the salesroom remains the center of the drama. For Mr. Girling, that is a rare and welcome opportunity to focus on the task in hand. Just don’t ask him to use the steps.
Source: The NY Times 

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