When I meet Matthew Girling, who became the global chief executive of Bonhams auction house in August, he is understandably on a high. Twenty minutes earlier, he had brought his auctioneer’s hammer down on an £800,000 telephone bid for a gemstone brooch, known as the Hope Spinel, with an estimated selling price between £150,000 and £200,000.
Beating that estimate was no surprise, not least as Bonhams is known for starting low to encourage the magic maximums that auctions can bring. But the Hope Spinel went far beyond those expectations and, as Girling had calculated from the podium, “just one more bid and it would have been £1m”; once the premium is added, the total price paid was £962,500.
Girling says he is proud to be the only chief executive of a major auction house who also conducts auctions, which in many ways characterises what Bonhams stands for. All but two of its ten board members are auctioneers (the exceptions are the finance director and a lawyer). Private sales, art financing and exhibition hosting are certainly a part of the business, but Bonhams has always presented itself as an auction house at its core.
There are signs, however, that Girling, who started as a jewellery specialist in Bonhams in 1988 (and did a stint at Christie’s between 1990 and 1996), is reinvigorating the brand for the 21st century, and not just through the impressive £30m revamp of its London headquarters in 2013. “Five years ago, I would have said we were in the auction business; I would never have said that we were in the media business, but now we are moving into that area very quickly,” he says, before adding: “There is considerable room for improvement.”
Story-telling To this end, Bonhams has taken on the advertising agency Contagious London and launched a television-centric campaign in October through Sky’s audience-targeting service, Adsmart. “Be part of the story” is the campaign’s message, and the adverts focus on the individual stories behind objects that outlive us all, but to which buyers and sellers can “add their own chapter”.
The agency’s first two films for Bonhams feature a Ferrari 250 GT car and a ten-carat diamond ring, neatly representing the collecting areas for which Bonhams is particularly renowned. The actor Michael Gambon narrates the adverts with characteristic drama, asking us to imagine the tales that objects could tell if they could talk. He invokes characters such as “dashing owners”, an “enchanting bride to be” and an “unscrupulous duke”, accompanied by rousing classical music.
Getting the message across is important for a business that is arguably still shaking off its own story of being an amalgamation of regional UK and US salerooms. The reality is that, between 2005 and 2015, when Girling had responsibility for Bonham’s UK business, the number of salerooms outside London fell from 11 to just one today (in Edinburgh). The firm has also pushed its business internationally: in 2014, Magnus Renfrew moved from Art Basel in Hong Kong to become the deputy chairman of Bonhams’ business in Asia, and strengthening its team in the US is a priority for 2016.
Being regional is not a problem in itself, Girling says. “The problem was that people were willing to consign lesser items to us, but not their prized works. That wasn’t good for the brand, which needs to be more aspirational.”
What’s on the block? Whether or not this renewed drive is related to the auction house being on the block itself is not something that Girling wants to be drawn on just now. In 2014, the firm appointed the investment bank Greenhill to flush out prospective buyers. The Financial Times reported interest from five firms, including China’s Poly auction house and three leading private equity companies. Market sources say that none was prepared to pay enough for the firm, though Girling refers to the importance of having the “right relationship”. He is evasive on the current situation. “Isn’t every business on the market?” he asks. For now, however, the firm remains half-owned by Robert Brooks, its co-chairman, and an investment company run by the Dutch businessman Evert Louwman.
Slaying the dragons To a certain extent, Bonhams’ command of niche areas, particularly jewellery and classic cars, plays to the dynamics of today’s art market. All auction houses are revamping their “collectibles” categories to attract newer buyers and combat the heated competition for the less profitable top lots of Modern and contemporary art.
The competition at the top can also play to Bonhams’ advantage. “At Sotheby’s and Christie’s there’s a sense that they are afraid to post a sale total below £1m. This ignores markets with enormous growth potential,” Girling says. New areas that the firm is exploring this season include contemporary African art, which replaced the broader contemporary art sale this season (alongside a well-received show of unseen 1960s works from the Gutai and Zero movements) and made £394,250 in total.
The firm hasn’t given up on chasing the headline Modern and contemporary works, though he says that Bonhams has a long way to go. The Frieze week Modern and contemporary sale totals at London’s other major salerooms were £89.8m at Sotheby’s, £107.4m at Christie’s and £38.5m at Phillips. Phillips is the one with which Bonhams vies for third place in the auction house rankings. “The dragons to slay are big, but that’s not to say we’re not going to try,” Girling says.