UK: Bonhams breaks with tradition.

UK: Bonhams breaks with tradition. - Revealing a flair more associated with East End traders than London's West End, the Knightsbridge auctioneer has carved a niche in areas as diverse as contemporary ceramics and rock ephemera.

by Charles Darwent.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Revealing a flair more associated with East End traders than London's West End, the Knightsbridge auctioneer has carved a niche in areas as diverse as contemporary ceramics and rock ephemera.

Should you subscribe to the bizarre notion that Continentals are, after all, nice people whose enthusiasm for European union is based on entirely selfless principles, you would be well advised not to share your views with Christopher Elwes.

From where Elwes sits - in the boardroom of Knightsbridge auctioneers Bonhams - things look rather different. 'If you go into the average French farmhouse, say, you'll find they have pretty well nothing worth selling,' harrumphs Bonhams' usually genial MD. This national foible he dates back to 1793, the year in which Bonhams was founded and in which, coincidentally, the French so thoughtlessly decapitated their monarch.

'Under the Code Napoleon (the text on which France's legal system has since been based), things have to be divided equally between heirs, which in essence means that everything's already been sold off,' explains Elwes.

'By contrast, you will always find something worthwhile in a British farmhouse: a couple of pictures, a few bits of silver, probably some quite good furniture. The UK is a phenomenal reservoir of sellable objects.'

This is not the cause of Elwes's grudge, however. 'The EU is trying to introduce this thing called' - Elwes pulls a face - 'dwahde sweet, essentially a tax on the rights of works of artists. If it becomes law here in the UK, and under the EU it looks as though it will, we'll have to pay 4% on sales, and the advantage we currently have over the rest of Europe will be lost.' Nor, it seeems, is droit de suite the only trick those pesky Continentals have up their sleeves. 'Since June '95, UK auctioneers have had to pay 2.5% TI (temporary import) tax on all objects brought into the EU for sale, and the rate's going up,' observes Elwes, adding darkly, 'Of course, the timely opening up of the Paris auction market has also put added pressure on London'.

The effect of these Euro-changes on London's one-time standing in the world's auction market is certainly beyond dispute. 'The inevitable is inevitably happening,' says Elwes resignedly. 'In 15 years, the US has gone from selling pretty well nothing to having sales equal to, or even exceeding, those of the UK. I mean, imagine saying to a Japanese or American vendor, "Let's take whatever it is you're selling to London so that you can pay 2.5% plus perhaps 4% on top of our commission". You can see that it might not go down all that well.'

While this uncomfortable truth has been uncomfortably true for all the Big Four auction houses - Sotheby's, Christie's, Phillips and Bonhams - the relative diminutiveness of Elwes's own firm (sales for 1996 were around £47 million, as opposed to Phillips' £115 million and more than £1 billion each for Sotheby's and Christie's) has so far served to soften the blow: 'Most of our work is done within the UK, which means we haven't suffered so badly,' says Elwes in explanation. Nevertheless, there is a huge world of difference between not suffering so badly and actively doing well: and, with an increase in sales last year of 16.1%, well is what Bonhams is actively doing.

The most revealing explanation of why is to be found in downtown Tokyo rather than in downtown London. Last March, Bonhams staged what Elwes contends was Japan's first genuinely public auction (participation having previously been restricted to members of so-called auction clubs). The sale made some £700,000 for its vendors and an undisclosed - but reputedly handsome - commission for their British auctioneers.

The most notable thing about this sale, though, was not its size nor even its location - 'Finding foreign buyers is the new buzz word in all the auction houses nowadays,' says Elwes - but the commodity sold: not Guercino drawings or Renaissance majolica, but the popular memorabilia of a group of British artists called The Beatles.

That the Fab Four's flotsam and jetsam, including velvet capes and Sir Paul McCartney's birth certificate, should have dared elbow its way into the once rarefied purlieu of a Knightsbridge auctioneer has much to do with Elwes himself. Like Bonhams, Elwes is something of a contradiction: scion of an old Catholic family (when, apropos of stately home car-boot sales, he describes the selling of antiques from the back of a Rolls-Royce as 'a limited pleasure', one senses he knows whereof he speaks), but also a shrewd reader of markets.

Having already overseen the launch of Christie's highly successful South Kensington saleroom in the early part of the 1980s, Elwes was brought into 'what was then universally known as poor old Bonhams' 10 years ago. 'The company was on a downward spiral,' remembers Elwes. 'All our experts were being poached by Christie's and Sotheby's, and without experts an auction house simply has no credibility.'

His answer to this problem was radically elegant. 'The bigger departments at Sotheby's and Christie's were well looked after,' Elwes recalls, 'but smaller ones tended to feel rather neglected. As a smaller company, we could give these areas much more attention.' These same departments also conveniently provided Bonhams with the kind of niches that bigger players in the market might be willing to overlook. Among the specialised areas in which Elwes's re-engineered auction house now has an acknowledged edge are contemporary ceramics (Bonhams recently held the first major sale of the works of Dame Lucy Rie), musical instruments, portrait miniatures and - see above - rock ephemera.

Nor has dominance in these niches come from mere lack of competition. For all that Bonhams' experts tend to have double-barrelled names, they have shown themselves possessed of the kind of entrepreneurial hard-headedness more associated in the public mind with the Mile End Road than Knightsbridge.

'We were the first people to manage to get insurance cover for anyone who wanted to take away one of our musical instruments for 48 hours and play it,' notes Elwes. 'Before, the only way you could try it out was in the saleroom along with dozens of other people doing the same thing - a real cats' chorus. That's not the way to buy a £100,000 instrument. After all, you wouldn't buy a second-hand car without driving it, would you?'

Bonhams' Tokyo sale was remarkable for another quality with which Elwes and his auction house have become associated: theatricality. If the commodity on sale was showbiz, it was also sold with a whiff of greasepaint: indeed, Elwes tends to refer to the sale as 'an event' rather than as an auction.

Using a satellite link to co-ordinate bidding between Tokyo and London, Bonhams managed to generate a pitch of excitement reflected in the innumerable column inches devoted to the sale by the British press. In addition, as Elwes sagely notes, it generated 'prices that were far higher than we might otherwise have expected them to be'.

But there is a potentially problematic side to courting brouhaha. In the ominous phrase of Peter Watson, doyen of art market journalists, Bonhams has managed to distinguish itself from its rivals in the market by making itself 'more fun' than they are.

'I very much hope that statement remains true for ever,' says Elwes gamely. He does, however, acknowledge the less desirable flip side of acquiring a fun reputation: 'Being known as the auctioneers who sold Paul McCartney's birth certificate does not necessarily help you when you're pitching to sell Old Master pictures or 18th-century furniture.' And there are other problems lurking in this niche. However nifty its way with satellite links, the principal equity of any auction house is - as Elwes notes - its acknowledged expertise. The trouble with selling Beatles ephemera (or those of Elvis Presley, the subject of Bonhams' next Tokyo sale) is that words like 'provenance' and 'connoisseurship' seem somehow rather less convincing in this context.

Elwes takes issue with this, suggesting that expertise does not necessarily mean having a post-doctoral degree from the Courtauld Institute. 'Ted Owen (Bonhams' pop specialist) is an ageing '60s rocker,' he ripostes.

'In his market, who you know matters much more than what you know. Ted knows people, bands, he's lived the business. It's not all that different from knowing about fine art, really.'

Nonetheless, an embarrassing incident involving a bass guitar, listed in Bonhams' Tokyo catalogue as having belonged to Paul McCartney, who unsportingly denied it, shows the pitfalls of commodifying the previously uncommodified.

Allied to this is the simple fact that making a market for a commodity, whether it be bass guitars or contemporary ceramics, is an altogether riskier business than dealing in objects with an established record in the saleroom. 'If The Beatles hadn't sold, the cost to us would have been huge,' admits Elwes. 'But then you can also have dud sales of Guercino drawings.' Elwes is heartened by the fact that the company that sold McCartney's birth certificate was nonetheless last year chosen to sell the Adams Collection of Renaissance objets - 'the first time in living history that a major collection didn't go to Sotheby's or Christie's,' he notes gleefully.

Be that as it may, there is little doubt where Bonhams' future will lie.

Elwes defines his strategy as 'widening our market by getting more and more end-user buyers'. Roughly translated, this means selling direct to punters rather than to dealers - a tack already taken by Bonhams' budget saleroom in a less fashionable part of west London. The reasoning behind Elwes's strategy is clear enough. The British auction market is worth £1 billion a year; the overall UK furniture market, £9 billion. The dividends to be had from winning over the 98% of Britons who do not currently buy their furniture at auction hardly need spelling out. 'Auctions,' says a happy Elwes, 'are set to become the shopping experience of the '90s.'

That the real competition for Bonhams may thus in future come less from Sotheby's and Christie's than from Harrods and Selfridges will obviously call for a redefinition both of the way in which the auction house sees itself and the way it persuades others to see it. Phrases like 'user-friendly' come easily to Elwes's lips, and he is an enthusiastic apostle of such IT arcana as CD-ROM catalogues and touch-key bidding (an expensive taste that may in part explain why profits on Bonhams' £47 million 1996 sales will probably only hover 'around the £1 million mark'). Elwes has seen the future, and it is techno-democratic.

'In fact,' he laughs, 'we're all terrified technology will put us out of a job. The auctionless auction is already feasible. And why not?' Why not indeed.

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