250 Best Auction Houses: Focus on London

250 Best Auction Houses: Focus on London
Anish Kapoor's "Untitled" 2005 at Bonhams.
(Courtesy Bonhams )

In a special summer issue of Art+Auction, which will be published in installments on ARTINFO this month, we bring you the information you need to navigate the vast auction market. We’ve assembled the top 250 houses, along with some of their most notable sales, as well as insider takes from 50 CEOs and specialists on the past year and the changes ahead. Below you’ll find Q&As with auction house leaders based in London. To see other installments from the special issue, click here

BONHAMS
London, Oxford, and Edinburgh, U.K.; Hong Kong, China; New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, U.S.; Paris, France; Melbourne and Sydney, Australia 
ESTABLISHED: 1793
SPECIALTIES: Modern and contemporary art, antiquities, silver, furniture, jewelry, ceramics, glass, wine
CONTACT: bonhams.com, info@bonhams.com, +44 20 7468 5868

 

Matthew Girling, Group CEO

What was your most successful auction in the past year?
It has to be the world record set for any car ever sold at auction, which we achieved at Quail Lodge in California last summer. The car: a Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta. The price: £22,843,633 ($38.1 million).

Which lot was the most exciting or surprising?
Concetto spaziale, a Lucio Fontana work from 1952 that sold for more than £750,000 ($1.3 million) in July 2014, was exciting because of the high price for a work from this period of the artist’s career. It also helped put on the map our relaunched modern and contemporary art department under its new director, Ralph Taylor.

Is there an artist, market, or medium you think is overlooked right now? Something you’d invest in?
We tend not to offer investment advice—fashions in the art world change too often—and if people collect what interests them,they can enjoy owning the objects for their own sake. Having said that, I do think that Roman and ancient jewelry has been overlooked for a while now and is due for a revival.

How have online auctions changed the way you do business?
We developed and launched our own Internet bidding platform several years ago and now do a substantial part of our business this way. A lot of people, however, still like to attend a sale in person, and many potential buyers will want to come and inspect objects for themselves during the viewing period. So having wonderful spaces in our award-winning Bond Street headquarters both to display and to auction items continues to be very important to our business.

What other trends do you see influencing the market?
There is growing interest in African art. Bonhams has had a long association with South African art: We held the first stand-alone South African–art sales outside the country itself, and most of the auction records for significant South African artists were set in our rooms. Our Africa Now sales, which we pioneered, are so popular that this year we have introduced a new contemporary art auction to complement that for the works of African artists from earlier generations.

What part of your business saw the most growth in 2014? 
Contemporary Middle Eastern and Iranian art. Like African art, this is very much a growth area, and there are some fascinating works emerging from that part of the world. Modern and contemporary South Asian art is also a market to watch.

Do you have a collecting obsession? If so, what purchase are you most proud of?
Jewelry. I bought a gorgeous sapphire at auction. It had the faintest blue blush to it. I then asked the jeweler Tom Scott to create a setting for it based on a ring in the Cheapside Hoard. Although the original is from the 16th century, it never ceases to amaze me how contemporary the design appears. I gave it to my daughter for her 21st birthday.

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DREWEATTS & BLOOMSBURY AUCTIONS
London and Newbury, U.K.; Rome, Italy
ESTABLISHED: 1759
SPECIALTIES: Jewelry, books, furniture, paintings, photographs, Asian art, clocks, militaria, wine, numismatics, philately
CONTACT: bloomsburyauctions.com, info@bloomsburyauctions.com, +44 20 7495 9494

Stephan Ludwig, CEO

What was your most successful auction in the past year?
Our fine jewelry sale at Christmas— sale total £1,200,000 ($1.9 million). The strength of the market for the finest pieces saw prices soaring past presale estimates for iconic jewels by the master jewelers and high jewelry ateliers of the 20th century, including Bulgari, Graff, and Jean Schlumberger.

Which lot was the most exciting or surprising?
The media buzz surrounding our sale of the Beatles’ Abbey Road 1969 photo session outtakes created a great atmosphere in the salesroom, culminating in applause when the set finally sold for £180,000 ($282,000).

Is there an artist, market, or medium you think is overlooked right now? Something you’d invest in?
I have long been an admirer of 18th- and early-19th-century English silver. Craftsmanship and elegance complement the qualities of this attractive metal.

How have online auctions changed the way you do business?
Over the past year, more than 30 percent of our auction sales were executed online by a combination of simulcast live bidding and timed auctions. Online auctions have evolved to become an integral part of the business and an area we continue to invest in heavily with the April launch of our proprietary simulcast live-bidding platform, together with the recent acquisition of the online wine-trading marketplace bidforwine.co.uk. Whilst I do not anticipate online auctions actually replacing the physical auction room, there is little doubt of a hybrid bricks-and-clicks model, where lots are displayed and viewed in a traditional salesroom setting whilst bidding activity will continue to evolve online. The immeasurably increased accessibility of online bidding to a global collecting audience is a powerful driver that cannot be underestimated.

What other trends do you see influencing the market?
The polarization of collecting interest toward the best examples in any genre should continue. A challenge for every business in the art and antiques market is to recognize and capitalize on taste change with the introduction of new departments. We are investing in developing a larger 20th-century design business, building on [our sister company] Mallett Antiques’ nascent presence in this market as well as growing client appetite for design classics from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. With the growth of online auctions and increased competition in the “middle market,” I anticipate seeing pressure on gross auction commissions.

Where would you like to take the company in the next several years?
We will continue to steadily build an international auctions, fairs, and private treaty art and antiques business. Following our 2014 acquisition of Mallett, we have established a solid foundation in the fairs and private treaty space, as well as our catchment of higher-spending clients in Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and Asia.

Have you ever wildly overpaid for something you bought yourself?
Every piece of furniture and art I had ever bought prior to becoming involved in the auction industry.

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MACDOUGALL’S FINE ART AUCTIONS
London, U.K.; Moscow, Russia
ESTABLISHED: 2004
SPECIALTIES: Russian art
CONTACT: macdougallauction.com, info@macdougallauction.com, + 44 20 7389 8160

William MacDougall, Director

What was your most successful auction in the past year?
That would be June 2014, when in spite of sanctions and other difficulties with the Russian economy, we set several new world records.

Which lot was the most exciting or surprising?
Pavel Kuznetsov’s Eastern City. Bukhara, 1912. It sold in June 2014 for £2,367,600 ($4 million)—a world record for the artist at auction.

Is there an artist, market, or medium you think is overlooked right now? Something you’d invest in?
We think the whole Soviet period is overlooked and underrated, and the market is beginning to recognize this. We’ll have an auction dedicated to Russian art of the Soviet period on October 12.

How have online auctions changed the way you do business?
Our clients often use the Internet to research paintings and communicate with us, but very few actually buy online. They like the excitement and openness of the auction room, either being there in person or picking up some of the atmosphere by phone.

What other trends do you see influencing the market?
We’re a specialist Russian-art auction house, so we’re dealing in a very particular market. There does appear to be a trend toward Russians and others outside Russia buying more than in the past, which had been dominated by Russians living in Russia.

Where would you like to take the company in the next several years?
Russian-art auctions had been concentrated in the June and December Russian Weeks in London. We’ve started doing midseason auctions in March and October with great success.

What one thing do you wish more collectors knew?
The long-term value of art as an alternative investment. And contrary to what many think, liquidity is not such a problem. Art is more liquid than property and hedge funds, for example.

Do you have a collecting obsession? If so, what purchase are you most proud of?
My wife and I were Russian-art collectors before starting our auction company in 2004. That understanding of how collectors think has been crucial in our success. I think we’re particularly proud of the classic paintings by Repin and Nesterov that we still have in our personal collection.

Have you ever wildly overpaid for something you bought yourself?
All collectors have to learn the hard way from the odd mistake, and we are no exception. But mostly our purchases have gone up substantially in value.