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Bonhams; from yesterday to today 

Author : Safoora Seyedi

Reading Time : 9 Minutes

Bonhams is an auction house that dates back to the late 18th century. Today Bonhams holds more than 400 private sales in 60 different fields at its most important salerooms in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. In this note, we are going to briefly review the history of Bonhams and its commercial attitude.


A Review of 228 Years of Activity 

Bonhams has always been considered among the most famous auction houses throughout Europe, but it is not easy to explain its foundation history. Although there is almost no official evidence or valid report regarding its formation and development, this note is aiming to present valid information from the limited number of available references. Bonhams was founded in 1793 by Thomas Dodd, an antique print dealer. Later, he entrusted the auction to George Jones before going bankrupt. Jones was an ambitious person and he later asked George Bonham for partnership, through which the auction house acquired a signature and was temporarily called "Jones & Bonham". 


In the middle of the 19th century, Bonhams turned into a platform for selling antiques and artworks, such as furniture, porcelain, jewelry, guns, and wine. Bonhams was growing at a considerable pace, thus being regarded in the early 1980s as one of the four biggest auction houses in England and Europe along with Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips.  

Nevertheless, Bonhams was on a declining path. When Christopher Elves became Bonhams'  president in 1987, its auction sales were at their lowest. Elves was hoping to focus Bonhams on smaller sections of the art market for some time. According to Management Today, this strategy increased Bonhams' sales because it made the company dominate most of the markets which major players of the field had ignored for a long time. There are many examples to mention, the first of which is that in 1990, Bonhams established a small section for auctioning porcelain artworks, and was focused on Picasso's. Later in 1996, Bonhams founded the first public auction in Tokyo, Japan which was assigned to sell souvenirs of the Beatles band. This has been the traditional solution for Bonhams to solve its economic crisis. We will refer to Bonhams focusing on African art in the following sections, which is yet another example of the traditional solution used by this auction house.  

Numerous changes and designations happened in Bonhams during the early years of the 2000s. Despite international stable economic growth, Bonhams was sold to Robert Brooks, former manager of Christie's auction house. He followed different management methods and found it necessary to confine Bonhams' area of activity more clearly. Maybe this was why he changed the company's name to "Bonhams and Brooks", which did not last for more than one year. In less than a year, Phillips auction house, which had recovered financially, merged with Bonhams. This revived Bonhams and made its managers ambitious to develop and expand its territories. According to Guardian, after this decision, the auction house engaged in sales with its previous name, Bonhams. It is said that the company had 700 employees at this time and its first price auction was 150 million pounds (199 million dollars).  

Bonhams' managers were determined to extend their trading territory and cover markets in new countries; so in 2002, Bonhams bought San Francisco's Butterfield auction house, which was aged 137 years then. In 2003, Goodman auction house joined Bonhams and as a result, a new auction house called "Goodman and Bonhams" was established in Sydney, Australia. Bonhams also founded several offices throughout Europe and it made the company become more and more established. The managers are now proud of Bonhams' wide range of activities. Currently, the company has offices in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Africa, and Australia. 

According to a report by Artnet News, Bruno Vinciguerra, who was the CEO of Sotheby's from 2008 to 2016, became the director of Bonhams. Under his management, the company aimed to attract new buyers to its auctions, thus focusing on minor lots (a lot is the number of units of a financial instrument bought or sold in the stock market), in order for Bonhams to be distinguished from other auction houses that worked in major lots. This was again a wise, and of course, a regular decision in Bonhams. To assess Bonhams financial conditions compared to that of its counterparts in England, we can refer to the Financial Times. According to a report by this newspaper, in 2018, Bonhams achieved 650 million pounds of gross sales (876 million dollars), while Sotheby's had 6.4 billion pounds (8.6 billion dollars) the same year. This had urged Bonhams to change strategies so as to remain among the four best auction houses of England.  

Bonhams has been mainly focused on minor lots ever since Vinciguerra was the director. Though that does not mean that Bonhams' gross sales records were not remarkable compared to other important auction houses. In 2011, a painting by Spanish painter, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, called "The Portrait of a Gentleman" was sold for 3 million pounds (4.04 million dollars). In September 2019, Bonhams suggested to Malaysia's Museum of Islamic Art a considerable price of 6.7 million pounds (9.03 million dollars) for a work by Osman Hamdi Bey, orientalist painter and author of "Young Woman Reading". Bonhams' price was accepted and the company's revenue from this auction was soon in the news. Moreover, in October 2020 and during the Coronavirus pandemic, a surrealistic masterpiece by Salvador Dali called "Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds", which had been gathered from a collection by Giacinto Scelsi, Italian modernist composer, was auctioned for 8.2 million pounds (11.05 million dollars).  


Bonhams; The Conqueror of Unknown Markets 

Through reviewing the Bonhams' history, we know what has distinguished it from other auction houses is its alternative problem-solving attitude towards new, unknown markets. This company is regarded as the first auction house that introduced African art to the world's art market in 2009. During the last ten years, African art has become one of the most attractive fields within the art market and is scheduled as a fixed part of auction diaries of all the best auction houses around the world.  


Bonhams | Preview of African modern and contemporary art sale | October 3, 2019 

According to ArtNet News, African art was first brought to notice in 2007, when an unknown customer sent artworks of Nigerian artist and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu, to Bonhams, where one of the works was auctioned for $30.670, making the company the first auction house to sell African artworks.  

At that time Giles Peppiatt, director of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Bonhams, told The Telegraph: "Interest in contemporary African art has exploded, particularly among international collectors, who expect it to be the next market where values increase in the same manner as contemporary Chinese art". 

The African art market has expanded increasingly since 2009. According to Peppiatt, during the last two years, the African art market value has grown more than 100%. Unlike other markets that, once became widely known, ascended to values out of reach for most art collectors, there are still many great artists in the African art market whose works are affordable for many art collectors. With the African art being welcomed, Bonhams sales increased by 1000% between 2009 and 2019. In 2009, Bonhams London had 355 thousand pounds (478.557 dollars) of gross sales; while just before the pandemic, in 2019, it had reached 3.9 million pounds (5.4 million dollars). The huge demand for African art made Bonhams start holding annual auctions in New York. In 2012, at Bonhams New York, "New World Map", an artwork by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor, was auctioned for £541.250, which broke the sales record of "African Modern Art of Bonhams 2012". Four years later, another artwork by the same artist was sold for nearly double the mentioned price (£809.500).  

Based on a report by Art Market Research, there are twelve African artists in the AMR list of 1000 influential artists, while until 2008 there were only three; Marlene Dumas, Irma Stern, Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef. (Art Market Research has a list of indexes to assess market sentiment for a wide range of fine art, luxury and antique collectibles sold in different auction houses since 1975). The art world is in debt to Bonhams for bringing African art to attention. 


Coronavirus Pandemic 

Just like any other section of the art world, the Bonhams company suffered from the pandemic. New York Times has recently published an invaluable article about how the pandemic has affected the most important auction houses around the world. The article shows that in response to the conditions caused by the pandemic, most auction houses granted their audience more access to digital resources. Vinciguerra had told the New York Times: "It's been an opportunity to transform the industry, it was bound to happen over years, and it only took a few months". 

During the first months of the pandemic, Bonhams tried to decrease auction delays. Before the pandemic, it took the auction house's staff a considerable time to receive and see a buyer's price suggestion, but thanks to the developed digital platforms, this delay is now decreased to less than a second. It is worth noting that although the pace of Bonhams' development of digital infrastructures increased because of the pandemic conditions, the company had formerly appreciated the importance of digital platforms and had expanded its digital domain of activity for holding online auctions. In 2018 and 2019 Vinciguerra declared that the company is targeting a 25 to 30% increase in customers' online participation, while the result actually surpassed his expectations. He mentioned in the Global Auction House Summit 2020 that in March, right before the execution of the pandemic quarantine, Bonhams had sold almost 40% of its lots through online auctions.  

It is clear that, since its beginning, Bonhams, as the first auction house in London, has adopted unique attitudes to new, unknown art markets. Bonhams' third rank among the most established auction houses is a result of such creative and bold strategies that have always been a part of the company's management system.