We meet Bonhams ceo Matthew Girling and contemporary African art comes to London.
Founded in 1793, Bonhams is a privately owned auction house with salerooms in London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Hong Kong.
Matthew Girling’s job sounds simple: raise Bonhams’ profile and carry the business forward into the 21st century. In reality, heading up one of the world’s largest auction houses of fine art and antiques is no mean feat. We sit down with the global CEO ahead of Frieze week.
How do you keep Bonhams fresh as a brand?
Well it’s interesting because what is “the brand”? In the auction business we don’t own or make the things we sell; we can’t pinpoint the brand on any one object that we can reproduce again and again so that it becomes, if you like, quintessentially “Bonhams”. The brand has to cluster around different values – expertise, trustworthiness, professionalism and discretion – that are important to us and about the service we provide.
Has the revamp of Bonhams’ Bond Street HQ helped to refresh the company?
Massively. You have to make your environment appealing to prospective clients: you want yours to be the best place in which to view works of art and so on to compel people to want to sell with you. Having state-of-the-art lighting, sound and ventilation helps.
How is Bonhams different from Christie’s and Sotheby’s?
Neither of them have a CEO who gets up there with the hammer; I’m the only one who takes sales. It’s an amazingly valuable thing to do: you’re like a wireless receiving signals about the market, sensing what’s happening in the art world as you take bids.
What does the busy month of October mean for you?
October in London is very exciting. It’s the moment when the world’s art collectors descend on the capital for Frieze – and auction houses and galleries pull out all the stops.
How will Bonhams stand out from the crowd?
We’re holding our Africa Now sale – Bonhams is the first international auction house to have standalone auctions of contemporary African art – as well as a sale of exquisite photographs by the late, great Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. We’re also hosting an exhibition of work by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton among others, all of whom used to drink in Soho watering hole The Colony Room. The works are on loan from Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, which has a superlative collection of 20th-century British art. What about inside the saleroom: how do you keep bidders on their toes? Well in one of the very first sales I took I was told that I had to get the audience’s attention, which I did in no uncertain terms by coming crashing down off the rostrum and bruising my knee.
How did you refine your auctioneering skills?
You do have to be something of a showman up there because the remit is essentially terribly repetitive: you’re doing the same thing over and over again, sometimes for up to three hours. In order to hold people’s attention you’ve got to bring some energy and individuality to it – and some humour always helps. Of course, it’s experience and being comfortable that makes the biggest difference. How do you ensure a happily tense atmosphere in the room when so many bids are made over the phone and online? People thought that the phones and internet would take the theatre away from auctioneering but they’ve actually added extra dimensions that make it more interesting. Today I say things such as, “It’s against you online, I can imagine your finger hovering over the mouse.” I’ve had to bring a new language to the saleroom.
I’ve just moved my office to New York in spring. I haven’t lived in the city before and I’m looking forward to dedicating more time to our business here.
‘Africa Now’ and ‘Tarkovsky’s Mirror on the World’ will take place at Bonhams HQ on 6 October.
(preview at Christie’s King Street, 24 September To 4 October)
In concurrence with Frieze, Christie’s will be auctioning the collection of Leslie Waddington, the leading London art dealer who died last year. “It will be a celebration of some of the artists he most admired,” says Katharine Arnold, director of Evening Auction, Postwar and Contemporary Art, at Christie’s in London. The lots will include pieces by 23 artists, from 20th-century icons Alexander Calder and Agnes Martin to contemporary artists he represented. With a surge in demand for postwar period works, a highpoint will be Jean Dubuffet’s “Visiteur au Chapeau Bleu Avril”.
Agnes Martin “Praise”, 1985
Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 183cm x 183cm
Estimate: £2m to £3m
(€1.75m to €2.6m)
“Lampe”, circa 1923
Watercolour, India ink and pencil on paper, 47cm x 63cm
Estimate: £800,000 to £1.5m (€950,000 to €1.75m)
“Visiteur au Chapeau Bleu Avril”, 1955
Oil on canvas, 89cm x 115cm
Estimate: £2m to £3m
(€2.3m to €3.5m)
After travelling around Africa, Touria el Glaoui realised that many of the artists she had encountered were under-represented in the international art market. “The gap needed to be bridged, a platform had to be provided and the misconceptions that had prevented the recognition of African and African diaspora artists had to be reconfigured,” says El Glaoui, who was born into a family of Moroccan artists.
Her experiences sparked the launch of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, first in London and then in New York. Somerset House will host the biannual fair’s sixth edition alongside Frieze, exhibiting 40 galleries and 130 artists. One highlight will be a collaboration with the Parisian Magnin-A Gallery to show late photographer Malick Sidibé’s first major UK exhibition. “My hope is to see a stronger and more consistent market for African artists,” says El Glaoui. “There has been incredible growth with regard to contemporary African art but there is still a way to go."
Liversidge’s current show at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York is intriguing and the accompanying monograph sets it all out beautifully: he takes a Polaroid (or, in this case, a less snappily named Fuji FP-100C), waits for it to develop seconds later and then takes the same picture; these pairs are then framed and sold as diptychs. What have you lost in those few seconds? What have you gained? This is a lesson in studying detail and registering small changes to which you may or may not assign more profound truths.
You would expect a classy affair from the people behind the contemporary-art magazine that begat the art fair that begat many of the reasons we’ve dedicated many pages in this issue to art (and how to buy it). It started with Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp 25 years ago and takes a breather here to showcase the Frieze universe in 26 alphabetised chapters. In F is for Furniture, Daniel Birnbaum writes on “Ikea and metaphysics”; Dave Hickey’s G is for Gambling, meanwhile, starts with a good question: “What can I tell serious art people about Las Vegas?”