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July 29, 2009

Bonhams Talks Straight

By Spear's

To Bonhams on Bond Street this morning for a refreshing breakfast – and I don’t just mean the orange juice.

To Bonhams on Bond Street this morning for a refreshing breakfast – and I don’t just mean the orange juice.

Matthew Girling, CEO of Bonhams UK and Europe, in the face of a prickly question from the Hedgehog (‘In the face of the recession and collapsed markets, why are certain auction houses so good at bullshitting and so bad at telling the truth?’), said that ‘a little more contrition would have been nice,’ which accurately captures how the world of auctions has prized bravado above brave truth-telling.

Not Bonhams, though. Having never seized the highest end of modern and contemporary sales, they have not experienced the fall and have no need to put a sickly mask on it: their core markets of Old Masters and Victoriana have been thriving. Limited supply and safe familiarity go towards this, but Matthew stressed three other reasons.

First is Bonhams’ refusal to offer guarantees to vendors, interposing themselves in the otherwise free-market of auctions: ‘We have refused to give guarantees. We will always refuse it.’ While Sotheby’s offered some quite notorious, disastrous guarantees, Bonhams did not get sucked into that game. Nor did Bonhams raise their buyers’ premium. Finally, by subscribing to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ standards, client funds are kept in individual accounts, rather than a central pot wherefrom the business is run.

There was also discussion of the coming quarter’s sales, which have bones running through them, oddly. (Not hedgehog skulls, thankfully.) In Las Vegas (where else?) a 40-foot T-Rex skeleton, half-complete, will be sold, possibly to an institution, possibly to a rock star with a large atrium.

Severin Wunderman, an entrepreneur who was a refugee from the Nazis and lived off the Kings Road, has several cast skulls in his collection, which also includes a disturbing number of elaborate glass finials which wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian’s opium dream.

And in the travel and exploration sale is a whale’s tooth scrimshaw made on the voyage of the Beagle. (Yes, that Beagle.)

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In the unlikely event that you buy something from Bonhams and cannot afford to pay, it seems that the best thing to do might be to leave them your skeleton in your will…

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