BY IVAN MACQUISTENROBERT Brooks has been nailing his colours to the mast in more ways than one in the past week.
In a deft sleight of hand, the chairman of Bonhams managed to
salute the entente cordiale on one side of the Channel as he opened
the company's new Paris office, while raising the White Ensign over
his Bond Street rooms as a bicentenary Trafalgar tribute to that
hammer of Napoleon, Admiral Lord Nelson.
All of this has taken place against the backdrop of Bonhams'
buyout of French billionaire Bernard Arnault's all-but-half share
in the firm through LVMH. It leaves Robert Brooks free to take the
company forward without being shadowed. He describes the deal more
as a psychological step forward than a material change, as LVMH
have always been more of a sleeping partner. "I am extremely
grateful to LVMH, they have always been very supportive. In fact, I
can't think of a single thing we have asked to do that they have
said no to."
The point is, he no longer has to ask.
He won't discuss the details of how the buyout was financed, other
than to say that, after three years in profit they were in a
position to negotiate. But any injection from backers would not
have been forthcoming if they were not confident in the future of
So what is that future and has Robert Brooks' view of it changed
now that LVMH are out of the picture?
In previous ATG interviews his vision has been consistent and
clear: it's not about reinventing the wheel, it's about building a
traditional auction business in a modern setting; the cornerstones
are the development of client services and a better platform from
which to sell.
Technology plays its part, but the other major development of that
'platform' is the global expansion of Bonhams' network of salerooms
and offices. The latest addition, Paris aside, is the takeover of
yet another small but well-established auction business to add to
their Australian portfolio. They are also negotiating consignments
One has to remember that there is still a sizeable difference
between Bonhams and rivals Sotheby's and Christie's, who continue
to dominate the market, and Brooks seems to be playing the long
game. But while the recent expansion of Bonhams' New York operation
has been fairly low-profile - "We are not trying to conquer the
world at square one, but build the business in the existing market"
- he describes the imminent New York sales as "key".
Building the firm's East Coast presence will undoubtedly draw on
the standing of Bonhams' West Coast dominance through Bonhams and
Butterfields, run by chief executive Malcolm Barber. Brooks goes on
the record to say that Butterfields have just achieved the
highest sales total in their history and Bonhams globally enjoy
It's a different tale from when his old firm, Brooks, acquired
first Bonhams, then Phillips - "it was losing buckets" - in 2001,
and then Butterfields - "losing almost as much" - in a deal with
eBay in 2003. The resulting operation may have developed into a
bigger global brand, but the philosophy remains unchanged. "What
sets us apart is that we remain a company run by
Quite what his rivals at Sotheby's and Christie's will make of
that statement is not clear, but he is crystal clear on some of
On Sotheby's decision to outsource some expertise: "What's good
for Sotheby's may not be good for us. Bonhams prides itself on
being able to offer the seller the complete service across the
board. To me it means we have to have control of our specialists
and consistency in the way they do business."
Brooks also declares himself "surprised" by what he believes is
Christie's ambition to cut out the dealer and sell direct. "The
trade play a critical role in the market. They are the oil that
lubricates the market by offering a critically different service.
Without the trade we would be in danger of the market reacting
violently to every small shift."
So, do his ambitions run to taking over Sotheby's or Christie's? -
There is talk that both are effectively on the market. There have
been several periods of major change in the industry, he says.
"Maybe we are entering a new period now... All I do know is that
Bonhams isn't for sale."
And what of the industry as a whole?
Consumer confidence may be down in the UK, but this does not seem
to be hitting sales, says Brooks. But he sees Droit de Suite, the
new levy on art sales to benefit artists, due to be introduced
early next year in the UK, as a potential nightmare for the
domestic market. He also fears the potential in next year's
relaxing of pension rules to allow investment in art "may have been
But, his biggest concern is that if the industry does not do more
to regulate itself, legislation will intervene. Again, it's his
rivals he has in his sights. He wants them to follow Bonhams'
example and introduce separate client accounts for vendors' funds
across all of their rooms.
"I find it absolutely bizarre that Christie's and Sotheby's don't.
I think it's very dangerous and unethical and it really does need
to come to a head."
Robert Brooks may have put up the White Ensign on Bond Street, but
don't mistake it for the white flag.
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