Having started his own classic car saleroom, Brooks Auctioneers, at the age of 33, he bought Bonhams 11 years later before merging it with Phillips in 2001. He subsequently expanded the firm’s international presence before bowing out in 2018 after selling the company to current owners Epiris.
A tall and imposing figure – he was described as having the bearing of a Grenadier Guardsman – auctioneering had been in his blood. He was the son of Bill Brooks, the founder of Christie’s South Kensington, who died in 2010. He always looked up to his father, naming the new lecture theatre at Bonhams New Bond Street in his honour in 2005.
The same year he told ATG: “What sets us apart is that we remain a company run by auctioneers”, contrasting his company’s business model to that of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He opposed guarantees (although did occasionally use them later on) and challenged the big two to follow Bonhams' example of introducing separate client accounts for vendors' funds.
Never lacking a competitive streak, Brooks had left school as a teenager to become a racing driver – trying to emulate his hero Jackie Stewart. Although he later told Classic Driver magazine that he “failed miserably when I ran out of money aged 19”, he did have a brief career in Formula Ford and would later enter races for the D-Type Jaguar and Lotus 15 among others.
According to motor journalist Doug Nye, he had to learn to “temper his initial wildly competitive driving for long enough actually to reach the finish. In his early races, of all the flags he'd seen, the chequer was a rarity.”
Cars would remain a key part of his personal and professional life.
His start in the auction world came when he worked as a porter at CSK while it was headed by his father. Before long he was promoted to the motoring department under Patrick Lindsay and became the firm’s youngest auctioneer.
After becoming a director of the department (and later joining the main board), he helped launch sales in Monaco and also hired the Albert Hall as the venue for the Bugatti Royale sale in 1987 – much to some of his colleagues’ surprise.
Having become frustrated at Christie’s and with designs on his own venture, he launched classic car firm Brooks Auctioneers in 1989.
Despite a collapse in classic car prices at around this time, the new firm bounced back well with Brooks joined by some of his former Christie’s colleagues as well others from Sotheby’s. The business established a solid foothold and grew its market share to the extent that, by 2000, he was in a position to acquire Bonhams with backing from Dutch car importer and collector Evert Louwman.
The arrival of Bonhams & Brooks widened Brooks’ interest well beyond the classic car market and into the full range of art and antiques sectors.
A year later, he took control of Phillips Son & Neale from Bernard Arnault’s LVMH, a merger that suddenly put Brooks at the head of the largest British-owned auction firm and with a presence in New Bond Street. It was decided to retain the name Bonhams for the business due to its 1793 founding date – a sign of Brooks’ focus on brand building and a desire to eventually compete with the historic duopoly.
There was considerable upheaval. Staff cuts dispersed well known Phillips specialists to auction firms around the country. While LVHM initially retained a sizable minority stake (49.9%), Brooks finally bought out his partners in 2005. Riding high, it was at this point he outlined his vision for Bonhams as a traditional auction business operating in a modern setting with the development of client services and building a better platform from which to sell as his key priorities.
At the same time, he focused on expanding Bonhams’ presence internationally with the purchase of California auction house Butterfields from eBay in 2002 before launching in New York in 2005 (moving to the IBM building on Madison Avenue in 2008) and opening an office in Hong Kong in 2007 (followed by a full Asian headquarters with a saleroom in the city in 2014).
Perhaps his main project for Bonhams however was closer to home – the £30m transformation of its labyrinthine offices in New Bond Street into its current light-filled, five-storey auction premises with three salerooms. Boris Johnson, London Mayor at the time, cut the tape at the officially opening in 2013.
The new building, which was delivered on time and on budget, was praised by Johnson for helping maintain London as the “leading cultural, artistic and auctioneering capital of the world”.
Brooks said: “I wanted a feeling of space and I wanted to be able to create the right atmosphere. The hallmark of the whole concept has been versatility. I insisted upon an auction house for the 21st century and I'm very confident that's what Alex [architect Alex Lifschutz] and his team have delivered.”
While Bonhams under Brooks did not routinely release annual sales totals, lots such as a turquoise imperial Qianlong vase that made £9m (including premium) in 2011 and Jean Honoré Fragonard’s portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d'Harcourt, which took £17m in 2013, clearly helped grow the business significantly. In 2017 Bonhams posted £450m in hammer sales for the year, an 8% increase on the previous year.
It was not always plain sailing. The firm was less successful in its various attempts to break into the Contemporary art market and also closed or offloaded a number of its regional salerooms. Once thriving salerooms in Honiton (2010), Knowle (2011), Chester (2013) and Oxford (2015) were shuttered. This ‘rationalisation’ process means that today Bonhams conducts its UK sales from three rooms: Edinburgh, Knightsbridge and New Bond Street (although it has staged a small number of auctions in Oxford over the last 18 months).
From around 2016, rumours began to circulate that Brooks was looking for a buyer for the business, something which became public in May 2018 when The Sunday Times reported Bonhams had appointed Rothschild and Macfarlanes as advisers to help sell the company.
In September of that year, it was announced that the firm had been bought by UK-based private equity group Epiris with Brooks retiring as chairman. No details of the deal were released but Brooks and the Louwman family were believed to have sold their entire stakes.
“We have always had the intention one day to pass on the business to a new owner who shares our long-term vision for Bonhams,” said Brooks.
In terms of his auctioneering and business legacy, Brooks will surely be remembered for taking Bonhams by the scruff of the neck and building it into a global enterprise. He was certainly as fiercely protective of the company brand as he was of his own achievements. More than one journalist will recall being on the receiving end of a forceful phone call.
Since leaving Bonhams, Brooks had been immersed in rather quieter pursuits, renovating and running a large farm that he had bought in Somerset.
He is survived by his wife Evelyn whom he met in his early days at Christie’s, as well as three children and nine grandchildren.
Robert Brooks, 1 October 1956 – 23 August 2021.