As editor of ATG from 2000-15, I grew to know Robert Brooks very well and watched him follow his dream. With the height, build and bearing of a Grenadier Guardsman, Brooks was an imposing figure, filling the room wherever he went.
He could be ruthless in business and had no time for incompetence, laziness or attempts to undermine his firm’s growing influence within the market. Finding oneself the subject of his displeasure could be an unsettling experience, but he could also be very charming and extremely attentive when shown consideration and respect.
I had an unspoken understanding with him that ATG would always deal with him straight and he, in turn, would always make himself available if I called.
He never ducked the issue, most notably when, having decried auction guarantees in public strongly for years, he announced that Bonhams would now offer them. I challenged him within minutes of his interview on the matter on Radio Four’s Today programme, half thinking he would avoid my call. Not a bit of it.
“It’s simple”, he told me. “I have always been against guarantees, as you know, but now we have moved more seriously into Contemporary art, I have realised that to compete I have no choice but to offer them.”
It was an honest if unexpected answer.
Bonhams under Brooks’ tenure took some time to achieve its first £1m lot, a landmark that would have come earlier if an organisation that will remain nameless had not taken advantage of his scrupulous attention to the public interest and done a deal behind his back with the vendor after he involved it in discussions.
It was said that Brooks felt that his father, Bill, the successful creator of Christie’s South Kensington, had never been given due recognition and respect for his achievements by his peers, and this may have added to Robert’s drive to show the traditionally closed world of the upper-crust auction establishment that the Brooks family were to be reckoned with. Robert, himself, honoured his father at a formal ceremony to open the Bill Brooks Lecture Theatre at Bonhams in 2005.
The ambition to take on the auction house duopoly at their own game may not have reached its zenith in the trophy discipline of Contemporary Art, but otherwise, Brooks’ achievements were frankly astonishing. It could be argued that his greatest achievement was the creation of the new £30m Bond Street headquarters, a project that involved the demolition of seven poorly interconnected buildings to make way for a modern temple to commerce.
In April 2012, Brooks kindly invited me to witness the pouring of the metre thick concrete slab that underpinned the foundations of the entire scheme. Not the most thrilling treat, one might imagine, except for the fact that Crossrail were excavating directly beneath and had given Bonhams just one day to complete the task, or risk delaying the entire project by years – a ruinous prospect. Brooks smiled calmly and joked through the whole exercise.
Ultimately, Brooks’ most memorable achievement was his mastery of brand building. Bonhams was soon cast as the third most important and exclusive global auction brand after Christie’s and Sotheby’s, when in size and turnover it was arguably no more than fifth or sixth.
Robert Brooks changed the global auctions landscape, insisting on separate accounts for clients’ money –
a policy his chief rivals did not follow – and showing how new players really could grab a significant slice of the global market away from the big boys.
He had little time to enjoy his wealth when he finally sold the business, but his legacy will last a great deal longer.
I was interested to read the obituaries of Richard Came and Robin Butler in ATG No 2506.
Like me, both were among the first contributors to the Antiques Roadshow in the late 1970s and early 1980s, pioneering days before the advent of the internet and mobile phones when experts had to know their subject with at best a book to help, no Googling for information.
Richard and Robin were both respected experts. I was an unusual contributor to the programme, being the only practising solicitor in the team.
Peter Waldron has captured the personality of Richard well – he was a bon viveur, enormous fun to work with. I remember we were staying in a hotel for a programme in Llandrindod Wells which had an outside swimming pool. It was early in the season, I ventured down before breakfast, feeling very cold, for a dip, only to find the ebullient Richard already immersed, shouting ‘get in it’s very warm’, which it was not!
The Geoffrey Bond Consultancy