Q. Bonhams is  smaller than  Christie’s and Sotheby’s. What advantages does this give the business, and how have you made use of these benefits? 

A. While it might be lovely being the top dog, it can be slightly limiting and you might have less freedom regarding what you can do. We give our specialists here  free rein to come up with concepts that may or may not fly – pioneering concepts that deal with works from the ZERO and Gutai artist groups that were considered important but overlooked in the commercial sense  as until now they weren’t making six or seven figure sums at auction. [Taking this risk] is much more difficult [when you are] on top because you’ve got more to lose and you can’t afford 
to fail. 

Q. How have you worked to position Bonhams in the competitive Asian market?  Which strategies have worked and which ones haven’t?

A. We’ve been in Hong Kong for 10 years now, and the auction business has changed a lot in that time. It used to be just two main companies and we came along and created a third, then we were joined by auction houses from China, Taiwan and Japan. While I believe we still have lots to do in terms of getting our brand across to the entire Asian market … there’s definitely an approachability about coming to Bonhams that’s a key factor that I’d like to retain. If you come to Pacific Place, you’ll meet one of our specialists who will find out what your interests are; they will develop a relationship with you and will find out what your collections are and what you want to collect. That is a point of difference that’s quite valuable 
to me. 

People like the idea of buying something that someone else had in their home or wore on their finger – jewellery, in particular, has a powerful effect due to its talismanic quality.
Matthew Girling, CEO of Bonhams

Q. How have the advances in technology changed the way you work and the way auctions operate? What have you started doing differently and why?

A. [With online auctions] all these people who have never stepped into an auction room before are now able to do so. The salesroom is almost like a TV station because you’re streaming to thousands of people at home who are watching you online. Normally when I’m in the salesroom engaging with [buyers] I’ll be able to look at them and interact directly on a bid. It’s hard with the ball in the sky – the camera – to engage with them in the same way. Selling art is what we’ve always been about, but now we’re in the media business too. 

Dalmore Eos whisky fetches a whopping HK$918,750 at Bonhams auction in Hong Kong

Q. What do millennials want now and how are auction houses addressing that demand?

A. There’s a backlash against getting your pleasure from 0s and 1s in the digital age. A lot of millennials are looking for a real experience and getting value from objects that they can research and find out about. That is different and unique. When you come to an auction house, you often see properties that are unique. You speak to a specialist and you become engaged with the object. You then buy something that is different from what everyone else has, and I think a lot of millennials are now seeking that in  the same way that some may opt to buy vinyl. It’s all about seeking authenticity. 

Q. ‘Heirloom-related’ collections – the two-day sales for Lauren Bacall and Jackie Collins, for example – have  become more prevalent. What was the motivation behind focusing more on these themed auctions? 

A. These have always played a big part in the business. People like the idea of buying something that someone else had in their home or wore on their finger – jewellery, in particular, has a powerful effect due to its talismanic quality, the idea that something rubs off on you from its previous owner. They always generate a huge amount of publicity. 

Bonhams to auction jewellery worth millions in celebration of coloured gems

Q. What has been the biggest risk you’ve taken? Why did you take it?

A. The biggest risk I’ve taken was to move the business away from selling – that is, instead of chasing volume, I realised that the only way for us to grow the business was to [pursue] better quality. It’s not that we no longer sell lots at a lower price point – we haven’t cut out entire categories – but we’ve raised the minimum threshold. There are still some items under a thousand dollars, but it has to be something really beautiful or integral to a collection. 

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