LONDON—Since Bonhams announced its proposed £30 million rebuilding program this summer, it is becoming clearer that the company means business. While it is cutting down on its outpost activities in Knowle in the Midlands, and in Dubai, it is expanding in more important areas, namely contemporary art.
Contemporary art is one of the biggest money-spinners in the auction business and, until this year, Bonhams had only dabbled at the fringes. But eight months ago, it hired Anthony McNerney, a specialist with experience both at Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company, to lead it into the future. To compete with the other three big-art auctioneers, McNerney needed a team, and now, with the backing of chairman Robert Brooks, Bonhams has its first contemporary art team: eight specialists, most with previous experience at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
Together they have assembled a sale of just 20 lots, estimated at more than £3 million, which will be held in the middle of Frieze week on Oct. 13. That Brooks is putting money into the new venture is clear and not just from the new level of staffing. The catalogue for the 20 lots runs more than 120 pages long with color reproductions and erudite text on each lot. Highlights have been shipped for viewing in New York and Hong Kong.
The biggest jump for Bonhams, though, has been to offer financial inducements to sellers in terms of guarantees and advances. This has been an area in which Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips have long been involved to secure high-value items for sale. But for Bonhams, this will be the first time the catalogue will feature the tell-tale symbols that are required by law to denote whether the auctioneer or a third party has guaranteed a sale regardless of the outcome, or has a financial interest in terms of part or full ownership of a lot. It only applies to three lots, but they are the most expensive ones.
Glenn Brown’s Little Death is one of the most consistently sought after paintings by museum curators exhibiting his work. From a series that was based on the paintings of Frank Auerbach which challenge the notion of originality in art, it was included in Brown’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2009. It has never been at auction before and has been guaranteed with an estimate of £700,000/900,000 ($1.1 million/1.4 million). Since the artist has been represented by the Gagosian Gallery, three of his paintings have sold for more than £1 million, so the price, if not for bargain hunters, is reasonable.
For its other two top lots, Bonhams offered cash advances to the sellers. A 1963 painting by the French Pop artist Martial Raysse, whose work has recently soared in value, is estimated at £350,000/450,000 ($550,000/710,000). But most will depend on one of the rarest works by Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti, an artist who is to have a retrospective at Tate Modern next year. Anno 1984, 1984, is a 30-foot-long arrangement of 216 drawings of magazine covers estimated at £1.2 million/1.8 million ($1.9 million/2.8 million). The only other known comparable works are all in museums. Three works by Boetti have sold for a million pounds and, if McNerney’s hunch is right, this will do so as well.
The other interesting aspect of the sale is the way it looks at new and overlooked artists. The first work at auction by the Portuguese artist Jorge Queiroz, whose recent exhibitions in Paris and New York (Sikkema Jenkins & Co.) have all sold out, is priced at a low estimate of £15,000 ($24,000), just below gallery-price levels. Observers are waiting to see if collectors who are on the gallery waiting lists will be willing to compete and pay a premium for this.
A rare sight at auction, a piece by the neglected English minimalist Bob Law, who died in 2004, titled Nothing to be Afraid of V22.8.69, 1969, features a white canvas with a line around its perimeter. Law was undervalued during his lifetime, and his work was difficult to sell. Bonhams may be taking a gamble on pricing their example at £40,000/60,000 ($63,000/94,000). But last week, another work by Law, estimated at £3,000, sold at Christie’s for £24,000 ($38,000).
Phyllida Barlow is another artist who has been overlooked. She was recently taken on by the powerful international gallery, Hauser & Wirth, so Bonhams may have got its timing right in offering only her second sculpture at auction with what looks like an attractive £10,000/15,000 ($16,000/24,000) estimate.