Mark Fraser, Bonhams new Chairman in Australia, always wanted to be an auctioneer. He talks to Matthew Wilcox about his passion for collecting – and why he bunked off school
Mark Fraser has returned to the auction world to become Chairman of Bonhams Australia, after four years of living in Tasmania. He describes his time there as like living in a fishing town up in the north of Scotland (I think he means it in a good way). But then after 19 years at the top of the Australian art world – including six as a Managing Director of Sotheby's – anyone would need a break. Fraser was not, however, acting out some Good Life style fantasy: he was setting up what has been described as a "subversive adult Disneyland" - Australia's largest private art museum.
As the inaugural Museum Director of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), he was the biggest buyer of art in Australia. It was, he says, "an enormous insight into what it is like to be the client of auction houses and the psyche of being a major collector." Both of these insights, he says, are paying dividends now he is back in the auction world.
The question for Fraser is not why he came back; it's why he ever left. "It's an addiction really, a bit like collecting. From 11 years old, all I wanted was to be an auctioneer – I had even decided the director I was going to work for. Funnily, I did end up working for him. There's just something about standing on the rostrum. I love the challenge of trying to squeeze out that last bid for the client. Mind you, the styles of auctioneering differ between countries. I have auctioned in Australia and Hong Kong and what is expected is totally different. You've got to be aware of cultural differences. The Australians have a larrikin streak at times, and expect a joke. In Hong Kong, it is much more business-like."
Not surprisingly, Fraser was an obsessive collector in his childhood in Hampstead. "I started when I was seven. Like a lot of small boys I was excited by the idea of knights in armour. So I started buying armour from local antique shops. This was the late sixties and everything was incredibly cheap. I was picking up bits and pieces for five bob. To support the habit, I needed to make some money, so I started wheeling and dealing in my early teens. I used to bunk off school on market days."
Despite a capacity for delinquency and a fierce entrepreneurial streak, Fraser read history at Cambridge, and is the author of a book on the Ashanti tribe of West Africa. "It was an awful, awful book. My father was a historian, so it was just the family business." He joined Christie's Coins and Medals department in London.
Everything was progressing according to the master plan, until he started sharing a flat with an Australian girl in South Kensington. "She was homesick, and painted a rosy picture of the place." So he chucked it all in for Australia. As he says, "Hey, it was 1987 – Crocodile Dundee had been on at the cinema. The bicentenary was coming up. It was the thing to do at the time. I got a letter of recommendation for a job, and, like a lot of people, ended up staying on."
Last year, after 28 years in the business, Fraser joined Bonhams as Chairman. "I love the passion of the people working here. What I see in Bonhams embodies the qualities I most admire about the auction industry. Clients really respect the staff's depth of knowledge. They have put in the time, they know what they are talking about, they are personally interested and passionate about their fields. Whereas I'm afraid that at some auction houses these days you sometimes feel that people are merely doing their job."
He also points out that in terms of the diverse lots offered, Bonhams is a real auction house. "We handle an enormously wide number of objects, which counts a lot for the true collector." It is, without doubt, an exciting time for art in Australia. According to Fraser, the growth areas at the moment are contemporary and aboriginal art. "Both of these have enormous potential for expansion. Aboriginal art is unique to Australia, but has an enormous following in both Europe and the United States. And it can only get bigger. We are trying to do our part to educate collectors and to raise awareness of this art genre internationally."
In March, he will have a golden opportunity. In the teeth of fierce competition, Bonhams has won the right to auction the Colin and Elizabeth Laverty Collection of Contemporary Australian Art. As Fraser says, "This is one of the landmark collections of Australia. It is an honour to bring the works to auction and the sign of even greater things to come. Watch this space."
Matthew Wilcox is Assistant Editor of Bonhams Magazine.