Miranda Grant, the Director of the Bonhams Scotland, survived as the only girl in a boys' school. The experiment clearly worked. Lucinda Bredin reports
It's not often that someone from the auction business gets a name check in a novel. However, in Alexander McCall Smith's Bertie Plays the Blues, art dealer, Guy Peploe, recommends a client gets a second opinion. "Take it up to Bonhams, if you like. Speak to Miranda Grant about arranging something."
Grant, the Managing Director of Bonhams in Edinburgh, is famous throughout Scotland for "arranging something". Since she took on the role in 2007, Grant has presided over a game-changing move to 22 Queen Street and has seen Bonhams become the only international auction house in Scotland – as well as grab the title as the No 1 for selling Scottish art in Scotland, helped, coincidentally, by the sale of a painting by Guy Peploe's grandfather, Samuel Peploe, that made £450,000.
"We were thrilled by that sale last August," says Grant in her crowd-carrying voice. "It was a wonderful private collection which made £2m all told. More importantly, we've got another in the pipeline. It's a collection that Chris Brickley, our Head of Paintings, found in Canada, and it could well break our record." It has to be said that when Grant says something like this, she has such authority that you feel it's a done deal.
As one of her colleagues said, "We follow Miranda over all the high fences" – a reference to Grant's fearless horsemanship on the hunting field.
It seems it was ever thus. Grant laughingly blames her background. She tells a story of when she was the only girl at a Catholic boys' boarding school. "One day I just couldn't decide what I wanted to be when I grew up: whether I should become an English teacher or a geography teacher. I hailed a passing master and asked him what he thought. He looked at me and said, "If you can survive this, you can do anything."
That was probably the most important lesson Grant learnt. She began as a jewellery specialist – her first job was for a company that would examine jewellery for the trade, "conveyor-belt valuing", as she terms it. As a result, she had the opportunity to absorb an immense amount of knowledge exceptionally quickly. At the age of 21, Grant was appointed Head of Jewellery in Scotland for a leading international auction house. ("It was completely terrifying.
At that point I'd never even been to an auction...") This was followed by a successful three-year stint in Amsterdam, before Grant came back to Scotland to look after her parents in Dumfrieshire. But when Matthew Girling, now CEO of Bonhams, rang to ask whether she'd join the team, Grant couldn't resist and she now divides her time between the borders and her flat in Edinburgh, where she lives with two dogs, Pax and Rosie – and her boyfriend, Alex. (She enjoys pointing out the order.)
Grant creates the vision – and deals with the day-to-day running of the empire – but she has the help of a specialist team of 29, (four of whom are in Glasgow). And she needs it. "We have grown so much in the past few years. We have 22 to 24 sales a year and so it's pretty constant. What we could have never predicted is that last year we were put in charge of four house sales." These were Killochan Castle, (owned by Viola von Hohenzollern); Viscount Strathallan's Stobhall, the 19th century mansion, Hensol, and Marcus, James Stourton's house in Angus. "It was fantastic. The sales were a tremendous success and outstripped all expectations. What people have realised is that Bonhams isn't a local auction house. We have the option of working out where in the world it's best to sell something. So we are either the best place to sell in Scotland or the gateway for international options – New York, Hong Kong or London. Recently we sent two top lots to Bonhams New Bond Street – a pair of spectacular pear-cut diamond earrings that sold for £550,000 and two teapots that made £1.3m in the Asian Art sale. They were a surprise."
The two "teapots" turned out to be 'a rare pair of famille rose 'melon' teapots with iron-red Imperial Qianlong seal marks'. As Grant says, "Gordon McFarlan, who is head of our Glasgow office, found them at the back of a cupboard in a house in the Highlands. They were an extraordinary find. But what you have to remember is that the Scots are such travellers. We have a history of big families that have worked abroad and collected abroad.
So when we walk into a house I'm always delighted – but not necessarily surprised – to find an amazing collection of jade or imperial porcelain. Scotland is full of collectors who have assembled the most eclectic items from all over the world."
On the other hand, one of Grant's big successes has been the Scottish Sale in August."I like to think of it as a celebration of Scottish craftsmen and artists, in the same way that you might celebrate the artists of the West Country. It's a gathering of art and design from a particular area as opposed to a nationalistic thing. I'm very Scottish, but I can't bear 'tartan shortcake tin' mentality. Scotland has made its mark on the world with heroes such as Robert Adam, and we are so confident that we don't have to be tub-thumping." It could sum up Bonhams Scotland.
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.