The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. This brought together two of the four surviving Georgian auction houses in London, Bonhams having been founded in 1793, and Phillips in 1796 by Harry Phillips, formerly a senior clerk to James Christie. Today the amalgamated business handles fine art and antiques in more than 60 specialist collecting areas. The firm has continued to grow and change since the merger in 2001. The last ten years have been among the most dramatic and fast-growing in its history.
In August 2002 the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America, which had been founded in 1865 during the California gold rush.
Today Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals. There are two large salerooms in London: the former Phillips sale room at 101 New Bond Street, and the old Bonhams sale room at the Montpelier Galleries in Montpelier Street, Knightsbridge. There are also three regional sale rooms in Britain: Chester, Edinburgh and Oxford. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston in the USA; in Switzerland, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. The Bonhams presence in Australia became a stand-alone operation in 2010.
Bonhams & Butterfields conducted their first East Coast sale in 2003, in the Art Deco Fuller Building erected in 1926. In 2005 they opened a new sale room in New York, on the corner of 57th Street and Madison Avenue, formerly the home of the Dahesh Museum. New offices and sale rooms have also been opened elsewhere: a Paris office in June 2005, one in Dubai in 2007, and an auction business in Hong Kong in 2009 to participate in the expanding Asian market. Bonhams is now established in 25 countries across five continents.
It is a remarkable story of rapid expansion which owes much to the energy and drive of Robert Brooks, formerly a director and department head at Christies, whose father had worked at Bonhams in the 1950s and 60s. Brooks set up his own firm (Robert Brooks Auctioneers) in 1989 to sell classic and vintage motorcars. In 2000 he and his business partner, Dutch entrepreneur Evert Louwman, acquired the family-owned firm of Bonhams, creating 'Bonhams & Brooks'. This was the start of the major program of acquisition and expansion which has continued since. When the European auction business of Phillips was merged with Bonhams the following year, the name was simplified to Bonhams. By the end of 2003 Bonhams was conducting 700 annual sales and had over 600 employees. Robert Brooks became and has remained the Chairman of the 'New Bonhams'. The deputy-chairman Colin Sheaf, European CEO Matthew Girling, and senior vice-president Patrick Meade, also came from Christies. The American division of the firm was developed by Meade and Group CEO Malcolm Barber, formerly of Sotheby's. The senior team which has created the new Bonhams is composed almost entirely of experienced auctioneers.
Bonhams 21st Century Headquarters is the former saleroom of Phillips in New Bond Street. A warren of 7 different freeholds, it was remodeled and refurbished in 2004 under the direction of the interior designer Claire Agnew. She was also responsible for the earlier redesign of the 1950s Montpelier Galleries in Knightsbridge, the old Bonhams headquarters. The Bond Street buildings are today a large complex stretching through to Blenstock House in Woodstock Street at the back, where the Art Deco polychrome elevation was designed in 1938 by Fuller Hall & Foulsham and forms a delightful view-stopper when viewed southwards from Oxford Street. The main elevation at 101 New Bond Street was designed by A-M Ridge in 1906 in grand Edwardian style. Pevsner described it as 'boastful'! A more ambitious reconstruction of the headquarters and principal saleroom of the worldwide firm was started in autumn 2011; the first phase was completed in December of that year, and the finished building will be unveiled in the second half of 2013. It will create three large double-height new salerooms, preview galleries and a café as well as improved offices and workspace for Bonhams staff. This has been designed by the Award-winning architect Alex Liftschutz.
In 2009 Bonhams announced that it had taken market leadership in 10 key areas of the UK art market for the first time including Antiquities, Arms and Armor, Watches and Clocks, European Ceramics and Japanese art. It is now a worldwide auction house, which handles fine art and antiques in more than 60 specialist collecting areas. When it was founded in 1793 it was more narrowly focussed. In its early days it was one of the leading places for the sale of prints during the Regency heyday of print collecting in England. Thomas Dodd (1771-1850), the founder of the firm, was one of the most famous print experts and dealers of his day. He worked with Martin Colnaghi and cataloged many famous collections of prints including those of Horace Walpole. His greatest and most enduring work was the catalog of the Douce Collection listing 50,000 prints in the Bodleian.
Dodd's expertise in engravings came from a love of drawing, a skill he acquired during an unconventional childhood spent touring the country as a member of noted eccentric Colonel Vaux's juvenile band. By the 1790s he had established a sale room in Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, auctioning prints and in 1806 he moved to new auction rooms in St Martin's Lane.
The venture was an immediate success and for the next decade he sold important print collections, including that of General William Dowdeswell in 1809. Dodd also tried his hand at publishing but his first venture, a 'Dictionary of Monograms' was pipped at the post by a French competitor, leading to his bankruptcy in 1817.
Faced with ruin, Dodd handed over the firm to his apprentice, George Jones, whom he had taken on in 1806 and trained in the auctioneering business. Jones's first major sale in October 1818 was to sell off the entire stock of his old master. The catalog can be seen in the British Museum Print Room. Dodd's connection with the firm was not over though, and after a spell in Manchester he returned to London in the 1830s to rejoin Jones in his new premises in Leicester Street, just off Leicester Square.
Trading under his own name, George Jones continued Dodd's tradition of selling important print collections and several of his catalogs from 1817 onwards survive in the British Museum Print Room and in the Victoria & Albert Museum Library. In 1818, he secured part of the stock of the famous dealer Thomas Philipe, following the latter's death. In 1823 he sold the entire stock of another well-known deceased print dealer, Anthony Molteno; and in the same year he sold the collection of the lawyer and politician, Lord Glenbervie, in a three day sale.
Many of these sales were enormous. In May 1824, for instance, a typical print sale consisted of 20,000 impressions as well as engraved copper plates. The material handled at this time was both ancient and modern, English and Continental.
George Jones was joined by his son (Alphonso) Henry Jones, who continued the business in Leicester Street. In the 1850s Henry went into partnership with George Bonham, and the company became known as Jones and Bonham. This was the beginning of the firm's association with the Bonham family which was to last for five generations. The Bonhams came from Whittlesbury in Northamptonshire where Samuel Bonham was a gamekeeper. His son John, born in 1815, was appointed Deputy Keeper of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the origins of the family's links to the art world.
During the 1840s the company had started handling paintings as well as prints, and then metalware and jewelry. Later nineteenth century sales, varied from Delft, Wedgewood and Worcester china, brassware, arms and armor, furniture and carved oak to 'High Class Wines', paintings, prints and oleographs.
This expansion required more space and the company moved to 410 Oxford Street (renumbered 65 Oxford Street in 1880). In 1861 the plain Georgian shop premises were rebuilt with fashionable Italian façades. Inside, a series of auction rooms stretched right through to the houses on the north side of Soho Square.
In 1879 the Bonham family bought out the remaining Jones interest in the business, and the firm then became Messrs W & FC Bonham, comprising the partnership of Frederick Charles Bonham and his nephew William Bonham. In 1899, a new deed of partnership brought in Alfred, Frederick John and Albert Charles John Bonham, the sons of Frederick Charles.
The lease of the Oxford Street premises terminated in 1926, and Bonhams moved to 14 Burlington Street where the company stayed until 1940 when the building was bombed. The firm then moved to its secondary gallery at 19 Whitfield Street off Tottenham Court Road, which had been acquired in 1935. A mere ten days later, however, these premises were also bombed and all the firm's records lost in the fire. Temporary accommodation was found in Newman Street for the rest of the war but in 1945 Bonhams moved to 213-217 Knightsbridge where the company was based for four years. Then the Montpellier Street salerooms were built on the site of a Georgian chapel. These new premises were designed by J Newton-Smith of Haynes & Carpenter and opened in 1954.
In 1943 the company had been formed into a private limited company - W and FC Bonham & Sons Ltd–and it started to expand with the growth of the London art market. In 1958 premises were opened in Lots Road Chelsea for sales of secondary furniture, pictures and household effects, where 400 to 500 lots were sold each week after viewings on Sundays.
Amongst the world's expanding number of fine art auctioneers, the firm remained fourth largest for the next four decades, first under the direction of Leonard Bonham and then in the 1970s and early 1980s under that of his son Nicholas - the last of the eponymous family to hold office at Bonhams. Two of the founding Directors of Christie's South Kensington, Christopher Elwes and Paul Whitfield, joined Bonhams in 1986 and Christopher immediately assumed the role of Managing Director, a position he held until the acquisition by Robert Brooks and Evert Louwman in 2000 and the initiation of twelve years of expansion which have created the present world-wide auction house.