Inside Bonhams
Ring master

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 63

Matthew Girling joined Bonhams in 1988 to work in the jewelry department. Now is the newly appointed Global CEO. He talks to Lucinda Bredin

It's been an eventful past two years for Bonhams. Among the many landmark moments there was the unveiling of the new headquarters in New Bond Street, the opening of the Hong Kong saleroom and the sales of the £17.5m Fragonard portrait of duc D'Harcourt and of the most valuable car ever at auction, a Ferrari 250 GTO for a world-beating $38m at the Quail Lodge Sale in the US. But for Matthew Girling, who was appointed Global CEO in August, this is history. It's part of Bonhams and its 200-year heritage, but this is a business in which one has to look constantly forwards.

Having ruled half the Bonhams universe – in his case, Europe and Asia – Girling is now extending his vision worldwide. As he says, "During the past decade, we have developed into a company that can operate at the highest level. Bonhams has expertise second to none when it comes to valuable works at the very top end, be it paintings, jewels, cars, watches or Chinese vases. We have proved time and again that we have the knowledge, contacts – and hunger – to compete on the world stage."

Girling is based in New Bond Street. His office is a pristine white cube with a window set into the ceiling that frames a square of the sky. "It's perfect for being in tune with the weather," he says. On the walls, there are two paintings – a Braque and a Paul Klee – to be offered in this season's sales. "I like to get used to them, to live with them to see different aspects in different light. I've become so attached to some works that, come sale-time, it's been very hard to let them go." Today he is wearing the blue suit in which he had his greatest saleroom success: the sale of a 'fancy deep blue' diamond that made £6.2m in 2013. Girling, who first joined Bonhams as a jewelry specialist in 1988, was the auctioneer, and, after what is known in the business as 'frenzied bidding', he knocked the gem down to Laurence Graff, the self-styled King of Diamonds. I ask if he will continue to take auctions now he has his new role. "Oh yes, I won't shy away from taking any sale however modest, because I think you get a sense of the market standing up there in a way that you don't in an office."

It makes him the only CEO of a major auction house who takes auctions on a regular basis, and this is an aspect of Bonhams which is in the company's DNA: it is an auction house run by auctioneers. Girling thinks that is just one of the many features that separates Bonhams from the other houses. "What we are good at is bringing art to auction and selling it. We are not a finance house, a gallery, or a luxury goods emporium ... our specialists use their knowledge gleaned from years and years of working in the field to evaluate and devise a strategy for each and every piece. We aim to treat every lot as if it is the star on the cover of the catalog."

Girling is justly proud of this bespoke approach: "We do give a very personal touch to what we do and we put our clients first. We always say, 'We listen to what you want, advise you accordingly and we will come up with innovative ways of bringing your item to market, whether it is selling it in one of our salerooms on a different continent, using our global network of contacts or creating a story about it for the nationals'. But all the time we'll listen to what people would like to do with their property. Take the family of Lauren Bacall. The reason they came to Bonhams was that they knew her legacy would be honored and dealt with by our specialists in a respectful manner."

But Bonhams isn't afraid of taking a punt either. During Girling's reign, new stand-alone sales in areas previously unexplored by other houses such as Africa Now, Century of Iraqi Art and the South African Art sale show how specialists constantly explore new markets. "I see Bonhams developing niches that have perhaps been overlooked – as well as guiding and advising buyers. Our relationships with our clients are for the long-term. It's incredibly exciting to guide someone new to a particular field and turn them into a connoisseur."

With his evident passion for jewelry, Girling is the epitome of a Bonhams connoisseur-cum-specialist. Born in London, his first job was working in a jewelry shop. "I have always felt a connection with jewelry. My ne'er-do-well grandfather mined sapphires in Australia, only to gamble away the fortune he made. His one legacy was a passion for stones, and I have spent my life working with them." After prospecting for diamonds and working at the Royal Jewelers, Garrard, Girling turned his back on retail and in his twenties went to read English at Sussex University. But in 1988 he joined Bonhams in Knightsbridge which was still a family business – in Matthew's words, "small, friendly, and slightly chaotic". It was here he found his vocation. As he says, "I don't think a day goes by when I don't handle jewelry. Even though I am making decisions about the strategy of a company that employs more than 700 people worldwide, I think it is very important to have a connection with the fundamentals of what we do. I understand the business from the bottom up."

Although the auction business is based on people, Bonhams has invested heavily in its buildings – and to remarkable effect. The Hong Kong saleroom opened in Pacific Place last year; the New York headquarters in Madison Avenue is about to be given an extensive refurbishment, as are the Knightsbridge salerooms; while 101 New Bond Street, designed by the architectural practice, Lifschutz, Davidson and Sandilands, has won a hatful of awards since it opened in 2013.

As Girling says, "The building made an instant impact and means we can display works in a manner that is second to none. For instance at the first major sale after the opening, we sold the Fragonard which was a world record for the artist, for any Rococo painting – and became the most expensive Old Master work sold that year. Since then, because of our museum-standard facilities, we've welcomed an exhibition of the Burrell Collection on a rare outing from its Glasgow home. In September, we have the first-ever installation by the Japanese artist Kohei Nawa."

So things have changed since those days in Knightsbridge and now that Girling has a remit to oversee the company worldwide, he will continue to draw together different aspects of the business. There are no boundaries for innovative ideas. "If there are wonderful initiatives taking place in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, they should be imported to London – and vice versa. Auctioneering is a global business and so is Bonhams. Thanks to the internet our bidders can participate in live auctions from anywhere in the world – in an average sale around half the bids are online and that will only increase. Our future audience might well take part through Apple TV or a digital watch. These changes are very exciting and we've had 200 years of adapting to technological change in this business, beginning with the advent of the telephone. But what people want isn't going to change, is it? They want somebody they trust to come along and say, 'How can we help you to buy or sell something?' Trust, knowledge and an ever-increasing network of contacts ... these will always be core to the business."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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