On a Journey - Molly Ott Ambler tells Lucinda Bredin how Aretha Franklin ushered her into the world of auctions

There are many routes into the world of auctions – but few involve the Queen of Soul. Molly Ott Ambler, Bonhams' new Head of Impressionist & Modern Art for the Americas, laughs. "I graduated from Wellesley College and a week later was working in shipping at Sotheby's. I got
a phone call and it's Aretha Franklin, about shipping a table. So I learned her code name that she used at various hotels through the years – I was just twenty-one and three-quarter years old." Molly was certainly kept busy. "Another time they said, oh, you speak French? Great. Ship this armour for a horse to a man in the south of France. We need it here in one week. On another level, I was the one who catalogued the single-owner collections, so I worked on the Gianni Versace sale after his death in Miami."

But it's not only brushes with celebrity that she remembers. It was her work on the Bill Blass collection – with its Old Master drawings and a Picasso oil painting from 1932 – that, in her words, "really sent me down a rabbit hole of research".

This aspect of her work remains a thrill. "Though I spend most of my time speaking to collectors and building relationships with clients, making works more interesting by understanding their provenance is a great joy and passion for me. Katharine Hepburn, for example, had a collection by modern British artists – people such as Alfred Wallis that I hadn't even heard about at the time. Why had they caught her interest? It was fascinating to make the connections."

So, when a painting by the German Expressionist Franz Marc came to
Bonhams, "we researched it for nine months – you know, I think Bonhams should be known for these extra layers of expertise and care and attention. It's a great strength of Bonhams in my field: we sell great art by the best artists, but by finding works on paper – drawings, or gouaches like the Franz Marc, rather than fully elaborated canvases – we can offer them at a lower price point."

Molly argues that this approach makes Bonhams accessible. It draws people in, gently educating collectors and nurturing the next generation. "Many of these buyers when they come to me say 'I feel intimidated by the art market'. I know it can be opaque, but we're saying: you might be spending $5,000 or $100,000, but come to us and we'll make sure you have a good experience."

What has changed since her own early days in the business? "Many of the collectors I've worked with over the years have, I suppose you might say, evolved. They may have started in the world of Monet and Renoir, but they're creeping forward in time – many Impressionist buyers are now interested in works around the 1930s and '40s. Perhaps they buy a new home and think, you know, we can't have the Nabis here in the bright light of Florida – let's do oils of the '50s and '60s." It is one of the things that Molly most enjoys about her new role: going on that journey with her clients to introduce them to new artists and help them to pick up new threads.

"When the Whitney reopened a couple of years ago, they were suddenly featuring the women artists who helped define Abstract Expressionism. I thought: this is long overdue, I've been recommending – and selling – Helen Frankenthalers for years to my clients. And Joan Mitchell. And Grace Hartigan. These artists have deserved the attention they're now getting for a long time, so it's really fun for me to see museums shake-up their exhibitions."

Molly's passion for galleries was fired as a child in
St Louis, Missouri, a city of superb art museums.
"The St Louis Art Museum, which is free and open to all, is a wonderful collection and it also has such interesting little pockets of specialisation. My mother was a docent, and then she was on the acquisition committee for a time – so I spent a lot of my childhood there, after school, at least weekly. I would sketch works in the galleries – the Monet Water Lilies, a great Gauguin portrait... they were touchstone works for me as a kid."

Though Molly majored in English Literature, art history was always a part of her life. "My parents collected prints, dragging me to small galleries throughout New England, looking at 18th-century American furniture and botanical prints. I got sick of it and would stay in the car, refusing to go in. But then we would take a yearly driving vacation, and visit museums right across the States. As I got older, I found it was just in my pores to love looking at art."

Molly sees her personal engagement with art as a perfect mirror to another of Bonhams' key strengths: the uncanny ability to identify areas of value in the marketplace – and draw them out by telling the story of key objects. "The market has really changed and responded to the kind of reshuffle we've seen at the Whitney. I mean, not every collector can afford Jackson Pollock, but many can enter that moment in our history from this new angle."

Molly points to MoMA's recent rehang, too. "It's fantastic", she says. "I've gone six times to see it. They've got Lee Bontecou, an artist I've always loved – to see her finally getting this kind of global attention, on the biggest stage available, is thrilling." She is very excited also about two paintings by Françoise Gilot offered by Bonhams. "She's another of my favourite artists," she says, "but she was known as just a muse of Picasso, when she's a great painter in her own right, a superb draughtswoman. She wrote books about her life, as well, both during her stormy years with Picasso and as just an artist and a woman in the workplace. To introduce new people to her and her paintings is immensely exciting."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

The next Impressionist & Modern sale is on Thursday 26 March
in New Bond Street, London.

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