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Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 68

Catherine Williamson, mastermind behind Bonhams blockbuster Entertainment Sales, talks to Lucinda Bredin

The moment it happens, you are numb," says Catherine Williamson. The Head of Books and Manuscripts and Entertainment Memorabilia is talking about the sale of the piano from Casablanca that achieved $3.4m at Bonhams New York in November. It was a story that went around the world, even capturing the front page of The New York Times. "The first time we had that kind of success, with the Maltese Falcon, it took a couple of days to sink in. With the piano it was an hour or so – and then it was back to work."

The blockbuster entertainment sales are the result of a successful collaboration between Bonhams and Turner Classic Movies. It was pioneered by Williamson, for whom film has always been a passion. "When I got my Ph.D., from Louisana State University, I packed up and moved to L.A., thinking I would be a development girl for a studio or an agency." However, three weeks after Williamson arrived on the West Coast, she spotted an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times for a manuscript cataloguer at Butterfields. "I thought I would give it a go. They say about the auction business that either you leave immediately – the pressure is too much, it is too unpredictable or too high stress – or you like it and stay for a long time. Nobody is ambivalent about the profession. I found I loved it."

Entertainment memorabilia is a welcome break from the rarefied world of the book department. As Williamson says, "I think film posters probably have the broadest appeal of any discipline because everybody has space on the wall for a print." But manuscripts have their excitements too. In 2013, Williamson was asked to come look at four trunks of paper in a garage in Pasadena. "It turned out they had belonged to the American pilot of Zhang Xueliang, a Chinese warlord. The papers related to a pivotal moment in modern Chinese history, the Xi'an Incident of 1936, when Zhang kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to negotiate a peace with Mao so the Red Army could start fighting the Japanese. The collection sold for 2.2m."

How does Williamson cope with running two of Bonhams' busiest departments? "Each person has the right combination of scholar and sales person to make it successful. When something comes to us, we research as well as co-ordinate with the marketing and PR teams. It's a well-run machine. I am not superhuman – but I sometimes think that the people that work with me are."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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