Inside Bonhams
Golden touch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 62

Kazuo Shiraga (Japanese, 1924-2008) Untitled (Red Fan) 1965

Inside Bonhams
Golden touch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 62

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, born 1944) Peju's Robe 2006

Inside Bonhams
Golden touch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 62

Ralph Taylor, Senior Director of Bonhams Post-War and Contemporary Department, is in the midst of a glittering season

It was an astonishing result for an astonishing sale. When Matthew Girling, Bonhams CEO, brought down the hammer on Frank Auerbach's E.O.W on her Blue Eiderdown V, the star lot in February's Post-War and Contemporary sale, there was an eruption of applause as the work made a world record for a figurative painting by the German-born British artist. Auerbach's sculptural 1963 portrait in oils of a nude on a bed had sold for £2m, double the low estimate, and contributed to a sale total of £6.35m across only 48 lots, the highest ever achieved by this up-and-coming department.

It was in November 2013 that Ralph Taylor, now Director of Bonhams Post-War and Contemporary Art Department, first walked into the newly opened state-of-the art salerooms in New Bond Street. His immediate reaction was "Holy moley, this is good. You can do something here." 

At the time Taylor was at Lazarides gallery, where he masterminded exhibitions across three spaces, staging more than 100 shows in London, New York and Los Angeles. His role was instrumental in shaping the careers of leading contemporary artists such as JR, Banksy and Jonathan Yeo. "What Lazarides was doing was eye-catching, unusual, and out-of-the-box," Taylor recalls. "I saw an opportunity to do the same at Bonhams."

This hunger to be at the start of things and to shape the future is what drives Taylor. "The amount of the red tape at the other auction houses can be stultifying," he says. "But at Bonhams you can be innovative, and zig when everyone else is zagging. It is crucial to create a distinct identity, but one that makes business sense."

While contemporary art is where Taylor's considerable expertise lies, his background is steeped in tradition. His father, a former Conservative government minister with a Surrey constituency, comes from a long line of politicians; his mother is a writer. Ralph entered the art business in the time-honoured way. After taking a first-class honors degree in History of Art and English at Leeds University, he got his foot in the door as an auction house porter. 

But Taylor had his eye on a bigger prize. "I felt I wasn't climbing the ladder quickly enough, so I went to the Courtauld Institute to do an M.A." This was his ticket to a post as a specialist in Sotheby's Contemporary Art department for three years, finishing as co-head of day sales, when he initiated a new concept auction to cater for younger artists and new collectors. 

It is this appetite for changing the game that brought him to Bonhams. A notable 'zig' when everyone else was 'zagging' was during last year's Frieze London when instead of having a sale, Taylor mounted an exhibition of a major private collection of previously unseen 1960s artworks in the show, ZERO, Gutai, Kusama.

"Pulling out and hosting a private collection during Frieze is something that the other houses would never do," Taylor asserts. "It associates us with the very best and brings a curatorial connoisseurship to our practice." The striking exhibition in New Bond Street led to the consignment of Untitled (Red Fan), one of only a handful of sculptural works created by the Gutai group founding member Kazuo Shiraga – and the very first sculpture of his ever to appear at auction. It sold for £1.5m in the February sale. 

He may be a born innovator, but Taylor also understands the core values of Bonhams profile: credibility and understanding the needs of clients – another of his passions. "If a client has an emotional connection to the work they are selling, then they want it looked after," he says. "Our focus on exhaustive research andauthentication, the length of time and space given to displaying work in our salerooms, all help to protect this legacy." 

This sharp focus is also reflected in the success of Bonhams' highly selective approach to sales. "They are tightly curated, with only about 50 lots. And we have the highest selling-rate for day sales in London – 85 per cent average over two years, because we say 'no' infinitely more than we say 'yes'." 

Taylor is particularly excited at how Bonhams uncovers for clients the potential of work whose quality is demonstrable, but whose price does not yet reflect its importance.

"Take the ZERO group artist Adolf Luther. We have worked hard to provide a context for this artist's work and it paid off. In 2015, we set a world auction-record for Hohlspiegelobjekt (1968), netting £194,000 against an estimate of £30,000-50,000."

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. Since 2014, the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Bonhams has seen 282 per cent year-on-year growth and its top five sales ever. "Last year began with an innovative project, Founded 1793, that combined the best of contemporary art and modern design, as well as a single-owner collection of works by Banksy," says Taylor. "The sale revolutionized Bonhams' online presence and achieved more than
20 new world auction-records.

In July, Lucio Fontana's ruby red Concetto Spaziale from 1952 that made £804,000, which is still the highest price achieved for a work from that year at the height of the artist's career." This year, Bonhams Post-War and Contemporary Art Department looks ready to set the pace again. 

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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