Bonhams in New Bond Street
Bonhams premises in New Bond Street - a view from Haunch of Venison Yard.

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The new owner described Bonhams as “a strong business with a clearly defined strategy” and says its plan is “to bring in extra talent”.

The sale of a 225-year-old firm marks the end of an eventful personal chapter for Brooks. The founder of classic car and automobilia auction house Brooks in 1989, he took control of Bonhams in 2000 with backing from Dutch car importer Evert Louwman.

With another merger following a year later with Phillips Son & Neale, Bonhams became the largest British-owned saleroom.

The auction house would not release details of the sale but Brooks and the Louwman family are believed to have sold their full shareholdings.

Brooks said: “We have always had the intention one day to pass on the business to a new owner who shares our long- term vision for Bonhams.”

Bonhams posted £450m in hammer sales for 2017 from more than 50,000 lots, with an increase in revenue of approximately 8% on the previous year, according to reports.

Robert Brooks Bonhams

Robert Brooks, who became chairman of Bonhams in 2000, is retiring after the company was sold last week.

Vinciguerra appointed

With Brooks leaving, the new owner has appointed former Sotheby’s chief operating officer Bruno Vinciguerra as executive chairman.

Bonhams’ current chief executive Matthew Girling and chief financial officer Jonathan Fairhurst wi l l remain in their roles.

Staff were informed of the changes on Tuesday, September 4, shortly before a formal announcement was made.

Owen Wilson, partner at Epiris, said: “Bonhams is a global business operating in a market with long-term structural growth and high barriers to entry. It is a platform with extensive scope for transformation through investment.”

The company said it will expand and hire new staff.

Responding to a series of questions sent by ATG, a spokesman added: “Bonhams has been acquired because it is a strong business with a clearly defined strategy. It needs investment to achieve its goals – the potential is attractive.”

Bring in extra talent

“We recognise the need to invest in our IT infrastructure, and also to recruit specialists in certain areas and to continue to develop the global franchise… The plan is to bring extra talent into the business.”

While it remains unclear whether any major changes will be made – and Epiris would not be drawn on whether it will continue to focus on a wide range of specialist categories – buyers and consignors are unlikely to notice any difference in the short term. “It’s business as usual at Bonhams,” said the spokesman.

The news comes after it emerged in May that Bonhams had appointed advisers Rothschild and Macfarlanes to sell the company.

According to The Sunday Times, sale discussions had taken place four years ago when Poly Culture, China’s largest auctioneering group, had expressed an interest in the firm although a deal did not materialise.

London-based Epiris – specialists in ‘UK-centric’ businesses valued between £75m-500m – has used its ‘Epiris Fund II’ vehicle to purchase the company.

Bonhams joins Epiris’ other recent investments including the country club operator The Club Company (acquired in May) and the UK arm of magazine publisher Time Inc (purchased in February).

Time’s portfolio includes well-known consumer and lifestyle titles such as Country Life, Wallpaper*, Ideal Home, Decanter and Horse & Hound.

Bonhams: A Timeline

1793 Print dealer Thomas Dodd sets up as auctioneer in Covent Garden

1817 Dodd’s apprentice George Jones assumes ownership and later enters a partnership with George Bonham

1879 Firm renamed Messrs W & FC Bonham with the Bonham family now sole owner

1954 Montpelier Street saleroom in Knightsbridge is built

1958 Premises open in Lots Road, Chelsea

2000 Bonhams is purchased by car auctioneer Brooks and renamed Bonhams & Brooks. Robert Brooks assumes control

2001 Bonhams & Brooks merges with Phillips Son & Neale to form a new multi-saleroom company – named simply Bonhams – with its headquarters in New Bond Street

2002 Bonhams buys California auction house Butterfields from eBay

2007 Bonhams opens an office in Hong Kong, later establishing its Asian HQ saleroom in Hong Kong in 2014

2013 A £30m makeover of Bonhams New Bond Street premises (above right) is completed. London Mayor Boris Johnson cuts the tape. Refurbishment at the Knightsbridge rooms is completed in 2015

2013-15 Bonhams closes UK regional salerooms in Chester and Oxford leaving it with three salerooms in Edinburgh, Knightsbridge and New Bond Street

2018 Bonhams is bought by private equity group Epiris

Private equity and auction houses

  • In 1998 venture capitalists 3i acquired a majority stake in Phillips. Twenty months later it was sold to luxury goods firm LVMH, reportedly for £70m.
  • In June this year it was announce that a private equity firm had bought a stake in US saleroom Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. The name of the private equity firm involved and the size of its investment was not disclosed and a new chief executive, Thomas Galbraith, was appointed. Founder of the company Leslie Hindman retained a stake in the auction house and became chair of the company.
  • In February 2018, asset management investment firm Phoenix UK took a majority stake in stamps specialist Stanley Gibbons Group. Its investment of up to £19.4m gave them a 58% interest in the business.