We are living in the golden age of British period dramas. With Netflix’s new series The Crown following Downton Abbey and theatre such as The Queen on the West End in London, gleaming baubles from all periods of British history are more of interest to the public than ever before. Lesser known to the public is that these jewels are not only relegated to museums.
Privately owned British auction house Bonhams (founded in 1793) has established itself as one of the foremost auction houses in the sale of jewellery in London, New York and Hong Kong, having held more dedicated jewellery auctions than any other international auctioneer. Ranging from diamonds and coloured stones to Art Deco and antique pieces reaching all the way to the Georgian period, Bonhams will be holding a Rare Jewels and Jadeite Auction on Wednesday, November 30 to cater to the increasing appetite among enthusiasts of all that glitters.
Ahead of this auction, we sit down with Bonhams Director of Jewellery in Asia, Graeme Thompson, to hear some of his stories from behind the podium of Bonhams, both in London and Hong Kong.
Is there anything that happens during an auction that only you as the auctioneer knows about?
Some bidders like to be very discreet when they bid in the room but they don’t like to be seen bidding. However, they want to attend the sale to gauge the mood at the auction. As a result, what sometimes happens is the buyer comes to the auction and prearranges for a telephone bidder to be bidding on his behalf. But the buyer does not want to be on the phone or seen to raise his hand during the auction, so what happens is that when the lot comes up for sale it is agreed that when he wants to bid the buyer leaves his/her catalogue open on his lap. When he/she wants to stop bidding, he closes it as an indication to the telephone bidder bidding on his behalf that he would like to stop.
This strategy works well because the buyer remains anonymous, he is not seen by others to be bidding on a lot – yet, at the same time, the buyer sees and feels what is happening at the auction.
Can you share an interesting story about those who put their items up for sale?
A lady brought what she thought was a set of cultured pearls to be valued by a Bonhams jewellery specialist for sale at auction and expected them to be valued under US$5,000. What she didn’t realise was that they were in fact natural saltwater pearls, not cultured pearls. Natural pearls are extremely rare today as a result of very limited production due to over fishing and pollution.
When the lot came up for sale and the bidding went up and up and up, she couldn’t contain her delight. When the hammer came crashing down, they eventually sold for over 10 times the low estimate and she shrieked with delight!
Have there been any especially memorable moments during your time on the podium?
I actually sold my brother-in-law his engagement ring in London. It was a lovely experience because it was the first time he had ever attended an auction and it was the very first time he ever bid at an auction, and I was standing up there and I could see him throughout the preceding fifty lots and he was looking kind of nervous and anxious.
Eventually the lot came up and I started off the bidding and he just put his hand in the air. He had this sort of blank expression on his face and there was quite a lot of bidding going on but he kept his hand in the air, didn’t do anything and he wasn’t really even looking at me. Anyway, he was the last person with his hand up, so I took the bid and mentioned the final figure, the hammer came down and I had to urge him to put up his paddle number because people often forget to show the auctioneer the paddle number, which is their buyer name and eventually he gave it to me.
I went over to him about an hour after the auction – I managed to catch him and said, ‘Well how was it?’ He said he could not remember one moment of it. He said he was so nervous and he didn’t know what to do and he said, “I have no recollection of what happened but I know I’ve got it because I’ve already paid for it.”
What are some difficulties you’ve encountered since you took up your role at Bonhams Asia?
With the Asian Contemporary auctions, there’s no greater fear than pronouncing the name of an artist wrong and it can be quite a complex thing to pronounce some of these Chinese names or some of these Asian artists. When you’re selling lots to a group of collectors or some private individuals, and dealers are there, you as the auctioneer have to get these pronunciations right and they can be very complex. And inevitably it’s the Westerner standing on the rostrum trying to pronounce these names. People do a laugh a little bit when you get them a bit wrong but it’s part and parcel of the job. I think people do appreciate the effort and it’s just a part of the game.