In Conversation w/ Gareth Williams of Bonhams

October 22, 2012


In conjunction with Bonhams Auction House holding their first United States Urban Art Auction on October 29, 2012, in Los Angeles, we sit down with Gareth Williams, who oversees Bonhams contemporary, urban, and modern design sales at the London-based auctioneers. From the Banksy effect to the pieces in the new Urban Art Auction, Mr Williams gives insight into the world of auction houses and contemporary art sales.
(This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of Juxtapoz)

Interview by Trina Calderon

Portrait by theonepointeight

Gareth Williams is a Specialist for Bonhams auctioneers in London, where he’s responsible for the contemporary art, urban art and modern design sales. Bonhams is an international auction house, founded in 1793 in London, but now with offices and galleries all over the world, including New York, L.A., Paris and Hong Kong. They organize auctions in various diverse areas of art and antiques, from Ancient Egyptian antiquities to Contemporary Art and Design. Starting in 2008, Bonhams features Urban Art in their marketplace. While many may think it’s exciting to see Urban Art in such a high-end environment, some auction sales have notoriously inflated the market.

This is not a new phenomenon by any means. The highest paid price for any artwork at an auction to date is Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players, which went for over $250 million. I’m sure the Royal Family of Qatar has a very serious security system in their palatial estate. There are very large payoffs for the sale of street art now too. Bonham’s sale of Banksy’s Space Girl and Bird, a large scale spray paint on metal panel piece from his Think Tank series (which was created as artwork for the Blur album of the same title) sold for £288,000, setting the record for the highest price ever paid at one of Bonhams’ Urban Art auctions. Interested in what Gareth’s job is like and how Bonhams fits into the world of Urban Art? I’m quite lucky I didn’t have to place a bid to get some answers for you. —Trina Calderon


Trina Calderon: How did you get started in this career?


Gareth Williams: I joined Bonhams as a saleroom assistant and worked my way up the ranks. I have always been interested in contemporary and modern art and it was my ambition to work in this field. I have been following urban art for a long time, out of personal interest, and it wasn’t such a big leap to include some of these artworks in our sales. We started offering Urban Art in our Contemporary Art auctions roughly nine years ago, largely based on our belief in the individual works and also on our instinct that the market would respond well. One of Bonhams’ strengths is that we can adapt quickly and easily to emerging markets and have pioneered many new fields in the last few decades. We found that, not only was there a demand for urban art, but also that the results appeared to be getting consistently stronger from sale to sale. In view of this, in February 2008, we thought the time was right to hold a stand-alone auction. The response was phenomenal, both in terms of the prices realized, the interest shown by our clients and the global media coverage. The auction was an important milestone in the sense that it bought the subject to a wider audience and has encouraged debate about the medium.


What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?


Providing valuations on works of art usually from photographs, sourcing material for sale, finding buyers for these lots, promoting the department and our auctions, cataloguing and researching lots.

Who attends a Bonhams’ art auction?


In our various auctions around the world we offer lots at many price levels from a few hundred dollars up to millions of dollars. All of our auctions are open to the public, and there is a free exhibition of the works for a few days before each auction, so we attract a wide variety of people with various different budgets.


How does Bonhams obtain the artwork it auctions off?


We generally offer secondary market art, which means that they are artworks owned by collectors who now wish to sell them on.


What or who sets the estimated price for a work at an auction?


The estimates are generally set by our art specialists, who base the figures on various things, in particular recent results made by the artist’s works at auction, and also our knowledge of what our buyers are interested in and how much they are willing to pay for specific works. Other factors taken into account are rarity, condition and market freshness.


What is an Urban Art auction? How does Bonhams define Urban Art?


Street art is art at its most accessible, available in the public arena for universal appreciation. However, by definition it is also an ephemeral art form, often disappearing as fast as it appears. By transposing their images from street wall to canvas, urban artists are now creating a permanent legacy without compromising the vitality of their art form. An urban art auction is a collection of works by leading and emerging urban artists offered for sale to the highest bidder.

In the case of Urban Art, is the process of setting an estimated price for a work any different than for example, a modern art auction?


For certain works it can require more research than usual, as we often include works by artists who have never appeared at auction before. This obviously means that we do not have a track record of auction prices to rely on. In this instance we base our estimates on the demand for the artist’s works through galleries.


How do you prepare for an auction?


The months before the auction are spent collecting the works of art for the sale, then researching them, photographing them and writing descriptions of them for the catalogue. About six weeks before the sale we organize the catalogue and have it printed, so buyers and collectors should be able to see it about four weeks before the actual auction. We normally exhibit the work for about four days before the auction so that potential bidders can come and take a look at the works in person.


Is this process any different for a specific genre? For example, is it any different to prepare for an auction that includes a Banksy artwork than it would be for an auction that includes a Van Gogh or a Warhol?


In fact the process is fairly similar, no matter what we are selling.


What does the genre of Urban Art mean to a Bonhams’ audience who is not accustomed to bidding on say, an artwork by Os Gemeos?


At first the market was largely supported by clients who had grown up with graffiti culture and who had a disposable income to invest in art. Some traditional areas of the art market were initially resistant to urban art. In the last few years, however, urban art has been significantly reappraised and now has a huge crossover appeal attracting established international contemporary art buyers as well a new generation of collectors new to the market.


How do you think the price tag for urban art has evolved to its present state? What are some of the urban artworks that have broke price records at Bonham’s auctions?


Our first Urban Art sale included a canvas by Nick Walker entitled Moona Lisa- it was the first time that the artist’s work had appeared at auction and it sold for £54,000 against an estimate of £3,000-5,000. This is still the world record price by the artist at auction. We also sold a performance piece by American graffiti artist Futura 2000, which was created live on stage during the Clash’s ‘Combat Rock’ tour of the early eighties. It achieved over £38,000 against an estimate of £15,000-20,000- again another world record auction price. We also hold records by other artists such JR and Cyclops.


What is “the Banksy effect” and have you seen evidence of it happening with other urban art at your auctions?


Banksy has captured the popular imagination and is largely responsible for a significant shift in the perception of street art. You only have to look at the popularity of the museum shows and the prices being achieved at auction to realize this. He has also opened up the door for many other artists to become exposed to a wider audience.


Why do you think collectors are willing to pay such high prices for Urban Art? Do you think urban art that critiques the marketplace can actually command a higher price because of its message? If yes, why so?


Urban Art’s appeal lies in the fact that it is accessible, often humorous and looks great when hung on a wall. To many collectors, who find other areas of contemporary art a little too conceptual, this is proving to be a winning formula. Collectors are more likely to pay a premium for iconic decorative works by leading artists.


Has Bonhams ever auctioned urban art that is right off the street, like literally a surface from a wall? If so, how did it come by this piece?


We never handle works that have been taken from the street, only pieces of art that have been created for exhibition and sale.


Often urban artists are making political, social, and often anti-capitalist statements with their art. Do you think selling it for enormous profits goes against the message of the art itself?


The works we sell are secondary market meaning they are being sold by clients who have previously purchased the works from the artists. If the value of an artist’s work rises significantly in price it is understandable that the owner may wish to sell. Not all Urban Art works are sold on at a profit.


Bonhams will be having its first ever Urban Art auction in Los Angeles soon. How will this auction be different in any way to the previous auctions in London?


There will be similarities between the sales in London and L.A., as many of the artists we will be including are now internationally known and collected. However, we will also be including a few artists who are better known in the USA, whose work have not been sold in previous auctions.


What’s the difference between the Los Angeles auction audience & the London auction audience?


We believe that the Los Angeles audience is very open to new ideas and movements, and as such we expect them to get excited about the first Urban Auction in the city! While a lot of the art market in London is based around more traditional pictures (Old Masters, Impressionists) etc., Los Angeles is much more about young and contemporary art, and as such, a perfect place to launch Urban Art auctions in the USA. The number of excellent galleries exhibiting such work in the area also means that the audience already has an excellent understanding of the Urban Art scene.


What pieces in the Los Angeles auction do you think will demand the highest prices? Do you anticipate breaking any more records?


As ever, we expect the spray paint on canvas works by Banksy that we will be offering to attract lots of interest, and hopefully make some impressive prices. We also have important works by Shepard Fairey, who we know already has a strong following in L.A., but I think perhaps the buyers there will also be impressed by some of the younger emerging artists too.


Bonham’s Los Angeles galleries are at 7601 W. Sunset Boulevard. Check their website Bonhams.com for forthcoming auctions and exhibitions. Bonhams will be holding an Urban Art Auction on October 29, 2012, in Los Angeles.