Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams are three of the largest, oldest and most sophisticated auctioneers in the world. What were the chances that all three of them are based out of Mayfair?
Whether you’re new to these auctioneers or just curious about their origins, we have recorded the brief stories of these three titans below.
After its founding in 1766 by Scotsman James Christie, Christie’s has become an international brand that’s almost synonymous with the word auction itself. It’s the most prestigious venue to hold an auction, grossing more than any other auction house. This is, of course, because they source the best and most expensive items.
So how did Christie’s take over the scene? By moving with the times. Christie’s followed in the footsteps of other industries by building an online presence and taking their brand to the halls of the Internet, giving them more reach than ever before. Building on the innovations that allow users to flood a bingo online game room, Christie’s pursued new audiences with their proprietary bidding software. By this point, it was made easier by those industries like iGaming and ecommerce that had pioneered user interactivity through online chatrooms and secure payment processing.
As an example of further modernisation, they made headlines with Christie’s 3.0 auction platform following their historic Beeple NFT sale. Dedicated to Web 3.0 assets, Christie’s is positioning itself to sell unique digital items in the future.
According to Christie’s annual earnings report, they oversaw £6.8 billion in auctions and sales in 2022. Their largest individual sale was valued at £1.2 billion, a 60-piece art collection once owned by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Together with our next auctioneer, Sotheby’s, Christie’s also contributes to Mayfair’s antique dealer scene.
Founded in 1744, Sotheby’s is officially the oldest auction house in Britain. It was started by Samuel Baker and soon became Baker & Leigh, after his business partner George Leigh joined. After Baker and Leigh died, Leigh’s relative John Sotheby was set to inherit. It went through many names since then, final settling on Sotheby’s today.
While currently headquartered in New York, Sotheby’s keeps a presence in Mayfair. Naturally, this makes Christie’s a rival in the auction space and that rivalry is very much alive. For the first time, Sotheby’s overtook Christie’s in earnings in 2020.
Sotheby’s too have a host of online components through MySotheby’s, with BIDnow for most auctions and LiveBid solely for those involving wine. They also have a wide array of other services available besides auctioneering, such as fiduciary advice, restitution and funding scientific research.
Sotheby’s oversaw £6.4 billion in sales during 2022, one of the best years for the company in recent times. The largest sale was of a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR “Uhlenlaut Coupe” for £118 million. They recently made headlines by facilitating the sale of the largest ruby ever discovered for £24 million.
Finishing the trio of high-end auctioneers in Mayfair is Bonhams. Bonhams finds its origins close to James Christie, with the modern company having formed in 2001 as a merger between Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. The former owes its founding to Thomas Dodd and Walter Bonham while the latter was founded by Harry Phillips, James Christie’s clerk.
The story of Bonhams is one of many mergers and acquisitions, quickly becoming an international auctioneer to be reckoned with. They established an American division by acquiring Butterfields, one of the largest auction houses in San Francisco. More recently, they acquired Bukowskis and Bruun Rasmussen, establishing themselves in the Scandinavian auction space. They are also present in L.A., Sydney, Monaco and Geneva.
In 2022, Bonhams oversaw a record $1 billion dollars in sales – £800 million. This was no doubt because of how much the firm has expanded in recent years. They also broke records with the £12.7 million sale of Russian art, the most expensive in Russian art history. Their largest lot at 500 pieces was the Triay Collection of Himalayan Art.
Together, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams account for nearly £10 billion in sales and dominate Western auction spaces. As they acquire new locations all across the globe, it’s important to remember that they got their start here, in Mayfair.