Published: September 18, 2018
There’s a fresh take on design going on at Bonhams. This side of the Atlantic, the modern decorative arts and design department is comprised of a unique duo between two Englishmen: department head Benjamin Walker and director Dan Tolson. Both have entered the firm in the past two years, skating across the United States to gather consignments for their bi-coastal sales in New York and Los Angeles. We caught up with them to talk shop on their department, their approach and highlights from their tenure thus far.
You run sales out of New York and Los Angeles. What kind of advantage does that give you?
BW: It’s very important for us, not just for the geography, but to source consignments for our sales. What we find particularly useful is that we have two different markets. The West Coast is more of a high-style home interiors market. The East Coast is really more international style and a collector’s market. Various works do better in New York than they do in Los Angeles and vice versa. When we are gathering the works for our sale, we can decide which objects would do better between locations.
DT: One thing we’ve found is that designers like George Nakashima sell better on the East Coast, we get buyers for him from both the eastern United States and Europe. And conversely, a designer like Sam Maloof would sell better on the West Coast.
You are both just entering your sophomore year with Bonhams. What are some of the highlights so far?
DT: The Alberto Giacometti “Etoile” table lamps.
BW: Yes, they came from a private source in North America. We engaged with the client very early on and did the expertise required, and we sold them for $225,000 last December. I believe it is an auction record price for that model by Giacometti. It was a lot of hard work, but everyone was happy.
DT: There was also the Harry Bertoia “Bush” that brought $125,000 on the front cover of the June catalog. That did very well. A competitor had a similar one a few weeks before that sold about half of what we sold ours for, so we were happy.
I saw the essay on that was from Celia Bertoia, what is it like working with the Bertoia family?
DT: It’s wonderful working with Celia, she’s very much invested in promoting her father’s legacy. And she’s very positive about helping auction houses as well, so that has been a wonderful experience. We vet all of our pieces through Celia and the Harry Bertoia Foundation.
BW: That’s another thing that we take pride on, is our due diligence. We try to do as much work on each piece as possible, so working with Celia is an advantage.
Like any established market, you see many of the same names time after time in design sales. Do you find it difficult to introduce new names to the market?
DT: That’s something we’re very keen to do. We have a collection of Japanese American and English contemporary ceramics coming up. There are a few names in there that haven’t been featured heavily in the market, and we’re going to give our New York platform as a venue to sell that collection. If we feel there’s a good design element and we see it appealing to our clients, we’re very willing to experiment.
BW: And in terms of chasing the same old things, sale in and sale out, we want to keep 20-30 percent on new emerging artists or designers that haven’t been focused on so much.
Like the Kam Tin turquoise bedside cabinets in your June sale.
DT: Yes, that’s one example. That’s the first time that studio was featured in a New York sale, and we have more from them in the next sale.
Where do you want to see the department expand?
DT: For our New York venue, we’re looking at 100-130 lots per sale. We’re going to stay on track with that. There are a number of design sales in New York, so we want to stand out as an auction house that focuses on quality, provenance and due diligence and making a name for ourselves in that respect. It’s a focus on quality.
BW: We’re also led by what comes across our desk. In this position between the East and West Coast, the Los Angeles sales do have a higher volume, whereas the East Coast is more targeted. So we want to increase the quality, but at the same time we really like engaging with our collectors. We want to enjoy the journey with them.
Your sales always have a terrific glass section. Which one of you is the specialist?
BW: Dan is more of a specialist in postwar glass. Glass is a really great medium for artists and designers to show off their technical abilities. We cover contemporary through Art Nouveau. We also present a strong Italian glass section, which is Dan’s area of specialty, and American contemporary with Chihuly and William Morris.
DT: I think, particularly with contemporary glass, Bonhams has been the market leader. I’m trying to promote more midcentury Italian as that’s an area that has come back into vogue.
BW: And it is incredibly beautiful. It’s just amazing work.
And between the different periods, how are the glass markets performing?
DT: Very good across the board. We presented an Art Deco Daum collection in December. That’s an area that has been unfashionable in recent years and we got very good prices for that collection. We look at every piece and judge them on their design merits, and we thought those pieces were fantastic. We believed the New York market was a good platform for them, and we were proven right. They did very well.
BW: It’s amazing what you can do with a good group. You can show it off and exhibit it well, give it a good space in the catalog and the market responds to that effort.
DT: And it wasn’t just Art Deco collectors who were buying that. It was all different kinds of buyers, which was very encouraging.
What’s your favorite design object ever made?
BW & DT: (Collective groan)
GS: Okay, we’ll skip that one.
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