The Subtle Art of Capturing a Crowd
Malcolm Barber, CEO of auction house Bonhams, leads the 2012 Benefit Art Auction to benefit student scholarships.
Globe-trotting head of a venerable auction house, Malcolm Barber touches down just once a year in Portland. He comes for one reason, to personally conduct PNCA’s Benefit Art Auction, this year on February 23. Barber, CEO of venerable auction house Bonhams, has for each of the last four years conducted PNCA’s auction which benefits student scholarships. Bonhams, founded in 1793, is the third largest auction house in the world.
“It’s thrilling,” said Ann Edlen, Chair of PNCA’s Board of Governors. “Bonhams is the real deal. To watch someone at that level conduct art auctions… it’s just fun. He really gets you.”
Both salesman and entertainer, a great auctioneer must be comfortable in the spotlight and have the charisma and personality to put on a great show. He or she is confident, quick-thinking, and passionately knowledgeable with a great sense of humor. The best auctioneers are able to capture a crowd’s attention and hold it for several hours.
Sheryl Acheson, co-chair of of the PNCA Auction Committee and a representative for Bonhams in Portland, agrees. “I have no hesitation in calling Malcolm one of the best auctioneers in the world,” Acheson says. “He has it down to a subtle art.”
The majority of an auctioneer’s work is done before the event begins: he or she is responsible for knowing the value of the item or items on the auction block. This year, that includes pieces such as a knit wire dress by artist and PNCA Board member Manya Shapiro (Lot No. 4, “Red Dress”), a haunting lithograph by April Gornik, printed at the legendary Derriere L’Etoile Studio (Lot No. 5, “Polar Light”), a delicate paper cut by Yuken Teruya (Lot No. 16, “Okinawa Bank Bag”), and a series of drypoint and chine collé prints by Storm Tharp and printed by PNCA students (Lot No. 19, “Health”). Also on the block is a dinner and guided tour of Jordan D. Schnitzer’s extensive private collection, which includes works by Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, David Hockney and Andy Warhol (Lot No. 13).
Barber began as a sales clerk at Sotheby’s in 1969. He rose quickly through all levels of administration and finance and was soon appointed to run Sotheby’s Bond Street Sales Office, reporting directly to the chairman. Barber’s passion for fine motorcars led him to join Sotheby’s Car Department in 1975 and to become its director in 1980. He followed his passion for cars to Brooks, a specialty auction house that was later acquired by Bonhams. He moved to San Francisco in 2002 following Bonhams’ acquisition of Butterfields Auction House in 2002.
“He really understands the cause and the event,” Edlen elaborates. “He’s a master auctioneer. It’s a real treat to watch him and to participate. He knows just how to motivate you. He’s a real pro.”
The cause is a good one: the PNCA’s Benefit Art Auction is the school’s signature event in support of student scholarships. Scholarships are a high priority at the College, where 93% of students receive some sort of financial aid. All proceeds from this special event support scholarships at PNCA.