Hammer heads – the brains behind Bonhams

1 of 5

Bonhams have raised the bar when it comes to classic motorcycle auctions. Here’s how they’ve done it.


e like to think the Classic Bike of the Year competition (CBOTY) is the most prestigious event on the calendar for restorers. And the Collectors Motorcycles department at leading auction house Bonhams seem to think so, too. That’s why they’ve stepped in as co-sponsors of CBOTY this year.

“It’s a fantastic competition,” Ben Walker, Bonhams’ international department director of motorcycling, agrees.

“It puts all the hard work restorers put into their bikes in the limelight and is a real inspiration to others. I’m amazed at the quality of the work that private restorers present and we’re pleased to be able to help encourage that. The MCN London Show (where the winner of CBOTY will be announced on February 17) is just a great weekend too.”

Like CBOTY, Bonhams are part of the classic bike firmament now. They’ve built up an enviable reputation since they moved into the classic bike market in 1995 and are now possibly the UK’s biggest and most successful player in the classic bike auction market. All that doesn’t happen by accident. The team have worked hard to establish their reputation – and they’ve done a lot to cut through the mystery of the auction process itself.

“The auction process is the best way to ensure a seller gets the market value for his bike,” explains Ben Walker. “As long as you market, promote and advertise the sale professionally and present the bikes as well as possible, you will get the best price. It really is as simple as that. To make sure we have the right people bidding, we target an international audience who we know are serious buyers of collectable motorcycles. For every sale we run, about 3000 catalogues are mailed out, we send 10,000-15,000 publicity brochures and 30,000-40,000 ‘e-blast’ emails. Putting bikes in front of the right people is the key to selling them.”

Bonhams also advertise in the specialist press, but they also run online advertising, crossover adverts with other Bonhams departments – motoring, for example – and members of the team have appeared on radio and TV. They leave no stone unturned
for their clients. Sounds good, but what’s involved in selling a bike through Bonhams?

“The first thing most people want to know is how much it costs,” Ben smiles. “Our standard rate of commission is 10% of the hammer price plus VAT. A basic quarter-page listing in the catalogue, with one photograph, costs £30 plus VAT, a half-page with two photographs is £60 plus VAT, a full page is £120 plus VAT and includes three photographs, and a double-page spread is £240. Anything more than that would be by negotiation. If you want us to take the photographs, we can do that – either at your home or in our in-house studio – though there would be a negotiable fee. If your bike fails to sell, you’ve only paid the catalogue listing fee. And the costs of getting it to the sale.”

That doesn’t sound unreasonable. Bonhams catalogues are almost works of art in their own right and the effort, manpower and resources needed to set up, run and break down a sale site are considerable. There’s plenty of work involved in researching a bike’s provenance, too. In addition to Ben Walker, the department’s staff includes head of department in the UK James Stensel, junior specialist Bill To, administrator Andy Barrett and head of department in the US Nick Smith; there’s also a team of specialist consultants and representatives on hand to provide the knowledge and expertise to help produce a thorough and accurate catalogue description of each lot. Naturally, though, there is a responsibility on the vendor to provide honest and accurate details of their machine. They can also provide a complete package for the seller if required, including pre- or post-sale storage at their high-security garage – with 24 hour guards and CCTV – plus transport and help with international shipping.

Sellers are paid within 21 days of the sale date, and the nature of the auction process means there’s no need for strangers to turn up at your house to view a bike, no messing around and no silly offers. All bidders have to provide Bonhams with ID, bank details and a deposit before they get a paddle that allows them to bid. There’s a lot going for it.

What’s in it for buyers, though? Once again, Ben Walker can provide the answer.
“The most important thing is that every buyer knows they’re paying the market rate for the bike,” he says. “They also get a fabulous choice of the best classic bikes and the chance to buy a particular machine may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have to be in it to win it. We also publish our sale results immediately after each sale, so everyone can see what bikes sold for. We try to make the auction process transparent for everyone.”

If you think auctions are only for the Broughs and Vincents of this world, think again. We give the client the same attention, whether he’s selling a Brough or a Bantam,” James Stensel assures me. “The average price of bike that goes through our sales is around the £10,000 mark. Once you take out the Broughs and Vincents, that means that there are a lot of affordable bikes from £3000-5000.”

There are behind-the-scenes ‘services’ Bonhams provide, too. “We check all engine and frame numbers against the registration document,” says Ben Walker. “If they don’t match, we won’t offer the documents with the bike. We also complete NOVA registration if required and update DVLA with the new owners details. Buyers can personally inspect documentation and spares offered with bikes at all sales, too.”

Above all, though, if you deal with Bonhams, you’ll be dealing with enthusiasts – just like yourself. “The business is about people as well as bikes, Ben Walker explains. “We have to be commercial, but we also have to be sympathetic and supportive. Often, bikes come up for sale due to bereavement, illness or advancing age. But we become friends to many of our clients. I personally view most collections we handle and when I stand at the front of a saleroom, there aren’t many faces I don’t know – and many I regard as friends. That said, we are seeing more new – and younger – faces. That’s great, because it means the classic bike world has a safe future.”          

Bonhams’ results prove the auction process works. Now, 800 bikes a year go through Bonhams – with 85% of them selling, on average. That’s a lot of bikes. When Ben Walker started working for the firm 17 years ago, sales figures for a year were around £500,000 to £600,000. This year, they’ll top £9.5 million. There has to be a reason for that. According to Ben Walker, it’s: “Our sales work. Selling or buying with us makes good practical and economic sense. And the good news is that interest in classic bikes doesn’t seem to be waning. If anything, it’s on the up.” Now, that’s good news for all of us.

Words Gez Kane  Photography Gary Margerum

Classic Bike magazine

By Classic Bike magazine

The best-selling classic motorcycling monthly