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Bonhams new wine head: ‘You need to provide some innovation’

Bonhams is shaking things up after appointing Amayès Aouli, the former Sotheby’s head of continental wine, as its new global head of wine and spirits. Arabella Mileham spoke to the former investment banker about his ambitious plans to unite Bonham’s local expertise with its global footprint.

“My past experience is either very classical or atypical,” Aouli smiles, during our zoom conversation. The charismatic Frenchman joined Bonhams last month from Sotheby’s, where he had spent two years tasked with building the auction house’s continental European platform, however his background prior to joining Sotheby’s was less traditional than many other of his peers.

Both Nick Pegna at Sotheby’s and Adam Bilbey at Christie’s for example, hailed from Berry Bros & Rudd, while Aouli spent nearly 15 years in investment banking before formally entering the wine world.

However, the theme of wine also flows strongly through his background. Growing up in Paris, his parents would regularly entertain, and wine became synonymous with the exchange of ideas, art, and philosophy between broad-minded people.

“My approach to wine was very much what it brings to the table,” he explains, “It was a way of solidifying social interaction, making people discuss, debate democracy and part of the exchange of cultural heritage. I was a young kid in the room and it seemed magical.”

This magic was never lost, although a strong desire to travel led him into investment banking.

“It was a way to travel the world more freely than any other industry,” he explains, “When you are investment banking, you can go to New York one day, to Hong Kong the next, and London the next day.”

Starting in New York and then the dealing room of a French investment bank in London, his career took him to Asia – he finished his degree in finance, strategy and marketing at Seoul National University and later covered Korea when working in Hong Kong for two years. He returned to Paris in 2011 to join international company JP Morgan in its asset management team, working in its commercial and strategic department, “comparing thousands of parameters and making investment recommendations”, he explains.

However, wine had remained a strong theme and it was then, that he established a wine club with friends and family, as a way to go to the vineyards every weekend.

“Based in Paris, we’re very blessed to be a two-hour drive to Beaune, two hours by train to Bordeaux, and a two-hour flight from Tuscany, so that’s what we did – met producers, had dinners, went to the cellars, exchanged bottles and shared insights,” he says.

As well as building up his own collection, he embarked on the WSET first in wine, and later, spirits. This passion and growing knowledge of wine along with his asset management expertise led to his recruitment by Sotheby’s Jamie Ritchie to build its continental European platform, something he jumped at as a way to “rethink the world of auctions”.

“It is a very old meta, that is a fast-evolving industry. You can be stuck in the beauty of the past and history, but you need to provide some innovation and bring some smartness to the table,” he explains. “It’s a combination between both, if you’re only technology and innovation, you’re losing your roots, but if you’re do only the history, you’re stuck [in the past].”


Innovation is firmly on his radar in his new role.

“We are going to innovate, we’re going to try to create new formats of sales and partner strongly with producers and with charitable organisation. I think it’s in the DNA of wine to be charitable, so that is very important,” he explains. Given the success of  the 162nd Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction, which he was involved in at Sotheby’s, which raised $32m and was the biggest charity wine sale in history, this comes as no surprise, especially considering his daughter is named Agape.

As he points out, Bonhams has already built a strong foundation for wine and spirits, which started in 1997 when Richard Harvey MW established Bonhams Wine Department. Harvey himself becomes chairman of the department to ensure continuity in Europe with long-standing clients, while new roles in the US, Europe and Asia will be announced later in the year.

Aouli argues that Bonham’s strength lies in the way it expanded via the mergers of strong local auction houses. The early 2000s saw the addition of London auction houses Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale, followed by leading West Coast auction house Butterfields, which dates back to 1865. American expansion continued with the acquisition of a saleroom on Madison Avenue in New York in 2005, and in March 2022 New England auction house Skinner Inc was brought into the fold, along with Nordic auction house Bukowskis and Danish auction house Bruun Rasmussen. It also expanded into the key Asia market, with the founding of an office, later saleroom and East Asia HQ in Hong Kong in 2007. Its Southeast Asian network has since grown to include offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Singapore.

“You have a lot of local assets that have been integrated into a global network and this is very much well-suited for wine – as you need to have the whole world participating to an auction to be successful, but you need that local service as well, to ship the wine, to have someone to talk to for your consignment, to have the wine travel less” he argues. “If I succeed to compound the global network of around 22 countries with a local platform, then I’ll succeed in transforming it into a very interesting business for the consigner, the client, the producer and the whole ecosystem.”

The current market

And leverage this mix of global and local has this been more important than during the current economic uncertainty, when the fine wine market is facing – in his words –  “a breather” after more than ten years of almost continuous growth, shaped by the upheavals of the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequently Covid.

“After the financial crisis a lot of people reshaped and refocused their way of thinking on life. They didn’t want to own as much, but to experience more,” he notes, added by interest rates which made it possible to borrow “almost for free”, while Hong Kong’s 0% tax on wine provided a large boost to Asian buyers and collectors.

“At the same time, there was a growing recognition of terroir in regions such as Burgundy,” he continues “and the knowledge provided by MW, influencers, and great voices in wine started to pay a greater role.”

“The thirst of knowledge increased and it increased again in another period, which we all tend to forget. During Covid, wine was really one of the only passions people could do freely – and people even got some time back! Personally,  I never bought as much wine as I did during Covid, because I had time to do so.”

“Now, we’re facing a breather where the market needs to breathe a bit as the markets have gone really, really high, really, really fast,” he explains – although it is worth noting that overall, the market has still increased in terms of volume, “which means that thirst is still there, in every region.”

There are however, different dynamics in play in different regions and even at different levels within one region. Burgundy for example is operating different at Grand Cru level than it is at village level, he explains.

“You see Burgundy Grand Cru at the very top softening a little bit but you see village acting a bit differently,” he explains, “It’s the same for Bordeaux, you see totally different dynamics, and sometimes even chateau by chateau. That’s why it’s a market of knowledge and not based on financial aspects so much.”

Meanwhile Italy has seen very strong growth across the board, with both Tuscany and Piedmont continuing to see growth.

“It means the market is not moving in a single direction,” he explains. “If you see just one line in one shot, you’re not considering the whole picture. I think it is very sound market, as a lot of transparency is provided in the market, which is recent… a new trend.”

This, he argues, bodes well for the auction house.

Trust is key

“When the market is having different dynamics, the auction is an echo chamber of the sound of the world, of the market” he says.

While collectors in a growing market may need less caution, with wine readily available, Aouli argues that when it is fluctuating, auction houses become “the number one trusted partner”.

“It’s where we play our roles in the eco-system at the finest,” he says. “What I want to see is bottles circulating among collections. And this is our world. If I was a producer… or in the trade, I might have a different view, but I think it’s aggregating all these views to say we are an intermediary of trust.”

This “trust environment” is a key component of this plans as it is not so much selling wine, as “selling interest because people know their wine,” he explains.

“They know what they want to buy especially at the altitude we’re selling bottles at, as we’re talking about the finest and the rarest. When someone is ready to pay that for a bottle, they know what to expect and they turn to an auction house for confidence and trust. Because we are at the origin of the consignment, we know the provenance, we have inspected it carefully, tried to present that as best as possible to the market,” he explains. “We try to build that ecosystem at Bonhams”.

This is where the interplay of local and global comes into its own.

“We are the house with the most locations, so we’re closer to the consigner and then we can bring that closer to the world,” he says. “The idea is to get closer to the client and to the consignment of the wine.” Being based in France– the first time Bonham’s global head has been based in France – is also a signal, he says, given that French wine composes around 80% of Bonhams offering.

“Being close to producers, being close to the trade, being close to charity events that could happen in Europe and bringing clients into that from the US and Asia, to choose Europe for special occasion, I think it is where the industry is going, its direction of travel.”

This eco-system of trust naturally involves multiple departments, as one department can provide a doorway to another.

“The cross category is very important” he explains. “I would say that 99.9% of people who love wine, love another type of art, because it’s part of a lifestyle…. Intuitively, the closest dept is contemporary arts, cars and to a certain degree watches.”

As for his own cellar, Aouli admits to being an eclectic collector, ready to try wines that “are not considered the finest of the fine” if they come from an interesting place, as well as a lover of Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Italy. “”I would say that 60% of my cellar is Italian wine. It is a place that I love both geographically and in taste – but it is also a place where the vineyard is very historical, dating back to the Roman Empire, but has changed very fast over the last 20 years… with experimentation happening in every single winery.”

This perhaps sums up his attitude – taking the best of the past and coming it with the dynamism of the present and future innovation.

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