x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hammer time: Bonhams' classic car auction in Dubai

Georgia Lewis talks to two of the men behind Bonhams' first classic car auction in the Middle East.

Philip Kantor, left, and James Knight can both thank their fathers for leading them to a career in classic cars.
Philip Kantor, left, and James Knight can both thank their fathers for leading them to a career in classic cars.

Georgia Lewis talks to two of the men behind Bonhams' first classic car auction in the Middle East. "It's as good a warranty as you're going to get." So says Philip Kantor, the international director of business development and head of European motor cars for Bonhams auction house. He is referring to two BMWs that will be auctioned by Bonhams in Dubai this October, a 1979 M1 and 1975 CSL from Munich's BMW museum. The cars were restored at the factory by BMW Classics, the collectible cars arm of the business, and will come with a warranty that Kantor says protects the buyer as if it was a new car.

It will be the first time the museum has sold two of its cars as well as Bonhams' first classic car auction in the Middle East. Kantor's colleague, James Knight, the managing director of Bonhams' collectors' motor cars group, visited Dubai in November 2008 to raise awareness of car collecting in the UAE and test the potential for a classic car auction here. His fact-finding mission proved worthwhile for Bonhams, which already auctions art in Dubai. When Bonhams placed an advertisement in one of its catalogues for UAE-based car lovers to express an interest in selling cars at auction in Dubai, six collectors made inquiries.

"Some of them might well be interesting," says Knight. "There have been one or two dabbles in classic car auctions with local firms, but this is the first time a serious attempt has been made with the back-up of a multinational company." The October 11 auction, which will be held at the Royal Mirage Hotel, is in the early stages of planning, and Knight says they will be accepting cars up to four to six weeks before the event.

"We don't really know how many cars will be auctioned yet, but we're thinking maybe 10 to 20 cars will be a good quantity for this event," he says. The Dubai auction will focus on post-Second World War cars. For Kantor and Knight, their own obsessions with collectible cars were largely inspired by their fathers. "My father was quite the collector of cars, so I had been interested from quite an early age," recalls Kantor. "His father thought he was quite mad."

Among his father's collection was a Bugatti Type 57, which cost him just £500 at the time, and post-war Ferraris and Maseratis. Taking pride of place in Kantor's garage is a 1965 Alfa Romeo GTA that he uses in historic rallies. "It has a very good racing history and, in Europe historic motorsport, is one of the few things you can do where you can go fast on the roads," he says. Kantor worked for the International Council for Wildlife and Game Conservation, an organisation he describes as "the UN of field sports", before joining Christie's Auction House in 2000 and then joining Bonhams in 2007.

He cites the 2008 Retromobile sale in Paris as one of the highlights of his time with Bonhams so far, an auction where all 80 cars were driven through the French capital before going under the hammer. "People were able to see the cars in 3D, hear the sound, experience the smell and know they were all in working order," says Kantor. Knight didn't grow up with a garage full of classics like Kantor, but rather fell into the world of classic cars by accident.

"After I was uninvited back to college, my father, who was an antiques dealer asked me: 'What are you going to do with yourself?' and he suggested I serve an apprenticeship at an auction house," says Knight. He was working as a furniture porter at Christie's in south Kensington, London, when he was offered a promotion with the motoring department in 1984. "I told them I know nothing about cars, but things were different back then and I was told I'd learn as I went along," he says.

"All I had was a schoolboy interest in cars, but I have been working with cars ever since. I liked the idea of working in the silver jewellery department, but all the people there had been there for years and [with motoring] I had an opportunity to become a specialist." He has been with Bonhams since the company merged with Brooks in 2000, and his love of cars extends to the ownership of a 1954 Austin Healey Roadster.

Knight's favourite anecdote from his career came after he received a phone call in the early 1990s from "a lovely little old lady" who had been recently widowed. She lived in a caravan park and her husband had told her that an old car that was languishing in a shed was her "pension". The "pension" turned out to be a 1932 Lea-Francis Hyper racing car driven by John Green, father of British historic racing legend Malcolm "Willie" Green. Despite being unrestored, the car sold for £20,000.

"It was by no means the biggest sale, but it made such a difference to her circumstances. It was very satisfying," says Knight. While the chances of unearthing a 78-year-old hidden gem in the UAE are slim, Kantor and Knight are hoping that there will be more stories to be told after the October auction in Dubai. glewis@thenational.ae