Career highlights? Selling a Ming dish and the piano from Rick’s Café

Patrick Meade has sold everything from shipwreck treasure to showbiz memorabilia


Irishman Patrick Meade is deputy chairman of Bonhams – founded in 1793 – one of the world's oldest and largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. He is based in London where he is responsible for the global Fine Arts strategy for Bonhams Picture departments. Previously he was joint chief executive for Bonhams in the United States, based in New York.

What is your background?

I was born in Dublin, raised in Co Meath and went to school at the Glenstal Benedictine monastery in Murroe, Co Limerick, before taking a BA degree in archaeology and Welsh at UCD. I loved archaeology and worked summers on a number of digs in Co Meath, but one summer I worked in Adam’s in St Stephen’s Green and I was smitten with the world of art and collectables.


I wanted to embrace it and see the world at the same time. I went to the UK and studied the RICS and ISVA exams, worked there for a few years and then went to the USA where I worked for 10 years for Christie’s in New York.

Our Chinese specialist had a hunch a dish was "right" and asked if she could take it to London to be authenticated. I reluctantly agreed to two buy business-class tickets, one for her and one for the dish.

In 1999, I was hired by a small start-up company called eBay that was beginning to make a bit of noise and I moved to San Francisco. They had just purchased one of the oldest auction houses in the US – Butterfields – which had been in existence since the California gold rush. I was brought in to run this entity for eBay and to help bring the somewhat clubby world of art auctions to a worldwide audience. We set up a hub on eBay's site to sell "curated and authenticated high end art and collectables".

It was 15-20 years before its time. There have been about 100 start-ups since then that are still trying to work out how to do this. Bonhams stepped in when eBay realised that this art for everybody approach was ahead of its time and since then, Bonhams has greatly grown and expanded the auction business in the US through traditional auctions using the internet as a platform to promote brick and mortar sales.

Career highlights?

One of my most unusual projects was pitching to sell a collection of ship-wrecked ceramics that were sunk off the coast of Vietnam in the late 15th century and which had been discovered by fisherman trailing their nets along the ocean floor. The shipwreck was so deep it required saturation diving to bring up the hundreds of thousands of ceramics. I had to deal with the Vietnamese government and visit the collection in a heavily guarded warehouse near Hoi An. We ultimately won the deal and proceeded to sell this massive collection.

Don't buy "names" just because everyone else is buying them. Dare to be different.

Another highlight was selling a Ming dish that had been used to store fruit (and had been valued in the 1970s as “a red copper dish with fruit” – the fruit being part of the valuation). It had been seen by some people over the years but had been dismissed. Our Chinese specialist had a hunch it was “right” and asked if she could take it to London to be authenticated. She was not happy for the dish to travel in the hold of the plane and it was too big to fit in the overhead in coach, so I reluctantly agreed to two business-class tickets, one for her and one for the dish. Her hunch paid off and I was lucky to be the auctioneer when it it sold for nearly $6 million.

I was also involved in selling Lauren Bacall's estate; a rare manuscript by Alan Turing; the Lion's costume from the The Wizard Of Oz and the piano from Rick's Café in Casablanca.

What advice would you give collectors/investors?

Never sell the first work you buy. It will always be a reminder of how it all started for you. Get advice and use the myriad tools available – including the internet – to research works. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because you will. Buy the best work of a lesser artist rather than the worst work of a great artist. But don’t buy anything simply because it is cheap and buy the best examples you can in any given category. Don’t buy “names” just because everyone else is buying them. Dare to be different.

Contemporary art is flavour of the month now but there are world-class works available by artists and furniture by makers that sell for less than they did 20 years ago. If you like these categories, don’t be put off by present trends.That’s why they are called trends, because they change.

What do you personally collect and why?

Primarily, I collect original book illustrations by artists who worked in London during the golden age of book illustration (late 19th and early 20th century). Mainly Irish and British illustrators (Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham) but also Edmund Dulac (French), Kay Nielsen (Danish), and others. I also collect Japanese Shibayama (inlaid semi-precious stone and shell on lacquer); items of Irish arts and crafts from about 1910-1920 and items of contemporary Irish design.

Having lived abroad for many years, I'm amazed at the quality that is being created here and I love the Zelouf & Bell (furniture), Sasha Sykes (furniture), Nuala O'Donovan (ceramic sculptures), Emmet Kane (wood-turner), Joe Hogan (basket-maker), Niamh Barry (light sculptures), Rachel Doolin (visual art) – and so many others. Ireland has a real pool of talent that punches way above its weight.

What would you buy if money were no object?

A Harry Clarke stained-glass window of a secular subject like his Geneva Window or an original work by William Blake (the English painter and poet who died in 1827).

What is your favourite work of art and why?

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado (Museum in Madrid) . There is such great narrative in his work. Is he trying to amuse and titillate or is there a deep message? Was he poking fun at his benefactors or was he a deeply religious man? Nobody knows. One can look at his work for hours or on repeated occasions. He was surreal 500 years before surreal was an -ism. He was also unlike anyone painting at the time.


In conversation with Michael Parsons