Christopher Elwes joined Christies, the world famous International Fine Art Auction house , in 1968. In 1975 Christies purchased Debenham Coe, a tiny auction room in London’s South Kensington, with the intention of opening a secondary Christie’s saleroom to handle their lower value property. Christopher was appointed one of two directors who were responsible for 20 members of staff. At the time of purchase Debenham Coe had sales of under £1m.By the end of the first year they had achieved sales in excess of £2m.
Christopher went on to develop the concept of mass advertising for goods for sale, sponsoring the birth of the Antiques Trade Gazette and advertising in newspapers and radio, media which was considered an industry first. Christopher then achieved another industry first with the birth of his Valuation day service, which was to later inspire the BBC’s Antiques Road show.
Valuation days involved taking teams of experts to provincial towns and offering free valuations. The first of these was in Hereford in 1978 and goods were consigned for sale in excess of £100,000, at today’s values probably over £2m. Up till then it was impossible for anyone in the middle classes to get a valuation from an auctioneer unless they travelled to London. The Valuation day concept was immensely popular and was rapidly copied by Sotheby’s and Phillips.
In the 1980’s he was appointed CEO of the company. When he left a few years later Christies South Kensington had grown from 20 employees and sales of £1 million to 170 staff members and eye watering sales of £35 million.
So in 1987 Christopher, along with another Christie’s director, bought in to the family –owned auction house Bonham’s. Although having been in existence since 1793 Bonham’s had failed to match the growth of the three other London Auctioneers and with annual sales trailing at around £7m it was failing to make a profit.
Despite starting the business expansion at the beginning of a deep recession and remaining all the while undercapitalised, by the late 1990s they had built the company into a profitable business with sales in excess of £32m and with 3 further salerooms in UK and branch offices in all the other major UK centres. They had a fine reputation for their specialised and professional approach to sales and were market leaders in several areas. Overseas they had an affiliated office/saleroom in New York and sales operations in Singapore and Tokyo.