Auction house Bonhams fires Asia deputy chairman Magnus Renfrew amid art slowdown

Magnus Renfrew (right) at the ART HK fair in 2010.
Magnus Renfrew (right) at the ART HK fair in 2010. PHOTO: GARETH BROWN

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Magnus Renfrew, Bonhams deputy chairman of Asia, was ousted along with seven other Hong Kong-based employees, the latest casualties of the slowdown in the Asian fine art market.

"I was surprised and disappointed at the news," Mr Renfrew said in a phone interview in Hong Kong. "But there are already other opportunities emerging that are very exciting."

He was told on Feb 25 about his dismissal by chief executive officer Matthew Girling, who had flown to Hong Kong to announce the departures.

Mr Renfrew, 40, joined Bonhams in September 2014 to help spearhead the auction house's expansion in Asia, leveraging his expertise in fine art and excellent network in the region.

He was the founding fair director of ART HK in 2008 which is now known as Art Basel Hong Kong. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in the December issue of Art + Auction Magazine.

The departures come as competition in Hong Kong's auction market has intensified, with the arrival in Hong Kong of mainland auctioneers China Guardian Auctions Co and Poly International Auction Co. They are competing in a shrinking market long dominated by Sotheby's and Christie's.

The Chinese auction market including Hong Kong and Taiwan, contracted 26 per cent to US$4.9 billion (S$6.89 billion) in sales last year from US$6.6 billion in 2014, according to Artprice.com's Global Art Market Annual Report for 2015.

Ms Lucinda Bredin, global director of communications for Bonhams in London, confirmed in a phone interview that Mr Renfrew and seven others had left the company as "we are reorganising operations". She said about 18 people remain in the Hong Kong office, and declined to comment on whether other offices have been affected by layoffs.