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NOTICE OF DEATH - ROBERT BROOKS (1956-2021)

Robert Brooks who has died aged 64 was the charismatic auctioneer and businessman who became a director of Christie’s aged only 27, founded his own Brooks Auctioneers company at 32 and grew it so rapidly that it could acquire the Bonhams auction house in 2000, followed by the UK operation of Phillips, then Butterfields in the USA. He and his close-knit team elevated the modern Bonhams company into a global player in as many as 57 specialities from fine art to classic cars and motorcycles. 

Motor sport was at the core of Robert Brooks’s diverse interests and this tall, handsome, genial man - with a core of steel - earned tremendous stature not just at amateur Historic racing level but also in international contemporary racing. He not only won a European Touring Car Championship title but also competed in such notable endurance races as the German Nürburgring 24-Hours, the American Sebring 12-Hours and the Australian Bathurst 24-Hours. His race-driving abilities were recognised by acceptance as a full member of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, quickly being voted onto its board and serving as BRDC Chairman through turbulent times while negotiating with disinclined Formula 1 head Bernie Ecclestone a safe future for the annual British Grand Prix at the Club’s Silverstone Circuit.

Born on October 1, 1956, to auctioneer Bill Brooks and wife Joan (née Marshall - and herself prominent within the property market), Robert Brooks was educated privately in Ealing, West London. He left school at 16, eager to become a racing driver, and campaigned an uncompetitive Formula Ford Dastle car before writing it off in a crash which left him near penniless.

Father Bill Brooks, a wartime RAF Lancaster bomber pilot, had started at the bottom of the art business as a porter and cleaner at a small saleroom in London’s Baker Street before joining the Bonhams furniture department. Son Robert’s first visit to his future company was as a pushchair-borne three-year old. 

Bill Brooks became chairman of auctioneer Debenham Coe, negotiated its takeover by Christie’s to re-brand as Christie’s South Kensington, then running it until retirement in 1987. Burly, commanding Bill Brooks could be both charming and forceful, a dynamic auctioneering exemplar adored by his son Robert, who had joined the company at 18. 

Bill Brooks showed his son few favours, ensuring he began as a brown-coated furniture porter.  Yet within three years - on precocious merit - he became Christie’s youngest auctioneer, first No 2 to the Hon Patrick Lindsay in the charismatic Christie’s head’s pet vintage car department, then its director. By 30 he was on Christie’s main board. 

Robert Brooks saw no reason why great classic cars should not be recognised as works of art. He conceived a new genre of well-presented, high-profile sales of truly significant classic cars. His enterprise accelerated tremendous escalation in values, not least when - in 1987, one month after the Black Friday stock market crash - he knocked-down a unique Bugatti Type 41 Royale for the then world record price of £5.5-million.

Having promised its American vendor “a really special Sale” he had hired London’s Royal Albert Hall for 24 hours. A massive ramp had to be assembled to access the Hall floor, below street level.  But the sub-contractor had mis-measured the massive Bugatti. It would not fit through the entry doors. Their removal was insufficient. Near 2am, seeing his presentation crumble, Brooks neared despair. His long loyal lieutenant James Knight ordered him home to bed, “You’ve got to be on form to take the Sale later - we’ll handle it”. RAH’s night watchman - protecting the listed building - “…recognised the pickle we were in and said he was ‘…just going to check the other side of the building - might be some time’.  A chisel promptly removed the doorway’s architrave and the 21ft x 7ft wide 3-ton Royale squeezed through - architrave replaced, world-record set…

Robert Brooks pioneered tightly focused world-class classic car sales at Monaco, but chafed against conservative Christie’s practises. In 1989, funded by former client-turned-backer Evert Louwman, Dutch importer of Toyota cars for western Europe and principal of the Dutch National Motor Museum, Brooks left Christie’s to found Brooks Auctioneers. A mark of the man was that his entire Christie’s car department team accompanied him. He was a friend - one never slow to criticise or correct - and a charismatic leader. The Brooks company was established in a former taxi garage on Clapham Common, punching way above its weight globally. But through 1990-91, the over-heated classic car market collapsed.

Brooks survived, reinforcing his team with a talented group from Sotheby’s car department headed by Malcolm Barber. His more grounded approach augmented Brooks’s idealism, and with James Knight they grew Brooks as the market recovered. 

In 1992, Robert Brooks was on the inaugural classic car Loire tour organised by kindred-spirit dealer and friend Adrian Hamilton. Another participant was Charles, Earl of March, newly in command of his family’s Goodwood Estate.  He mentioned his ambition to revive Goodwood motor sport. Brooks suggested running an event for classic and Historic cars - he would find entries and sponsor it.  The annual Goodwood Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival Meeting - the world’s best-attended ‘old car’ events - had been born.

Robert Brooks and Charles March - today the Duke of Richmond & Gordon - became firm friends while annually  fighting flinty-eyed over each year’s fresh deal.  This remarkable pair were kindred spirits, enjoying each other’s successes. 

Evert Louwman permitted Robert to campaign a number of his great cars at Historic level, including a number of Jaguar D-Types, an XK-SS, Ferrari 750 Monza and more.  After a chequered early record, which included spinning a D backwards into the Silverstone pit wall and destroying the timing equipment which Brooks sponsorship had just enabled the VSCC to buy, Robert developed more mature driving skills under the expert tutelage of veteran John Harper and renowned racer/instructor Rob Wilson.

In an early outing at Donington Park Robert was involved in a multiple collision. Back in the paddock he rushed over to others involved to offer to pay for their damage, only to be wrestled almost to the ground by veteran John Harper, growling “You don’t do that - it’ll queer the pitch for the rest of us!”.

At an early Goodwood sprint - pre-Festival and Revival years - as Robert went out for his run in the D the cry went up “Quick - all down to the chicane to see Brookie spin off”. Most of the paddock charged down, and sure enough - leaving Woodcote, he spun way off onto the airfield.

Later an animated Historic racing rivalry began between Robert and Frank Sytner. One highlight was the Sussex Trophy race at the inaugural 1998 Goodwood Revival Meeting.  Off the startline, Frank’s Lister-Jaguar hub-cap severed a tail-retaining spring on the Brooks Lotus 15, the airstream ripping half the panel up into an arliner-tailfin position. Robert pressed on, this was an event he had in effect co-organised. A black flag was shown, ignored, rescinded. He fought back from 5th to 3rd, won a long duel with Stuart Graham’s Lister-Chevrolet and set off after Sytner, finally taking the lead on an intensely dramatic last lap.

His European Touring Car Championship (Group N) title was earned with Rob Wilson as his co-driver, and with Tony Dron they won their class in the Nürburgring 24-Hours. But after a heavy collision at Bathurst, Australia - in which he was entirely innocent, having been rammed from behind - he concentrated thereafter on business.

By 2000 Brooks Auctioneers had grown enough to acquire Bonhams. In 2001-2002 both the Philips UK auction business and the American Butterfields company were also absorbed. The Brooks name was dropped in favour of the Bonhams“founded 1793” brand.

Robert Brooks then launched a New York HQ in 2005, moving it onto Madison Avenue in 2008. In 2007 an Asian HQ in Hong Kong was added. Brooks’s total commitment to any project peaked in 2013 with the £20-million redevelopment of Bonhams’ New Bond Street hub, master-minded by architect friend Alex Lifschutz. Within it, Brooks opened a 25-cover fine-dining restaurant with chef Tom Kemble rapidly earning a Michelin star.  Brooks’s main focus was to do amazing things, build a fine brand and profit would follow…

Under his charismatic leadership Bonhams had blossomed from a regional UK auction house into a truly global player, its 600 staff including leading specialists in many disciplines. Notable Lots sold included a Fragonard portrait of the Duc d’Harcourt (£17,106,500), and Juan Manuel Fangio’s 1955 Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix car (£19,601,500 at Goodwood).

Brooks collected early cars and was a great supporter of the London-Brighton Run for veteran (pre-1904) cars, of which he owned several - the Brighton Run becoming a major annual Brooks family frolic.  

He had also been an enthusiastic private pilot of pre-war biplanes including a De Havilland Tiger Moth and Stampe, and proudly claimed never to have flown himself without his head in the open air.  He had also - perhaps wisely - learned to parachute…

He had an enduring interest in military history. He was a keen supporter of such charities as Combat Stress, Help for Heroes, the RAF Benevolent Fund and Waterloo Uncovered and often conducted charitable sales for such causes.

When he encountered some health problems, it was time to find a company buyer. On August 22, 2018, Bonhams was sold to UK equity house, Epiris. With Canadian wife Evelyn (née Durnford, whom he had met at Christie’s and married in Montreal in 1981) he retired to the part-arable farm he had bought and restored in Somerset, raising purebred Black Angus beef cattle.

Robert Brooks was devoted to his family - children Sarah, Charlie and John, and to his nine grandchildren. While he lived at full throttle, he encouraged and fostered many new young talents. Strong-minded son of a firm father he had a short fuse - but seldom bore grudges. When any detonation proved unjustified he was the first to apologise and offer redress. His team respected and admired him. - some of the younger ones perhaps with that little frisson of fear...but get it right, and he would support them to the hilt. They were used to tall Brooks “doing a meerkat” - head back, eyes lazering the viewing or saleroom, all-seeing. They valued his approval, and his long-loyal team would follow him through fire.

(By BRDC Member, Doug Nye)

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