Understanding the Antiques Business Today
The following serves to give a simplified overview of an exciting, vibrant and challenging environment in which antiques are bought and sold today.
With over 25 years in the antiques trade we have witnessed many changes which are continuing even now at great pace with the arrival of the internet and its subsequent dramatic effect on the market.
The Old Days.
In the past there were essentially two parts to the trade, wholesale and retail. There was lots of inter trading and peripheral trading going on as well. Wholesale was controlled by traders who amassed large volumes of antiques held in warehouses. Their main supply was from auction houses supplemented by house clearance operators and purchases made from other wholesalers. The wholesaler sold generally to world wide trade customers mainly from the USA but also Europe, Canada, Australia and the far east. Vast numbers of containers were shipped to these destinations, the buyers having a seemingly insatiable appetite. This wholesale trade spanned decades from the 60's right up to the 90's and spawned the large antique fairs such a Newark in Nottinghamshire to which international and UK buyers still come en-mass.
Alongside the wholesale market the retail market stood serving the private buyer from shops in quaint market towns throughout Britain. For those that could not afford shops antique centres developed permitting smaller dealers to offer their wares to the retail market. Supply to the retail trade came from auction houses, wholesale traders, and private sellers.
It was simple understandable and worked well.
Twenty five years ago established old style dealers both retail and wholesale, could not possibly have foreseen the turmoil foisted upon a happy content market which had remained in a similar format for decades with sons taking over from fathers and even grandfathers. A field where knowledge was king, backed by an assumption that if you bought correctly your pieces would always appreciate, indeed antiques investments out paced even the property market.
A Time of Change.
Around the time of the New York 9/11 attacks a number of influences coincided to dramatically change the antiques trade. Firstly US demand receded and it is the US demand that largely still holds up the whole of the antiques business, from the best to the worst pieces. A decline in the US economy coupled with a change in fashion and a strong Pound was the cause of the gradual reduction in trade buyers arriving in the UK. The strong Pound and European economic decline hit demand from our neighbours in Holland and elsewhere in Europe who had themselves developed an almost insatiable taste for English antiques across the board.
The reduction in demand was said to be a 'hicup' and had been seen many times in the past Most thought it could be ridden out as had happened before. Unfortunately gradually long established antiques prices began to decline in response to the demand reduction except for the extremely rare and unusual which is always the case in any market.
A move away from traditional interior designs of the past at the same time added to the general loss of the long established investment merits of antiques.
At the same time as the effects I have mentioned, the internet began to change the established market. In addition, the power of TV interiors and antiques programs dramatically changed the public's perception of owning pieces from the past. The effect of both of these mediums cannot be underestimated they are both highly effective game changers.
The internet has allowed almost anyone to offer a piece to the world wide market. This has taken away the previously exclusive domain of the dealer. The problem with this is that it also taken away the knowledge, reassurance and experience that the dealer was able to impart to the buyer. The 'knowledge' has been replaced by internet searches which often give distorted values and descriptions. If one looks at Ebay for example today it is full of poor descriptions and wild prices probably as a result of unintentional ignorance on the part of the seller. The attitude of the low budget TV 'antiques' programme is in our opinion largely responsible for the profit chasing mindset which has introduced itself amongst the ungoverned internet and to many shabby unattractive antique centres. TV programmes, save a very small minority, have also conveyed a very unsophisticated vision of the trade to the public.This doesn't mean that the programmes are not entertaining in a similar manner to any other game show. From inside the business however we see the professional dealer being wrongly projected as a very eccentric individual wearing an array of 'wacky' attire, intent on making a 'profit' on a piece he knows little or nothing about. The participants care little as they are only thinking of the buzz they are going to get from appearing on TV and selling at an auction to another unfortunate equally keen to put his or her face on TV. The buyer is depicted as a person only interested in the pursuit of the bargain. The seller is seen as an individual keen to sell an heirloom cherished and carefully handed down through the generations.
This is a poor reflection of a business full of people who really appreciate pieces for their beauty, history and skill of manufacture rather than just monetary value. A serious living is being made by professional long established dealers who understand what they were buying, selling to clients who can buy with confidence. TV has not credited this side of the business sufficiently and has done much to confuse the public's perception of the real antiques trade.
The Market Today.
The old establishment has now much reduced... where have all those antique shops gone? High rents and business rates together with fuel costs drove many out of business. Many decamped to antique centres and some to internet web sites in both cases loosing face to face contact with their customers!
A further phenomenon has also arrived... the auction house that has become a retail outlet. In the past the auction house was where items were taken and sold at wholesale rates to realise cash for the vendor. Quick 'on the day' liquidation for cash. For this service the auction house assisted the seller and charged a sellers premium. This situation has changed, as the internet has now enabled the auction house to reach the dealers world wide and home customers. Under the old established public vision of the auction ie being the cheapest (wholesale) place to buy,prospective purchasers now watch pieces being sold for mind blowing prices to unknown entities in exotic places. This was once the sole domain of specialist London auction houses who had a world wide clientelle and had often produced detailed well publicised catalogues. Now even the smallest country auction is internet connected and can offer its sale listing to the world. Auction houses also now charge buyers premiums added to the purchase price. This together with the sellers premium takes the profit margin that the old style dealer might have taken when dealing direct with his client.
The change in auction house position in the market has altered the general profile of the auction house buyer. Many of the long established true dealers have been replaced by distance buyers and a new type of buyer.....the part timer who wants to be an antique dealer. Believing that auction house descriptions are his source of knowledge, backed up by his iphone searches, seeing the prices other people are realizing in what he perceives is the retail market out in 'internet land', 'antique centre world' or worse..'auction sales result zone'.
These individuals have appeared (and one can't blame them) due to low interest rates and the release of pension fund monies often not enough to purchase a property but sufficient to trade in 'anything there is a profit in'.The idea is to produce a greater return than the low rates offered by the banks for deposits today. The apparent ease of trading like this has been revealed by TV game shows and indeed appears to work well until the garage fills up with unsaleable items which are then returned to the auction for the cycle to rotate again....offloaded onto another hopeful keen to make a 'profit'.
The internet has laid open the sale of everything including antiques. It has made it almost too easy for anyone to sell anything. Key in 'antique chest of drawers' to the net and see how many and the range which comes up. The array surely must be baffling and off putting to the serious buyer. Sellers also are led to believe that there is a never ending supply of 'experts' willing to provide their valuation services free of charge. The internet cannot replace the reference book or the Millers Guide which in the past served to assist and explain the reasons for price disparity.
The Future ?
We believe that the internet is now 'full up'...too many images too many wild prices too many over enthusiastic titles. How can the novice make head or tail of a quick Ebay search and the narratives unless they are buying 'the cheapest they can find'. Time precious buyers must surely be put off by the volume and the sheer boredom of searching the net fruitlessly, let alone by the sometimes misleading colour tinted laundered photographs. This cannot be the way forward pushed at us by the pundits. The unprofessional world spoon fed to us by the TV so called experts is not the true world of antiques. It is skewed in the favour of the auction house and has contorted the market as if it were right to buy retail and sell wholesale. What does the interested party make of the world of antiques given the low quality of reference available today.
Today's speed of communication has also made fashion changes faster than ever. People can see how others furnish their homes thus prompting ideas of their own. Trends are being set by TV programmes and home owners follow them.
For some time now there has been a demand for the decorative look, the industrial , retro and architectural, French painted furniture and the wacky! In their true form these pieces are very hard to find and thus this has provided a market for lookalike and reproduction items. The search for these pieces goes on all over Europe. The English going abroad and many French vendors coming here to sell due a depressed home market and the strong pound.
Given the current world of hype, rapid changes in taste, seller ignorance, quick profits and misleading descriptions, how does anyone have a chance of buying a proper antique today without doing it the old way ?
The existence of all of the above makes the process of buying something old that one likes a much more complicated and difficult process than it should be. The simplistic market which existed in an unchanged form for generations has changed dramatically with many factors in play.
As a result we believe people are returning to touch and feel what they buy.... going back to reality, talking face to face with the seller and learning about their purchase. There are good shops to be found particularly those registered with LAPADA who set high ethical standards designed to instil buyer security and confidence. Some sellers now take great pride in superb presentation with wonderful shop displays to entice the prospective purchaser inside. A big change from the dark Dickensian uninviting cluttered shops of the old days which suggested under the dust a bargain could be found !
So for the future, we hope that the current cycle of TV programmes is winding down and will be replaced by ones with more informative enlightened content less focussed on monetary gain. The presentation of pieces for sale in the retail sector is definitely improving and that is helping buyers to see how well items would look in their own homes. Pieces are being presented clean and ready for use rather than in a shabby and uncared for state. Antiques are being mixed with retro and modern to good effect. The merits of good colour and grain in timber is being stressed to counter the wrongly attributed description of 'brown ' Good shape, design and construction should also be pointed out wherever possible when making comparisons with new furniture. Hopefully the internet will develop to enable searching to be more selective. Antiques do not all have attributable names and fall under generalistic categories like 'Regency' causing them to fall into a mass with the rest. Names like 'Howard' and 'Archibald knox' allow easy searching and thus have risen in price accordingly.The net however is a very useful marketing tool for making first contact with prospective purchasers. Hopefully overseas demand will return over time but in the short term the strength of the pound is a barrier to this. The position of the auction house will be an interesting area to observe. Will the internet reduce attendance in the rooms on sale day to zero ? Will it do away with the necessity to hold physical goods for sale at all. How will auction fees develop ? All questions the future can only answer.
Overall purchasing should be a happy experience resulting in confidently owning something which is loved, admired and stays in the home.
The good news is that there are still professionals out there who have survived the ravages of the past 25 years. If you are reading this you have found one. We consider we have our finger on the pulse. We buy pieces that are in fashion, traditional and vintage. Pieces that compliment the modern setting. They are always things that we like, never just because ' there's a profit in it' We do understand what's going on in our environment and those of our buyers. We offer straight forward value for money and our knowledge built up over the years to our customers. We do not have a shop and we are not on hosted web sites. We want to keep our costs low and our prices keen. Use our own web site as a shop window to see the pieces we currently have for sale. Our sold archive is a good indicator of how fashions are changing over time.
Antiques have never been as 'buyable' than as of today. Many of the materials they are made from are not available today. The time cost involved in fashioning them is too expensive to undertake now. Remember new is not green, antiques are. Take advantage....we will help with advice you won't regret it.
Chris Randle The Antique Partnership