Antique dealing is always a friendly business, with endless opportunities to learn something new, great prospects and always that golden dream of hitting the jackpot. This month I will look at the structure of the antiques game, and give some advice on the smarter ways to set up.
Every city and most towns in the land, have established traders mostly making quite a decent living in the antiques business.
The Skills Required
In order to know what any given object is worth to a dealer, or a private collector, you need very good knowledge of that area, and the ability to check out the details before you buy.
Many dealers develop an “eye” for quality and sales appea, and buy all kinds of goods, thriving on variety. This can be a big disadvantage.
In my view, specializing always pays off in the long run. Firstly, you can get a reputation as an expert in just a few years, and secondly, you can “plug in” to your own little network of suppliers, dealers, collectors and speciality auctions. Thirdly, you will quickly learn where to go for research.
The largest sectors of the trade, deal in furniture, fine art (paintings and prints) and ceramics (pottery and porcelain). Competition is fierce, and you really must know your stuff if you want to avoid buying stock which nobody else wants, for some good but unobvious reason.
Other smaller sectors include the horologists (clocks and watches), silverware dealers, jewellers, glassware dealers and the sale of early weapons, armour or guns. In recent years, oriental carpets have had a great revival, and have joined the ranks of firmly established specialities.
Then there are the mini-specialities, all of them competitive areas in their own right: dolls and nursery furnishings; pipes and smokers’ requisites; old postcards and greetings cards; buttons; small wooden articles of every description, old mechanical items from musical boxes to balance scales; lace and early clothing. War items are also in great demand.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
The antique trade is run on very informal lines but it’s organized into armies, in which all the dealers are highly independent mercenaries. Here are some guidelines to help you use the system:
All dealers tend to hoard some of their best finds, but the dedicated collectors are compulsively hooked into a particular area. They usually work from home, buying their stocks by placing small ads in local papers, and attending house clearance sales, or auction rooms.
A collector/dealer will be very tight with his or her money, and know the precise value of anything they want to buy. If you get to know local characters and seriously want to sell items to them, you need to equip yourself with as many good sale room catalogues as possible, so you know the value of everything you sell to them.
Other dealers plan their year’s trading around the top-class antiques fairs and tradeshows. The more valuable their stock, the fewer sales they need to make in a year to make a good profit. Some run shops which only open one or two days a week.
Finding top-quality stock is very time-consuming, so they all depend to some extent on runners (see below).
o ANTIQUE SHOPS
In the larger towns there’s a large array of shop-based businesses. But remember, you’re talking about larger overheads, for the shop, heating, lighting, security, theft and fire insurance and an assistant to hold the fort while you’re away on buying expeditions.
For this reason I do not recommend you to rush into shop premises until you’ve had a few years’ thorough grounding, but it is an attractive option for future expansion.
o MARKET TRADERS
There are a great many indoor markets opening up, and can be very prestigious affairs indeed. Other mixed markets (indoor and outdoor stalls) may look very cheerful and picturesque, but the best dealers there, are equal to anyone in the country. Easier to set up, usually with a local licence.
Everyone in the antiques business is very careful about buying from strangers because of the sheer volume of stolen goods on the market.
When you’re buying you must be prepared to insist on a name, address, some form of identification and a signed declaration to the effect that the item is the seller’s property. If you want to sell to shops and stall-holders you must be prepared to give this information as a matter of course.
These are agents, who on behalf of shop owners, go out buying on their behalf. The knack of success is to buy stock at very competitive prices so that the dealers will give you a good profit buying at your “trade price”, and still make a good profit themselves.
One good way to start up is to combine dealing from home with “running”, but only if you’re prepared to be always out on the road hunting. Buying is definitely the hardest area of the antiques business, and the runners thrive on the challenge. They build up a small network of dealers and get to know their tastes intimately
The entire antiques trade relies crucially on skilled craftsmen and women to repair and restore items, either at public request, or to enhance the value of recently acquired stock. There are some very good businesses around based on picture restoration, clock or porcelain repair etc.
In the furniture trade alone there are polishers, veneerers, turners, joiners, rush and cane workers, and carvers.
WAYS TO START UP
You can set yourself up as a dealer working from home, and go on to be a runner for other dealers. So long as you’re careful to read up on the stocks you handle, and allow for all your travelling expenses, there’s a good living to be made. Always plough back your profits into better and larger stocks.
Restoration is another good way to acquire knowledge, and to cater for a strong market demand.
For the young it can be a good stepping-stone to becoming a successful specialist dealer.
For the over50s it will provide a good standard of living, but not a business you can sell off on retirement, except to people you’ve trained or other restorers with the same skills.
There is a third way, and that is to work as an assistant to an established dealer with a shop. You don’t get much pay, but you have great opportunities to learn the trade, and develop your own selling style with the customers.
Dealers won’t allow assistants to buy on their behalf, but you may have a chance to go alone to the auction rooms, to view items and report back, or you may be given research work to do in the local library.
After a period of time, you can normally arrange to sell some of your own stock in the shop, and build up your own sales until you are ready to go it alone.
At this stage, I have not talked about the auction houses online, but they can be another avenue, where you can start up small, and learn the trade, before moving onto bigger things.