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A Complete History of the Antiques Trade, Abridged

The Complete History of The Antiques Trade, Abridged – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2006
By Ed Welch
I have seen many changes in the 40 years that I have been an antique dealer. I was in the antique trade before trade papers, before antique magazines, before the group shop, before antique price guides, before the auction service went retail, and before antique shows were common. Each of these changes made winners and made losers.
Any serious discussion of the American antique trade must make a distinction between the antique trade before 1972 and the antique trade since 1972. In that year, a worldwide event happened that changed forever the nature of the American antique trade.
Before 1972, the American antique trade was a regional trade. A dealer in New York would throw away things popular in Maine. Likewise, items popular in Pennsylvania might sit forever unsold in an antique shop in Florida. Because of this regional nature, dealers willing to travel long distances could make a small fortune by buying antiques where they were not wanted and hauling these items to an area of the country where they were in demand.
A good example is turn-of-the-century oak furniture. Before 1972, the hot market for turn-of-the-century oak in America was in Colorado, Texas, and California. During this period, truckers came to New England with 40-foot tractor-trailers and literally loaded up with turn-of-the-century oak furniture. Dealers had no other market for oak furniture except the long distance haulers. An oak commode was worth $12, an oak bureau $35, and a large raised panel oak desk sold for about $150.
During the period just before 1972, many of today’s antique trade papers and magazines were founded. Antique price guides books were being introduced. The first group shop in Maine opened in the fall of that year, and organized antique shows were beginning to replace outdoor flea markets as a vehicle for the sale of more expensive collectibles and antiques. The events of 1972 propelled shows, group shops, and trade publications to an early success.
In 1972, Americans experienced the first Arab Oil Embargo. For the entire summer of that year American transportation stood still. Gasoline station owners had no gas to sell and when they did, they rationed it to $3 per customer. Antique dealers throughout New England who had depended on the haulers from the west suffered financially that year. Many went out of business.
In desperation, dealers who had always sold “wholesale” opened their businesses to the public. Some started to display in group shops. Some sold their goods in roadside flea markets. Others turned to one of the newly created antique shows.
When the Arab Oil Embargo was over, the price of gasoline did not fall back to its pre-embargo low. It remained three or four times the amount it had been before the embargo. The high price of gasoline shocked Americans, keeping many from traveling. From 1972 to 1982, the profitability of operating a group shop or running an antique show increased tremendously. As the word spread, hundreds of promoters started new group shops and began new antique shows. The growth of group shops and shows created a new type of antique dealer. Part- time, hobbyist, and weekend dealers flourished because shows and group shops provided selling opportunities that required only a small investment of time. It was no longer necessary to run a shop or spend hours selling antiques. A person could buy antiques at night and on the weekends and sell through a group shop or at a show.
Many collectors and antique enthusiasts became part-time and hobbyist dealers. The decade of the ‘70s saw the number of people who call themselves antique dealers explode. This large number of people helped support the price guide business, the trade papers business, the show business, and the group shop business. One fed upon the other.
Post 1972 dealers are different from their predecessors. Post-1972 dealers are more numerous. They rely on price guides and look to trade papers for information about antiques, collectibles, shows, group shops, and advice on buying and selling. Post-1972 dealers tend to specialize. Few have the desire to buy entire estates. If they buy from a home, they want the few good pieces, not the responsibility of selling everything normally found in an estate.
Most post-1972 dealers do not depend on the buying and selling of antiques to make a living. They do not use money made in the trade to pay for everyday living expenses.
Let’s look at the winners and the losers of the 1972 Arab Oil Embargo. Without question, long distance haulers were losers. It was no longer possible for a hauler to travel long distances and buy things for ten cents on the dollar in one region of the country and sell that item for a large profit somewhere else. Group shop owners became winners as new dealers needed a place to display. Antique show promoters became winners for the same reason. Trade papers, trade magazines, and price guides publishers became big winners as new dealers demanded more information.
Established antique dealers became losers, as the information they had spent years acquiring was now available to anyone willing to read a trade paper or purchase a book. Price guides and books made instant experts.
Collectors became losers and winners at the same time. The increasing number of antique dealers meant more competition at auctions for a limited supply of merchandise. This competition drove the price of antiques to unbelievable highs. Many collectors were priced out of the market. Other collectors, with large collections, made a fortune by selling at the new high price.
Full time dealers became losers at auctions. Many post-1972 dealers are hobbyist and collector/dealers. As such, they do not depend on money earned in the trade to pay daily living expenses. They can and do pay more for an antique, sit on unsold items longer, and sell for less profit.
The biggest winners of the 1972 Arab Oil Embargo were auction houses. Before 1972, auction houses for all practical purposes sold wholesale to dealers. After 1972, the growing number of antique dealers placed increasing demands on auction houses to supply merchandise. Auction houses, to meet the new demand, looked for ways to lower their cost to consignors. They achieved this by shifting half the consignment costs to the buyer as a 10 percent buyer’s premium, thus raising the price of antiques. In addition, competition between the new dealers drove up the price of antiques. To make matters worse, auction houses began catering to retail buyers and collectors rather than to dealers. They changed their advertising to target the retail buyer. Dealers were still welcome at an auction but now they had to bid against their very own customers.
Trade papers and price guides books educated dealers nationwide about the value of a given antique in different parts of the country. In the early ‘60s, a Maine dealer had no way of knowing that the oak commode he sold for $12 resold for $150 in Texas. Antique publications de-regionalized the antique trade. Tourist and traveling dealers became losers as prices stabilized throughout America.
Maintaining a viable antiques business in an ever-changing marketplace is no easy matter. A dealer can do very little about a worldwide event like the Arab Oil Embargo. A dealer has no control whatsoever when an auction company adds a 10 percent premium. A dealer has no control over the number of people who become antique dealers and, therefore, competition when buying. Nevertheless, a dealer can do many things to gain a competitive edge.
A dealer can buy books, magazines, and subscribe to trade papers. A dealer can visit shows and shops to see first hand the quality of the antiques that are for sale and the price of these antiques. A dealer can study regional economic trends. The fastest growing segment of the American economy right now is in the South. The states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia are booming with business. Dealers who are free to travel can look to this area of the country for selling opportunities.
Dealers who carry items that can be easily shipped through the mail can establish a mail-order business in these prosperous states by advertising in trade papers that serve this area of the country.
Dealers who must stay close to home can look for an item not carried by all other dealers. Do you want to be fiftieth person in a row to have cottage pine furniture in your booth at a show? Alternatively, do you want to be the only dealer at the show with designer furniture?
Many dealers carve a niche for themselves with a single item. They specialize in one type of glass, china, pottery, or paper. They become experts in the item and usually have it at a lower price.
The next major change in the antique business is taking place now and will continue for years. The antique trade is expanding worldwide via the internet. As the internet becomes more prevalent in the antique trade, the process will create winners and losers Buying a computer and going on the internet will make winners out of many antique dealers. The internet is doing to the worldwide antique market what trade papers did for the American antique marketplace, de-regionalizing the selling price.
Many American antique and collectible items sell for ten to twenty times the standard U.S. price in Japan, Sweden, Italy, Germany, England, and Canada. Twenty years ago, Canadian cupboards were worth more in America than in Canada. Today, the price for a quality Canadian cupboard is three to five times greater in Canada. Canadian dealers are now coming to the States to buy back their cupboards. If you are an antique dealer and have in stock Canadian cupboards, advertising these cupboards in trade papers and on the internet will bring Canadian buyers to your shop.
Cowboy and Western collectibles are worth their weight in gold in Japan and in Germany. An inexpensive ad on the internet can open these markets to a rural New England dealer. A Charles Eames chair sells for $350 in Sweden. The same chair sells for $125 in Brimfield. Dealers who figure out how to get the $125 Brimfield chair to Sweden and the Cowboy and Western collectable to Japan and Germany will make money.
Besides the overseas market, there is a large and fast growing domestic market being created by antique dealers who use the internet. Tens of thousands of purchases and sales take place on the internet daily. If you do not own a computer, you are not invited to this party.
The Arab Oil Embargo of 1972 changed the nature of the American antique trade. The internet is changing today’s antique trade. The antique trade of tomorrow will require the use of a computer and an internet connection.

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