An antiques dealer spends as much time searching for stuff to sell as they do actually selling. The skill is in acquiring desirable merchandise. Some merchandise is immediately salable. Some of it needs a little work. Well, maybe a lot of work. For twenty five bucks you get a walnut buffet at the local low rent auction house. The six 1/4 inch holes drilled randomly on the front of an otherwise attractive example of reproduction Sheraton furniture seriously detracts from it’s value. You’d be surprised what you can do with some shellac sticks and a melting iron. A little work can lead to the satisfaction of a sale.
Some items are beyond help. They take root in your stand at the antiques mall and defy all efforts to shift them. When I first started in business I was very impressed at the auction prices brought by blanket chests. I managed to find three nice ones. One of them was shellacked the others were grain painted. Both were old with good original finish and patina. They were not exceptional, especially in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country but they were genuine items in acceptable condition. I had three and sold two. The third one which was the one I personally liked the best became a fixture in my stand for three years. I eventually marked it down 50% and it still didn’t sell. The chest became a gift to my mother who was the only one other than myself who seemed to love it.
Our buying choices often come from the desire to have the latest hottest item. When Martha Stewart talked about her Fiesta Ware on television the value of the stuff went through the roof. Before that it was considered dead common and dealers didn’t give it much of a look. Some people bought it up as parts of box lots and stuffed it away in barns or garages. When I got into my first antique mall I was probably the only one who didn’t have a shelf full of the brightly covered stuff. I never did see much of it get sold. The trend had already peaked and I suspect much of the inventory is back in the barns.
Timing is everything. It takes a listening ear and good instincts tempered by experience, which takes time, which is everything. See the circle here? There are no college degrees in antique marketing, that I know of. As time goes on you learn that a good solid niche market with customers who are interested in long term collecting is worth far more than a ride on the popularity roller coaster. Just ask the sellers of Beanie Babies who missed the window of opportunity on that one.
A Costly Business
Capitalism 101: A price that is more than the traffic will bear is bound to put the brake on sales. Do I really need to belabor this one? Sell it for more than you paid for it but slightly less than what the other guy is charging. Competition is good for the soul.
What trips your personal trigger
Probably your interest in some particular thing is at the root of your going into this business. For me it was furniture. As a life-long woodworker and student of the history of design I felt that restoring quality antique furniture would be an interesting way to make a living. That was where I started in antiques. It was hard to drum up work in the beginning and as I was spending a lot of time at auctions anyway I accumulated a pile of stuff that was interesting to me and looked like a fair bit of inventory for an antique mall stand with eBay on the side. before long I was selling on eBay with the mall and furniture restoration on the side.
The greatest discovery I made was that the business was an outlet for my own interests flavored by my own tastes. Some of my interests were aviation, sailing, militaria, books, prints and engravings, tools and scientific instruments. Before starting the business I was barely aware of some of the sub categories like Victorian trade cards or Tobacco cards. These subjects called out to me as I encountered them in shops, flea markets and estate sales. I bought a little at first and found they sold well. So I took the cue and bought a lot. If that sounds like it isn’t rocket science it’s because it’s not.
At the same time I was looking at what others in the market where selling and trying to emulate their success. Sometimes this worked out but at other times it didn’t. Usually it didn’t work when I was trying to sell purely on the “copying success” formula with things that I didn’t give a rat’s hind end about. I tried selling glass but I had no love for it and hated cleaning it and worrying over breakage. It made little sense for me to bother with it. My girl friend loved the stuff and she took over that end of the business in my antique mall stands. She did much better with it and enjoyed the profits.
I guess there is a type of dealer who can simply play the antiques game in a coldly analytical fashion like playing the stock market in tune to a clever algorithm. That’s not me and it’s not most of the dealers I’ve known. As you ramble about in search of movable goods if you don’t have a passion for an item don’t waste your time on it. Love the things you sell as much as the things you collect for yourself. Send them away to good loving homes long before the roots begin to grow.