While being essentially classified as a small business, I feel that antiques dealers today are very preoccupied with the daily responsibilities of managing the multiple needs of their operation to survive. However, these issues vary from dealer to dealer based on their size, method(s) of selling, and location. But the overriding issue for dealers to not only survive, but grow, is to know about the area of the marketplace you want to compete in.
Knowing the size and scope of the market, the market players (auctioneers, dealers, collectors, interior designers), and financial risks of inventory investment vary with each segment of the decorative and fine arts. That is the key challenge for dealers today. Being in a market with a shrinking client base or the latest “in” style can make a big difference in success or failure. As anyone in the decorative arts market will attest, tastes and money are very fungible. English evolves to Art Deco; wealthy Japanese are supplanted by Russians; the dollar goes from 1 to 2 pounds sterling.
There are, however some elements which do enhance and create a better chance to survive and grow as a dealer. Chief amount these is the reputation of the dealer for integrity. Integrity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right all the time, but does allow for honest misjudgments and the ability to acknowledge them. While scholarship and knowledge are always considered a critical advantage, success can’t be measured by these alone anymore. The intangibles of relationship building and other innovative ways to connect with clients offer the real opportunities for growth. An intimidating attitude doesn’t work anymore.
While relationship building is one area that dealers have a decided advantage over auctioneers, this really is nothing new. This challenge has always been present, but today the opportunity to connect with a client is the last, best hope for dealer survival. Dealers don’t have the advertising and PR machine funding that auctioneers like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have at their disposal to generate interest in their sales. The antiques show format has had its success, but it seems like this method of generating customers is getting tired and predictable.
The goal of connecting a customer to a dealer’s inventory will rely on creatively using the many media formats and marketing tools that are available to all retailers and small businesses. It could be the internet, or it could be a newspaper ad; it could be a public speaking engagement on a topic of your expertise or cold calls from a list of perspective clients from some market research. The competition within each market segment of the decorative arts will require a dealer to have a more effective understanding of just what makes that market move and being part of that process can lead to success.