The high end of the decorative arts market has been experiencing its first major contraction in modern times.  If you don’t think so then your head must be stuck in sand; check out the impressive catalogues of dealers Dandois (mostly Sotheby’s) and Steinitz (Christie’s) that are going under the duopoly’s hammer.  Those are just two important dealers doing a form of liquidating or shedding inventory, this fall.  However it seems that this trend has been picking up steam year over year as dealers shrink from the market.


This contraction was initiated after the 9/11 catastrophe.  It was a time when antiques shows were disrupted or cancelled and dealers (both US and foreign) were heavily stocked with inventory.  Times had been robust and traditional styles were in vogue, and there were plenty of buyers for both dealers and auctioneers.


However the seminal event that has caused such dealer disruption to the high end furniture market is the dominating demand for decorative arts post 1930 through the present.  I’ve seen such desperate attempts by so many high end dealers to have this period of item newly represented in their inventory.  It seems a little bit too late because the only area of growth is for those who established themselves in the field.  But even those who got in on the trend are not impervious to the overhead of space and maintenance necessary with carrying an inventory of furniture, lighting, etc.  No one knows that better than Sotheby’s with their $5,000.00 minimum accepted consignment level.  


I doubt very much if any large dealer would have liquidated if the conditions in the industry were like they were in, say 1956, or 1975, or even 1998.  That’s not how it happened, and yet back then, in 1970, there were maybe two to three times more dealers in the high end part of the business.  Back then the 20th century chunk of the industry was just a blip on the chart. Merchandise was plentiful; you didn’t have to break a sweat to fill and 40’ container with choice items.  Dealer problems go further than just trend changes.  The costs of maintaining a street location or a booth in the international antiques show circuit are both expensive and challenging. Also, the existing methods used by auctioneers (sham bidding with secret reserves and the non-negotiable buyer’s premium) have given them an insurmountable advantage.


What is happening is a contraction by default.  Dealers with high end decorative arts can’t combine because the overhead of space and operations is still growing, and to aggressively buy inventory is out of the question.  Full or partial liquidations are now underway with auctioneers requiring “no reserve” on many items.  Now really, are they now representing the seller?  Would they be doing that if the inventory came from the estate of the Honorable bla bla bla?  


Dealers can hope for a revival of the traditional decorative fields but that will probably be too late.  There isn’t a sign of any life blood in the trade; there are no young or financially backed dealers going into these markets to replace those that have gone.  The marketplace can be a cruel as well as advantageous place. The ongoing process of whom and how those that survive (dealers, shows, auctioneer) will continue to evolve.

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