The antiques trade has seen a vast change in how dealers procure and turnover inventory. Today, you don’t have large numbers of American dealers and decorators annually making multiple grand buying trips to Europe, or for that matter Europeans with their overvalued Euro doing that here. You do see dealers getting older with little new blood coming into the industry, sources to buy are more competitive, and a very segmented market subjected to evolving styles and price points.
The dealer trade has retreated to the show format and for all practical purposes is abandoning the independent showroom/warehouse location. As a kid I remember Pine Street in Philadelphia as a bustling antiques dealer row with a great mix of local and worldwide decorative arts to buy. Even the famed New York City “University Place” market now caters more to the carriage trade than the dealer trade.
Paris and London aren’t what they use to be either. And with the incredible expense of travel and cost of inventory, there is a tremendous pressure on profitability. I remember when I turned 13, my grandparents, who founded Newel, took me on a summer buying trip through Europe. They took all their grandchildren on the trip when they both were alive. I still have home movies of us in the Paris flea markets and the English countryside, circa 1963. Incredible merchandise was all over the place, and it was being bought not only by my grandfather, but anyone who wanted it. Auctions, who needed them when the dealers had all the goods and they wanted to sell.
But I must confess I also have a very jaded perspective of the whole state of the market. My grandfather was quite different than the other dealers because he rented his items to TV (a new industry), window displays, and of course Broadway and the movies. He also knew that no one else understood how to do it. As a little tid-bit about “those days”, he us to to put a sign in the front window: “closed-taking inventory” to deter buyers, as he was too busy with the massive demand for renting his period pieces.
But just as people used his inventory for display or to create period settings, so now the antiques trade has evolved showing their stock in some upscale, haughty, antiques show in an opulent hall, in an ever changing city venue. The show must go on the road; New York, London, Palm Beach, Masstricht, Miami, LA, Basel, Moscow, Dubai…..on the SeaFair yacht. Dealers have lost any confidence in their own self survival and now depend totally on the show format. The show format extends to every level of dealer, as recognized by the many listed each week in the Arts and Antiques Weekly in the US, or the Antiques Trade Gazette in England.
With the reality that dealers are now dependent on the show format, it has caused a blandness and commonality as to how they can be creative and dynamic. Dealers, restricted by show promoter rules on space, vetting, and fees, have no alternative. Maybe not; liquidation at auction has recently proved to be a most efficient way to eliminate all dealer business problems.