It doesn’t take much for the public to mistrust antiques dealers. We see it in New York Times articles like Christopher Mason’s scathing account of the Hobbs brothers family feud over the veracity of what they were selling or walking the Haughton International Art & Antiques Show and rarely finding a dealer openly disclose descriptions and prices of the items they are selling.
Auctioneers don’t have a lock on deceptive practices. With secret reserves, sham bidding, and conflict of interests, they have taken the high road with the public’s acceptance of their methods. Dealers and their representative organizations are in a major state of self denial over their relationship with the buying public and the trust necessary to build confidence with the trade. Practically every luxury item, be it a car or a home has a publicly disclosed offering price; not a secret price or other barriers to a buyer. Information should be particularly available at a high end antiques show; why would you want to distance yourself from giving potential buyers as much information as possible. I, for one, wouldn’t think twice about disclosing my prices and what I think I have for sale. If my price is high, I’m not above hearing an offer; if I’m cheap (I never want to be known as cheap), take advantage.
Dealers need to understand that their fear of price comparison is not going away with the internet and public auction pricing results. Having the advantage of knowledge and items that differ in condition, provenance, and quality can help justify a price and value. This should be an advantage that the auctions can never have, but the fear of too much disclosure frightens many dealers. As a professional, I even sense the intimidation of feeling ignorant by asking a question, let alone the price. I’m sure the dealer is drooling with anticipation of a buyer when I innocuously ask a price, wearing a nice suit and tie.
The show format has the potential to connect with the buying public. But going up against the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly, with their political connections and PR power is no match for the floundering antiques dealer associations. In fact, I find the “more important” dealer organizations are primarily concerned about the exclusivity of their membership than the greater good of the industry. Their codes of conduct and statements of purpose do not engage the buying public. There is nothing in their approach that uses the power of their membership to foster any industry advancement or disclosure of auction practices that have created disadvantages for dealers and deception on the general public.
Antiques dealers and the organizations that represent them should have a voice that can respond to attacks on its honesty and reputation. However, that voice cannot have any bite unless the dealer’s own house is in order. Gaining the public’s trust requires bold initiatives that these organizations and its members are too timid and divided to attempt. Putting prices and descriptions on your merchandise seems like an easy place to start.