As bad as antiques dealers have fallen, so has the entire auction part of the trade. As I looked over at my group of upcoming Sotheby’s and Christie’s decorative arts sales catalogues, I had to pause at the thin volume and quality of inventory coming onto the market. I have three current (thin) catalogues from the Duopoly, and that includes Europe!
Well, maybe like many forms of market manipulation, these auctioneers’ methods are experiencing a bubble that is price sensitive. It also has been built on a policy to expand, which it has done by incorporating conflict of interest, double dealing, and deceptive bidding practices. The last time the auction business suffered its last great economic setback was due to speculation by the Japanese in the 1980’s. But the difference this time is that back then, the auctions, and in particular Sotheby’s, made comments to the effect that the decorative arts segment had maintained a consistent profitability. Not this time.
As I look at the slim pickings of goods on the auction market at the “top end”, the rest of that part of the trade is left with low priced, physically expensive inventory to maintain. There are rumors of any number of auctioneers who are in difficult times. As rumors of impending dealer’s leaving the trade abound, so do questions of which auctioneer is goings to shut down. One ex-auctioneer mentioned to me it’s too expensive to enter the auction business today, even with a 20% commission + 20% buyer’s premium. To obtain a 40% return and still not have any inventory equity seems either inefficient or is operating in a flawed manner. If a dealer could make 40% on a large volume basis, they too would be tempted to expand their successful methods.
For decorative arts dealers, this year took its toll on almost every category. The preponderance of dealers found that just staying alive was acceptable. I have to give it to Clinton Howell’s quotation on his lack of success in selling at the Winter Antiques Show. Honest and well, is it hopeless! You just can’t turn on people, especially young people to antiques. This is now a systemic problem and beyond the financial issue. Where’s the knowledge going?
Even with the Antiques Road Show success, I also enjoy watching the characters in the History Channel show, American Pickers. I would love to run around behind barns and in their rooftops. The people who the pickers visit are real and OK. That’s the magic of anyone who loves what they do and can share an experience. Perhaps that is my secret why I just flat out prefer the experience of talking to a dealer/seller and the place of the sale. As sterile as an antiques show can be, at least you hope to engage the dealers.
As I have always believed, all ships rise in a high tide; auctions and antiques dealers are riding the same wave. The money to invest into inventory is part of the problem. Having an educated public, anywhere near that of a generation ago and who understand more than just contemporary modern design, is the only option for a positive future in this industry.