There is no better way to understand the state of being a decorative arts dealer than going out and visiting their shops.  Each one is an island unto itself, with the proprietor and his staff (hopefully) available to show the inventory and (hopefully) engage in a conversation about “the trade”.   However as an industry, they should be speaking with one voice that can clearly articulated and implement a fresh image and promote more business.  Sales + marketing = public perceived success.  Throw in an effective lobbyist, and maybe things would happen.

What got me to thinking about this dealer dilemma was an article on MSNBC about the influence of American Girl products and “lifestyle”. They present a product to young, stylish, disposable income mothers which fulfill their daughter’s high expectations.  The doll house look of period furniture styles (American, French, 20th Cent) would appear to be a traditional element of American Girl.  It’s also a way to change perceptions of the decorative arts for young and old alike. For art and antiques dealer it’s a leap of faith and not something they would orchestrate. Maybe a lobbyist could open up possibilities to engage the public and promote better competition and financial incentives.

The changes necessary for dealers to not only survive but prosper are very self evident in today’s state of business.  Decorative arts dealers aren’t having the success that a Christie’s or Sotheby’s has experienced.  However, middle tier of auctions are doing fine too.  With the great divide between fine and decorative art, and the many sub-categories of each, only the auctions format has been able to operate in multiple areas.  This very specific defect is why every dealer will be limited in how it can grow. There is no dealer representative organization that can effectively coordinate the needs or aspirations of such a diverse industry.

The critical need to articulate what dealers do and how they can accommodate a public demand can’t come from any one dealer.  The need for professional, outside industry direction, is the only way a coherent vision can be developed and promoted.   Pushing for basic changes in laws preventing retirement investment in art and antiques can only be put forward this way.  What better incentive for a long term investment of buying and holding than works of art?

Also troubling is dealer’s dependence of either presenting at a show or having a lifeline with 1stDibs on the internet.  Both are very limited and generic, but an opportunity might happen.  Either way, you can’t expect the public to change their perception of the dealers who participate in these venues.  If anything they are tied together and almost become transparent, unless you are looking at their inventory and something catches your eye.  Then, a client is engaged.  Engaging someone into this field should be easier than selling cars, which do have powerful trade organizations at their disposal. We too represent a life style, taste, and luxury.  

In this business I truly believe “all ships rise in a high tide”.   Dealers who don’t think and move forward will invariably not survive; it is a systemic industry problem.  The auction format has succeeded, abet with gross conflicts of interest, deception, and fraud. Basically, the success of the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly method is investment bankers gone wild.  All auctioneers feast in this unregulated landscape.  

They have managed to squeeze dealers into lone, fragmented entities that do not present any challenge to their well being.  Don’t expect me, as a dealer to ever forget how they decimated the industry and stunted its future.  Unfortunately, it’s the dealers who are asleep at the wheel and are paralyzed about how to react. Any creative individual or group action would help reverse this trend.

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