Part Two: Common Pitfalls of Antique Dealers
Dirt is Not an Element of Provenance
One of the most common mistakes of budding and amateur antique dealers is offering a wide selection of items that are covered in dirt. Perhaps sellers think this adds a certain charm to their inventory or, as I suspect is more likely the case, they believe that a healthy coating of grime and dust is an indication of age and authenticity. Whatever the reasoning may be there is very little excuse for this and it can drive away paying customers in droves. It may come as a surprise to many, but most people do not like rummaging through dirty things. I usually will not return a second time to an antique mall where a visit to every stall requires two visits to the bathroom to wash my hands simply because I wanted to see the price of something.
You often hear antique experts talk about patina, that lovely color and glow an object acquires from years of exposure to the various daily conditions that everything in existence is subject to. Dust and dirt is not patina. It’s just dust and dirt. No one wants to look down after a half an hour in your shop and see that their fingers are black from having picked up a few things to have a look at them. A light dusting with a clean dry cloth goes a long way to ensuring you don’t look like an amateur or a lazy dealer.
Scotch Tape is Not Your Friend
This past weekend I visited one of the South’s most famous antique centers. It’s been around for decades and attracts antique hunters from around the country. In one of the booths I came across a lovely piece of 19th-century Bohemian glass. I picked it up and turned it over and to my horror saw that the dealer had plastered an enormous paper label covered in clear tape right over top of the hand-gilded signature and maker’s mark! The tape was firmly stuck right over top of the gilding, which means that even the most careful soul would no doubt end up lifting it right off the glass in attempting to remove the tape. Now this in and of itself would have been irritating but to add insult to injury the dealer was asking top dollar for everything in the booth. If you want to succeed in business without really trying you need only follow the age old rule: presentation is everything. A simple bi-folded card sitting next to the piece would have sufficed.
There is never a reason to put tape, or any adhesive for that matter, on a collectible. I collect, and deal frequently in, photographic images. My heart has been broken over the years by dealers who have actually put a sticker directly onto a cabinet card or stereoview. I even encountered a seller once who pasted the price on the FRONT of a photograph! An antique dealer should know their trade. If you own your own shop and work in it day in and day out there isn’t a reason in the world why you shouldn’t know how much you’re asking for an item if for some reason the price label has gotten separated from the object. If your inventory is going to be placed in a mall where you won’t be present on a daily basis, simply write up an inventory sheet with a brief description and a price for each item and leave it where the sales team can find it. There are a million ways to creatively label your inventory without resorting to putting tape and stickers on antiques and collectibles that could get damaged when the buyer tries to remove them.
Always remember, you’re dealing in history. Collectors want to know that you respect the objects that you’re selling and that they’re purchasing something that is in the best condition possible. Nothing turns a collector off more than realizing that a thing has been damaged due to the carelessness of the dealer.
Know the Value of Your Inventory Before you Price Things
One of my biggest pet peeves in the antique world is pricing. This is an area of deep water where I believe so many people new to the trade sink themselves before they’ve even begun. You must remember that collectors are generally very savvy and sometimes know more about a particular thing than you do. Unlike most dealers, who tend to be generalists, most collectors focus on one or two things and typically know all there is to know about what they collect. They know what things are worth and know what they are willing spend and are accustomed to spending on any particular type of item.
If there is one thing that I absolutely can’t abide hearing from a dealer it’s, “Well this goes for [fill in the amount] on eBay.” Indeed? My first response to that particular piece of amateur nincompoopery is, “Did the item actually sell for that or is that just what someone listed it for?” There is a big difference between what someone asks for an item and what it will actually sell for. Most people don’t realize that when a valuation is done on something by a professional there are many factors that go into determining a price. Most appraisers look at years of historical auction records as a starting point to determining something’s value. Age, rarity, and condition are all then put into the formula. Simply going online and finding something on Google that looks like what you have is a recipe for disaster. eBay can be a valuable tool, I frequently use it myself to get a feel as to where a certain thing is being priced at and then, weighing everything I just mentioned, I come up with a price that makes sense to all parties involved. The result is I rarely have inventory that doesn’t move. I don’t insult my collectors by slapping a ridiculous price on something and I establish credibility by showing that I’ve researched what I’m selling.
There is a flip side to the overpricing coin and that, of course, is underpricing. This nefarious practice is particularly vexing to those of us who sell on platforms like eBay. When a seller lazily or, let’s be frank, foolishly lists something at less than half of its common value it often forces other sellers to bring down their prices to compete. This sort of thing ends up being a disservice to everyone including the collector. We all love a great bargain but collectors don’t want to see things they’ve paid a great deal of money for being given away for next to nothing, and over time if enough dealers try to undersell one another for the same item they can begin degrading the historical value of that object. Underpricing seems to fly in the face of all common sense but there are some very unskilled dealers out there who simply do not care about the long-term effects of undervaluing their stock and are more interested in turning a quick dollar.
Antiques require a great deal of research and acquired knowledge. If learning and research aren’t your cup of tea then perhaps you might want to find another line of business.