People are still wondering what happened to the antiques business. Until recently, the trade was a stable and enduring fixture of American culture and commerce. It seemed to only grow stronger with every passing year. But it has indeed fallen on hard times. Explanations for its decline will vary but few will deny, looking back on it all, that the business had experienced something of a bubble in recent years. And bubbles usually burst.
It is the bubble itself rather than the bursting that concerns us here. How did it come about? An explanation requires a closer look at a business that, despite its longevity, is not widely understood by those who have not been part of it. The literature on the workings of the trade is not extensive and what exists is only useful up to a point. Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire (New York: Pantheon, 1994) provides an informative and entertaining account of the practices of a few players but concentrates, for the most part, on the upper end of the trade. Briann G. Greenfield’s Out of the Attic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) offers sound history but again looks mostly at prominent dealers. Although the most visible and prestigious segment of the antiques phenomenon, the relatively small high end rests on a much larger–and once vast–substructure of lesser dealers. This substructure, it turns out, was essential to the growth of the bubble.
Many people know that the antiques business is unlike most others in one important way: dealers compete with customers for goods. Unlike conventional retail operations, which buy their stock from jobbers or manufacturers, antique dealers must find all of their stock on one or another of the secondary markets, whether other dealers, collectors, previous customers, auction houses, or whatever. Most of these sources are also accessible to potential customers. Another difference less well known, perhaps, is that antiques dealers can be divided into two groups, uneven in size. With all due apologies for any connotations the terms may carry and for egregiously over-simplifying a complex demography, we might call these professionals and amateurs. Or perhaps full-timers and part-timers would be more accurate. Most of the dealers at the high end are full-time professionals. By that I mean not merely that they know their trade thoroughly but also that they derive much of their income from the business. Professionals may have come up from the ranks, starting out as pickers or flea marketers. Or they may have been born to the trade, following in the footsteps of parents or even grandparents and, not incidentally, sometimes inheriting substantial stock. Some escaped from the world of museums. A few entered the business at the top, armed with a large bankroll. Not all of those have done well but that is a different story.
Amateur or part-time dealers have certain advantages over many of the professionals, however. The most significant is that they don’t really have to make money in the business. Profit is welcome, even desirable, but not essential. That is because most amateur or part-time dealers have other sources of income. Some hold day jobs and buy and sell on weekends. Others are in partnership with someone who has a steady job and benefits. Some are retirees who get by on Social Security and pensions. And there are many other variations on this basic scheme. The point is that income from buying and selling is supplemental rather than essential. Although hard to know for certain and at least partly a matter of definition, it is my impression that part-time dealers far outnumber the full-timers.
Another important difference between professionals and amateurs is that the latter are often also collectors. Professionals, with an eye on both profit and reputation, typically buy the best goods they can–and then sell them. Their own houses are often furnished with the goods they can’t sell. Everyone in the trade makes mistakes now and then; some dealers end up living with them. On the other hand, and although by no means universally true, a fair percentage of amateur dealers approach their participation in the trade with different objectives. For them, the business provides access to goods they would like to collect or furnish with. Rather than extracting profit for living expenses, which they don’t need to do, they plow profits back into more stock. And they may be inclined to keep the best for themselves, at least for a while.
So consider the following scenario. A couple with sufficient means recognizes that they like antiques and would like to acquire more. They decide to go into the business, providing initial funding from their own checkbooks. They pay themselves no salary and willingly spend long hours driving to shops or attending auctions. In the 1980s and 1990s they find that it is astonishingly easy to buy in one place for X and sell in another for X plus 20 percent. Or 30 percent. Or sometimes much, much more. The money rolls in and they buy better and better goods. And the interiors of their houses become much more interesting. After all, they buy a lot of stock over the years and one has to store things somewhere.
Being a dealer has its advantages. For one thing, dealers are entitled to a tax number, which means they don’t have to pay state tax on purchases intended for resale. That cuts the purchase cost of goods. Furthermore, the trade typically grants other members of the trade deeper discounts than it offers to retail buyers. For another, dealers have privileged access to goods at antique shows. It is general knowledge that any real bargains at a show are snatched up by other dealers before the show opens to the public. Some dealers sign up for large shows precisely because they expect to buy well. Selling at any given show is not essential, since goods bought well at one show can usually be profitably sold at another. At least that used to be the case.
The percentage of transactions at a given antique show involving the trade selling to the trade surely varied. It was not unusual, however, to hear dealers comment at the end of a show that nearly every one of their buyers had a tax number. In other words, almost everyone had become a dealer. But in the flurry of buying and selling and the resulting ever rising prices, few noticed that retail buyers had slipped away, driven away perhaps by what amounted to runaway inflation in the antiques market. The antiques business, augmented and energized by hoards of amateur or part-time dealers, had become a self-perpetuating machine, fueled from within rather than from without. At least that is one plausible explanation of what happened. And then the whole thing stalled.
It may not be fair to attribute the antiques bubble wholly to the participation of amateur, part-time, or hobby dealers. It would be even less fair to assume that many of the players were aware that they were creating or sustaining a bubble. For all, it seemed to be the best of times and conditions were propitious in the extreme. What those conditions were, however, is another story for another time.
Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.