Published: March 31, 2020
By Greg Smith
UNITED STATES – As if we thought it could not get worse, it has become an even more difficult time to be an antiques dealer, particularly one that relies on sales at antiques shows and events as a principal revenue stream. Until there is a major decline in Covid-19 cases, a vaccine or reliable treatment for the disease, the antiques shows and art fairs will not return to any semblance of their former selves. In an industry as this, where the major buyer demographic is older – and in this moment, at risk – what reasonable collector is going to put their life on the line to attend a show? And what promoter would bet their dollar to organize a show that will surely have a horrendous gate? And what savvy dealer, no matter their desperation for revenue, would bet their dollar that an event in the next few months would be successful?
The event industry has been decimated in the wake of this virus with dealers and promoters on the show circuit levied a significant loss because of it. All are looking out at the next six months wondering how that revenue will be made up.
In the midst of the crisis, it is difficult to make decisions for the future. But for retailers that don’t have a cushion to sit on for six months – and this represents a lot of folks in this industry, even if many are already low-overhead – decisions must be made, and whether it’s now or in a couple weeks depends on how long that retailer, each with their own unique cost structures, can survive without the sales.
“We have no playbook,” said Arthur Liverant of Nathan Liverant and Sons, Colchester, Conn. On Friday afternoon, Liverant was sitting in his closed shop cleaning the loft that had accumulated piles of this and that over decades, the same shop his father and grandfather bought in 1949. “My father didn’t leave me a playbook to run me through a pandemic, and antiques dealers are small businesspeople in general, we live by the seat of our pants. You learn to make decisions on the fly.
“For five days now, I have thrown stuff out, cleaned things, wiped them down. The loft is where we store things: our polishing cloths, silver polish, our everyday supplies. I think that’s what a lot of dealers are doing, biding their time so we can get back on the road and do what we do best – buy and sell. We’re circling, hoping that our checkbooks and the expenses will slow down and keep us in business. Whatever business it is – it doesn’t matter if it’s us or the Boston Red Sox – everybody has bills, the lights, heat and our employees, which are the most important to me, so I can keep paying their salaries and benefits. Because without them, we will be nothing. I rely on them.”
Pat Bell of Olde Hope Antiques, New York City and New Hope, Penn., was also sitting in his gallery on Friday afternoon when he talked to Antiques and The Arts Weekly. He put a closed sign on the door and a similar notice on his website, instructing any interested buyers to get in touch if they saw anything through the window or online that they liked.
Bell said, “The train has stopped in its tracks. We’ve been in business for 43 years, so we’ve seen cycles and major events like 9/11 and the 2008 downturn. I would more closely compare this to 9/11 because it shellshocked the nation. It took all of our minds off our daily activities and interests and focused us squarely on what was happening around us. It wound up being 30 days without a single phone call or email to our business. To our current medical crisis, you need to add a massive downturn in the economy, so now you have financial aspects on everyone’s minds.
“What we’re seeing here that we haven’t seen before is an unknown end point,” Bell said, “when people come back and breathe the air and go about their daily life again. After 9/11, that happened in 30 days, and we saw a dramatic return to business as usual. After 9/11, it turned into one of the biggest bull markets in the antiques business, from 2001 to 2008. This time we have to see how it pans out, but we have to let people get past their initial shock. I think dealers are acknowledging the situation and crisis and saying, ‘if you are interested and if you want to contact us, we are here.'”
Woodbury, Conn., dealer David Schorsch looks around him and remains optimistic. He said, “I don’t have a crystal ball, but as a business man, which I like to thing I am, you need to project things, plan for things, and my plan for 2020 has been altered by the shows being canceled. You buy certain inventory with certain shows in mind, with certain customers in mind. These are things that I have been planning for a year, that’s a long plan. And now it’s different.
“My initial reaction to all of this is to do nothing,” Schorsch said, “I’m just holding down. I want things to get more stable before I start contacting clients and doing what I do. My first plan is to just hunker down and see which way the wind is blowing…I’m very upbeat, I’m cautious, I’m confident, I love this material, it’s my life. I am feeling optimistic and I don’t know why, I can’t point to anything that I know. It’s just my gut. We work from our guts.”
“I was banking a lot on Philadelphia,” said Alexandria, Va., dealer Taylor Thistlethwaite, “What they did in closing was 100 percent the right decision, but I unfortunately had a lot invested to go toward that show, so I’m sitting on a lot of great material.
“I do have a lot of hope for the business,” he said. “The business has made its way through depressions and all kinds of turbulent times before. We have to rethink how we do business again. That’s a challenge for people who sell furniture like me, because that’s still a handshake kind of business. But I think once we get through this, people will be itching to get out and see what kind of treasures have been stored up.”
Thistlethwaite remains optimistic that a quarantine has the ability to focus people on their homelife. “People are having the time to be in their homes and are enjoying them for the first time in ten years,” he said. “I’ve played decorator so many times this week. Look at this weathervane here, let’s try this painting there. We have to look forward to the positives in everything.”
New Oxford, Penn., dealer Kelly Kinzle sees it as yet another wave that the antiques industry is going to be forced to reckon with, just one in a long string of events and changes over the past two decades. “It’s a state of chaos, but it almost always has been,” he said. “There’s no change to the way we buy or sell things, it’s sporadic and happenstance…We have to remember that the merchandise hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is our attitude towards it. The merchandise still makes you feel good when you see it.”
Kinzle looked at the schedule behind and ahead: “It’s been a blow to our income. Chester County is a good show for us and Philadelphia is our spring income to put us through the summer. But we don’t know anything else to do so we’re not going anywhere. We don’t have a plan B so we’re sticking with plan A.”
To create a moment of opportunity for collectors, and in order to keep revenue incoming, dealers have lowered prices. “We’re a collector’s friend, we’re not the collector,” Kinzle said, “We have to present something to them that they feel good about buying at a price level where they enjoy it. Nobody likes to feel they paid too much.”
Philadelphia dealer Amy Finkel, of M. Finkel & Daughter, feels much the same. “I’m aware of the fact that we can’t reach for prices right now,” she said. “For some people, it’s a good time to be buying – a good time to add to a collection if it’s the right piece.”
At a time when everyone is looking at their screens more than ever, dealers are focusing on digital channels through a number of means.
Email marketing is converting sales for those who have built up their mailing lists.
“For the past two weeks, I’ve been emailing specific clients with individual pieces, saying ‘I had hoped to show these to you at Philadelphia, but… and I’ve made a few sales there.”
Liverant said, “When we send out a blast, the response we see is amazing. We get a good open rate and response back, so we know people are paying attention. It’s encouraging that people are taking the time to look through it, whether it’s seven seconds or seven minutes.”
Updated websites with high quality photography are more important now than they ever have been. This is a tricky area for dealers who have difficulty with computers, but website building has come a long way towards accessibility in the past decade. As an example, a professional-looking Squarespace website geared towards sales is able to be set up by a beginner using their templates.
Others who have invested in their websites or built them from scratch are in upload mode.
“I have never been more grateful for my strong web presence,” Finkel said. “Not only the website itself, but the strong following for it that we have built over the past 15-20 years. That’s the only work that can be done now, we’re putting material on the site that otherwise would have been held for the shows. It’s all we can do to get things out there, not just for us, but for our clients and our collectors.
“We uploaded a pair of Windsor chairs in a website update,” Finkel said. “I’m not known for that, but I bought them for our booth at Philadelphia. Sure enough, I sold them to a collector who might not ever come to The Philadelphia Show. She’ll come pick them up when all of this is over. We’ve sold five or six samplers the same way over the past two days.”
Sheffield, Mass., dealer Samuel Herrup said, “I’m working on my website right now and bolstering that. I’m doing more photography for objects than I’ve had a chance to do, trying to send out email blasts to people to get them to look at the website. The blasts will be regular. Online is where it’s at right now.”
Some material sells online better than others for dealers. “We’ve been saying for years that the internet is the way the business is heading,” said Swampscott, Mass., dealer Sandy Jacobs. “My jewelry has been doing well on the internet, so it’s a matter of pushing forward. Now that I don’t have some overhead costs, I’m cutting prices and working on tiny markups just to keep things moving.
“It’s going to be a trial,” she said, “and we have to do the best we can. The other thing is we have to support each other. This isn’t every man out for themselves, we’re all in this together…this is our family, and this is our livelihood.”
Joy Hanes, of Hanes & Ruskin, Old Lyme, Conn., told us that she is making plans to ramp up her online activity, including photography.
Lewes, Del., dealer John Chaski said the shutdown in his state has allowed him to focus on digital channels, including his own site but also other platforms, like eBay. He has also been focusing on buying. “I think that when we hit the other side of this, the recovery will be sharp, so I’m still buying and watching even more online auctions than I usually do,” he said.
Social media is proving effective as folks sit inside their homes and turn to their screens for entertainment. Hanes mentioned posting to Facebook, where sellers have found good sales channels in genre-specific collector groups. Chaski revived the “Americana Hub” Facebook group, and dealers that are commonly found on the show circuit have been posting objects for sale there. Bell and Finkel said they would continue with their regular Instagram postings. “I’ve been active on it for a few years and have found there’s a whole different audience out there and they connect with me that way. And they buy!” said Finkel.
“I post everyday to Facebook and Instagram,” said Paul Thien, who runs the Firehouse Antiques Center in Galena, Md. “I work harder now than before I closed, but I refuse to give up. I spend more time on social media than I ever have. My hope is that it’s communicating with other dealers.” Thien gave the dealers in his antiques center a month of free rent, and he is increasing his eBay presence to upload more objects.
Thien said he is sending a few loads to auction, including one of his personal collections. A load of consigned goods is off to another auction house.
Like Chaski, Thien is also focused on buying for the recovery. “I’ve located some really great buys,” he said. “I’d like to buy now with the idea of the market coming back strong when I open the doors again. I’ll have new stuff, fresh stuff, powerful stuff. I’ve found some fantastic things, and people are very happy to sell things. It’s unfortunately a good time to find bargains, it’s sad that we’re finding them for this reason, but I’m locating merchandise, and the shop is going to look totally different when we open back up.”
Another dealer that has sent a load to auction is Richard “Smitty” Axtell of Deposit, N.Y. “We’ve just consigned about 40 things to an online auction, and we’ve sold with them since last year. We sell a few things here and there,” he said. “The online business is doing alright for us, but we have to keep plugging away at it. I’ve been in business for 55 years, and there was a time in 2006 when we did very little business. It was just the beginning of the change in the antiques business, and we had to think about how different things would be, what we should do. I do think online business is the answer right now, and I do think we have to work at it, all of us.”
Online initiatives are budding. The Antiques Dealers’ Association of America (ADA) is launching an online show April 24-27, supported by the ADA guarantee that all items are correctly described or else returnable within three days of receipt. That policy should ease buyer anxiety that is often associated with purchasing online through photographs. Many of the dealers quoted in this article will be in virtual attendance. Other platforms are launching their own variations of online shows.
The digital-only marketplace certainly presents challenges for dealers and buyers, among them a stripping down of the senses. The digital world makes it more difficult to touch and explore things. Buyers cannot inspect the leg of a chair, for instance, if no detail picture is provided. They can’t remove the drawer of a chest to really get an idea for how it was made. It presents a need for over communication and over visualization, which are labor intensive but necessary. As is the need to be “true” in photographs, and balancing that with the glam shots that support promotion.
If the digital age has succeeded in boosting a sense, it has increased our sense of sight – we see more things than ever from our screens. That’s positive. That the shows will return in 3, 5, 7 or 10 months, that’s a positive thing, too. They will return.
The goal then for dealers is to be creative and get through the crisis – to do whatever they have to do digitally in the interim, even if it’s not ideal or comfortable, to sustain the business model and drive revenue until the train starts rolling again.
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