Published: March 16, 2016
Clinton Howell, president of the 100-member Art and Antique Dealers League of America, was preparing to head over to Maastricht for TEFAF when Antiques and The Arts Weekly caught up with him. What’s new with the oldest antiques and fine arts organization in America, we wanted to know. The group got its start back in January 1926, an outgrowth of the Antique Dealers Luncheon Club, which met at the Madison Hotel in New York City. In 1942, the organization adopted its current name, with the aim of bringing the various members of the art and antiques trade closer together to promote a greater understanding among themselves and with the public.
The league recently launched a new advertising campaign. Why?
Branding today is what everything is all about — getting your name out there. We just believed that the league needed a little work in branding. We sold our show and we’re not really being seen by anybody, and I feel that it’s important for people to know what the label means. I am a member of a number of other organizations and I don’t think any of us are doing well at getting our message out.
In what ways are you doing that?
The thing that is maybe the most telling is that we’re working with other groups like CINOA [a worldwide organization of 5,000 art and antiques dealers] to develop online programs to become more visible and better known. We’re looking at a world that has changed so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up with all of the things that are going on. We have to engage, get out there and be available for the people who want to know about us. I think the antiques market suffers from a plethora of so-called “dealers,” but not necessarily quality dealers. I am not an elitist, but in order to be a top dealer, you need to have a consistent quality.
Hasn’t the move to e-commerce upended the old “city dealer/country dealer” model?
The structure has entirely changed. Someone can put something up on eBay, which really has no guarantees on the object, and it can sell for a lot of money. Now, of course, in any market, people can learn quite quickly when they make mistakes — except for the private customer. So there’s a value to organizations like the ADA, NADA, AADLA and others — not all striving to be so much elitist but to maintain ethical standards.
What do you believe is the greatest change within the league and its membership over the past 90 years?
It used to be that dealers had galleries. That is no longer necessary. It’s quickly becoming an anachronism for dealers except for dealers who were smart enough to buy the premises and hold on to them. If you look at San Francisco’s Jackson Square, for example, dealers have been virtually decimated there. In New York City, there are a few dealers left on Madison Avenue. I believe we have to attract new dealers, we have to attract people who are passionate about this business.
What’s the best way to do that?
Don’t limit yourself to buying the best of Eighteenth Century “English, French, American, whatever.” That’s not what I care about. If you are attracted to something and you want to buy it, fine, as long as you label it exactly what it is. If it has two new rear legs, tell your client that. If the top is possibly replaced, you’ve got to be clear that you have doubts about it. I would like the AADLA dealers to be known as people who know what they’re selling. That to me is the most important thing.
Where do you see the industry as a whole going?
The virtual marketplace is extremely important in the future. The Internet has already changed everything. If somebody’s looking for a piece of English furniture these days they can source all the UK dealers they want. While 1stDibs was the first to get behind the antiques trade, they have now become more of a luxury e-commerce site. Other sites like RubyLUX and InCollect have popped up and are vying for the position that 1stDibs has vacated. There’s a scramble in this huge virgin territory that is basically uncharted, and the question for the trade now is how do you build a structure on that territory and get it right? The person who gets it most right will be the winner.
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