DO YOU KNOW how the antique tea table you bought from that quaint shop on Cape Cod during your last vacation got there? Did you ever wonder how items no longer produced keep showing up at antique shops? I'm an antique dealer and the first question I'm asked after introductions at social gatherings is "Where do you get your antiques?"
Consumers have become increasingly aware of the chain between producer and shopper in these days of lettuce boycotts, coffee price hikes and the ever-increasing price of gasoline, but the often complex road on which an antique moves from original owner to future purchaser is still little known.
The stock in an antique dealer's shop can come by many paths. The simplest, and probably least likely, is when the owner of a piece comes directly to a shop and offers to sell the item. If the dealer likes it, and has no doubts about whether the item is stolen, he will try to make the owner state what he wants for it. Dealers hate to make an offer for a piece; they want the owner to decide the price, hoping it will be under-valued. If they (the dealer) are forced to make an offer they will usually offer from 50 per cent to 80 per cent of their expected selling price.
Dealers buy a percentage of their stock from "pickers." Pickers do literally just that. They travel from auction to auction, hit all the major and minor antique shows, visit all the antique shops in their area, and stay in contact with other pickers to pick up under-priced saleable stock that they then offer to antique shops on their "run" or selling trips. Most pickers stay in the whoelsale business totally, although they may take some of their best merchandise to a large show in hopes of grabbing a piece of the retail money. Pickers don't ask the retail dealer to make an offer, they set a price on their stock based on the price they paid and their mark-up. Their selling price is always low enough to allow the dealer a substantial profit.
Sometimes the dealer's stock has come through hsi purchases from a "door-knocker." The door-knocker is a disappearing breed. Operating in rural areas, he (and they are usually a he, I've heard of only one woman in 13 years) drives a station wagon or pick-up and carries a roll of cash. A knock on a remote farm house door and a "do you have any old furniture or dishes for sale?" either gains him a quick exit or a chance to start bargaining.
The door-knocker who is lucky, or persistent, can buy some wonderful merchandise for ridiculous prices. Some door-knockers have amassed considerable fortunes in very short periods. Of course, once they've made some quite literal steals in an area and they word is spread they aren't welcome back. Door-knockers seem to operate in surges; for a period of a few years none will be seen in an area. Then one will show up; next week there will be several. The area will eventually dry up; they will meet hostility at every door; and then they won't be seen again.
One of the reasons for the decline of door-knocking and the low estimate of those engaged in the practice lies in the excesses practiced by a minority. A few extremely clever door-knockers devised a way to buy only the best items in a home at bargain prices. They would go through an entire house offering outrageously inflated prices for any item offered them; they also slip in a few vastly under-valued offers for the best items.The total price offered for the house-owner's pieces would reach such heights that few people could resist it. Once this inflated price was agreed upon, the door-knocker would exclaim that he didn't have a big enough vehicle to take the whole load that day but would return tomorrow to pick the lot and would pay cash for it. Flashing a roll of bills he'd say he'd just take a few items with him now. Of course, those few items would be the most valuable ones, and also the ones he'd offered the least for. Many a home-owner sat waiting beside a pile of over-priced merchandise the next day looking for the return of the never-to-be-seen-again door-knocker.
The dealer who knows a door-knocker is fortunate. They can buy some prime antiques at good prices while the door-knocker is operating. A good indication of what door-knockers pay can be found in the fact that pickers sometimes buy from them, mark-up and sell th dealers, who mark up an sell to the retail customer.
Some of the dealer's stock, often as much as half, may come from autions. It is not unusal to have the majority of the audience at an auction be composed of dealers. Auctions are convenient for the dealer. THey are usually held on a day when the dealer can leave his shop. There is enough stock being auctioned in most large auctions so that dealers feel they stand a chance of acquiring some new stock for their shop at prices they can afford.
Dealers try to set a price on the item being auctioned off that is equal to the wholesale price, and not go over it. However deales are human and many a dealer has succumbed to auciton fever. Some of the biggest and best known dealers have confided to me when asked why a piece was priced so high. "I fell in love with it at an auciton and got it over my head. Don't ask me what I paid for it."
In an attempt to hold down prices at auctions (and thereby reap greater profits) some dealers formulated the practice known as "pooling." Pooling simply means that a group of dealers who would usually be in competition with one another on a certain item or a group of antiques (such as oriental rugs) agree not to compete. One of their number does the bidding, in competition with the rest of the audience only; and if successful, the item is later reaucitoned among the members of the "pool" or "ring."
If the item is specialized enough, and the auction is small with no other competing dealers or collectors, the profit potential for a pool is spectacular. Consignors and auctioneers dislike pools, to say the least, but they are hard to break up.
Stock arrives at auction halls by the same trial that leads to the dealers showroom. Private owners consign family heirlooms; dealers having trouble with cash flow bring their stock; the auctioneer may employ pickers, or door-knockers, and banks often use the auction route to dispose of full estates.
Lastly, a dealer may buy from another dealer. Dealers discount their retail prices to one another. The industry-wide average is around 10 per cent but it can range from 30 per cent or none. The buying dealer might have a better market for the item than the selling dealer or the item might be under-priced to start with. I've bought from a shop, paid the full retail price, turned a 400 per cent profit and the buyer has resold the item in another shop at a profit.Sometimes a dealer will wonder out loud if any such animals as a aretail customer exists.
Most antiques pass through so many hands in their trip to you, the ultimate purchaser, that trying to discern their past owners is a fruitless task. Only very few pieces will arrive with their history of ownership, of provenance, intact. These few pieces will never be cheap and if you are contemplating purchasing one, insist on the provenance in writing. An oral history may sound fine but in fact it is worthless. Any good antique dealer knows this and will not try to sell an antique on the weight of its suppose dhistory. An antique is worth its value for just what it is, not a story about who might have owned it. The few pieces with a documented history are rare and justly priced so.