IN THE face of rising competition from auction houses, alarmed antique dealers are doing their best to counteract the glamor of the auction sales. The last two-three years has seen auction houses, such as Sotheby Parke Bernet and Christies, double their business.
At a recent forum on antique collecting entitled "Collecting Antiques, For Love or Money?" moderated by Wendell D. Garrett, editor of Antiques magazine, three area dealers told an audience of 200 plus at the Shoreham Hotel to place their trust in an antique dealer, as opposed to the large auction houses.
The forum was held in conjunction with the 26th Annual Washington Antiques Show, which took place earlier this month.
Panelist and porcelain collector Elinor Gordon from Villanova, Pa. was particularly adamant about the value of the antique dealer: "Dealers are the best people to buy from. You can develop a rapport with a dealer, something you can't do at an auction house.There's almost an infectious greediness that takes place at auction houses, raising prices to the sky. Unfortunately, you can't always trust an auction house," said Gordon, whose last sentence was greeted with much applause.
David Good, antique decorative accessories dealer agreed, "If you're interested in collecting antiques, find a good dealer, just as you would search for a good doctor or lawyer -- based on trust.
"And," Good added "buying at an auction house can be risky since it's very difficult to see closely what you're bidding for."
All this anti-auction house talk did not sit well with everyone in the audience. One woman, who said she worked for Sotheby Parke Bernet in Los Angeles, defended the large auction houses, claiming that many of the prices she sees at antique dealers are higher than Sotheby's prices for similar pieces.
Other points the experts discussed:
Where to buy: "It's important that you consider in what state and city you're buying," warned Gordon. "Buying in New York City, where the sales tax is 8 percent, can cost you a fortune."
Education: "Before you buy, educate yourself," Gordon stressed. "Go to the museums, the exhibits, the shows. Read collecting magazines. Don't buy an antique without some knowledge of what you're getting."
Panelist and American furniture dealer Thomas Schwenke added, "One of the best ways to learn more about antiques is to read publications like Antiques magazine, which has served the public well since its inception. The same advice goes for people interested in getting into the antique business -- there're a lot more books on the market today than when we got started. In the old days, one book on each topic -- porcelain, glass, American furniture -- was about all we had."
Returning antiques: It's more difficult to return an antique you're not pleased with to an auction house than to a dealer. "There's not a dealer in the world," claimed Schwenke, "who would refuse to take something back."
"Sometimes a dealer sells something he honestly thinks is valuable. It may turn out not to be. But he's human and mistakes sometimes are made," said Gordon. Another auction house representative from the audience reminded the panel that auction house people are human too."What many customers don't seem to realize is than when we appraise something, it's just one person's opinion -- not the word of God," the representative said.
Buy quality antiques: "Buy from the best artisan -- the Goddards, the Reveres, the Tiffanys," emphasized David Good, "buy quality." Gordon agreed, "when you buy mediocrity, it stays that way the rest of its life; when you buy quality, its value always increases."
Attribution vs. Signature: Some antiques are signed by the artisan, while others have no signature but are attributed to a particular craftsman. Are they equally as valuable? asked one member of the audience. "Attribution," said Gordon "is only as good as the dealer from whom you're buying."
Predictions: "It's impossible to predict the antiques of the future," said Garrett. "In the future, it may be more profitable to invest in 747's than in antiques . . . no one knows." Good thinks antique collecting goes in cycles. "When people sell their collections, they put items back in circulation, starting the whole cycle over again." Schwenke added, "as far as American furniture is concerned, in recent years it has far surpassed its English counterpart. During the last decade the price brought by American furniture increased by 60 percent, while English furniture only increased by 42 percent. However, the increase was not necessarily due to American furniture's value, but to what people are presently interested in."
Antique protection: Burglar alarms are good, but make sure you're properly insured. Also, photographs of your antique items are a great help.
Barbara de Franceaux, chairman of the Antique Show, concluded the forum by saying "The best antique I ever got was my husband . . . and like all quality antiques his value has increased over the years."