A major change in the antique business is taking place now and will continue for the next few years. The antique trade is expanding worldwide via the Internet. As the Internet becomes more prevalent in the antique trade, the process will create winners and losers. Studying past changes in the antique trade can help predict who will win and who will lose as the buying and selling of antiques becomes digitized.
Any serious discussion of the American antique trade must make a distinction between the antique trade prior to 1972 and the antique trade since 1972. In that year, a worldwide event changed forever the nature of the American antique trade. Before 1972, the American antique trade was regional. A dealer in New York would throw away items which were popular in Maine. Likewise, items popular in Pennsylvania might sit forever unsold in an antique shop in Florida. Because of this regional nature, dealers willing to travel long distances could make a small fortune buying antiques where they were not wanted and hauling these items to an area of the country where they were in great demand.
A good example is turn-of-the-century oak furniture. Before 1972, the hot market for turn-of-the-century oak in America was in Colorado, Texas, and California. During this period, truckers came to New England with 40-foot tractor trailers and literally loaded up with turn-of-the-century oak furniture. New England dealers had no other market for oak furniture except the long distance haulers. An oak commode sold for $12, an oak bureau $35, a raised panel oak desk sold for $150.
In 1972, many of today’s antique trade papers and magazines were founded. Antique price guides were being introduced. The first group shop in Maine opened in the fall of that year and organized antique shows were beginning to replace outdoor flea markets as a vehicle for the sale of more expensive collectables and antiques. The events of 1972 propelled shows, group shops, and trade publications to an early success.
In 1972, Americans experienced the first Arab Oil Embargo. For the entire summer of that year American transportation stood still. Gasoline station owners had no gas to sell and when they did, they rationed it to $3 per customer. Antique dealers throughout New England who had depended on the haulers from the West suffered financially that year and many went out of business.
In desperation, dealers who had always sold “wholesale” opened their businesses to the public. Some started to display at group shops. Others sold their goods at roadside flea markets and still others turned to one of the newly created antique shows. When the Arab Oil Embargo ended, the price of gasoline did not fall back to its pre-embargo low. It remained three or four times the amount it had been before the embargo. The high price of gasoline shocked Americans, keeping many from traveling.
Between 1972 and 1982, the profitability of operating a group shop or running an antique show increased tremendously. Hundreds of promoters started new group shops and began new antique shows. The growth of group shops and shows created a new type of antique dealer. Part time, hobbyist, and weekend dealers flourished because shows and group shops provided selling opportunities that required a small investment of time. It was no longer necessary to run a shop or spend hours selling antiques. A person could buy antiques at night and on the weekends and sell through a group shop or at a show.
The decade of the 70s saw the number of people who call themselves antique dealers explode. This large number of people helped support the price guide business, the trade papers business, the show business, and the group shop business. One fed upon the other.
Post 1972 dealers are different from their predecessors. Post 1972 dealers are more numerous. They rely on price guides and look to trade papers for information about antiques, collectables, shows, group shops, and advice on buying and selling. Post 1972 dealers tend to specialize. Few have the desire to buy entire estates. If they buy from a home, they want the few good pieces, not the responsibility of selling everything normally found in an estate. Most post 1972 dealers do not depend on the buying and selling of antiques to make a living. They do not use money made in the trade to pay for everyday living expenses.
Let us look at the winners and the losers of the 1972 Arab Oil Embargo. Without question, long distance haulers were losers. It was no longer possible for a hauler to travel long distances and buy things for ten cents on a dollar in one region of the country and sell that item for a large profit somewhere else. Group shop owners became winners as more dealers needed a place to display. Antique show promoters became winners for the same reason. Trade papers, trade magazines, and price guides publishers became big winners as more dealers demanded more information.
Established antique dealers became losers as the information they had spent years acquiring was now available to anyone willing to read a trade paper or purchase a book. Price guides and books made instant experts. Collectors became losers and winners at the same time. The increasing number of antique dealers meant more competition at auctions for a limited supply of merchandise. This competition drove the price of antiques to unbelievable highs. Many collectors were priced out of the market. Other collectors, with large collections, made a fortune by selling at the new high price. Full time dealers became losers at auctions because hobbyists and collectors/dealers paid more for antiques.
The biggest winners of the 1972 Arab Oil Embargo were auction houses. Their profits soared as they changed from wholesale suppliers to retail merchants. Before 1972, auction houses primarily sold wholesale to dealers. After 1972, the growing number of antique dealers placed ever-increasing demands on auction houses to supply merchandise. Auction houses, to meet the new demand, looked for ways to lower their cost to consignors. They achieved this by shifting half the consignment costs to the buyer as a 10 percent buyer’s premium, thus, raising the price of antiques. In addition, competition between this new breed of dealers drove up the price of antiques. To make matters worst, auction houses began catering to retail buyers and collectors rather than to dealers. They also changed their advertising to target the retail buyer. Dealers were still welcome at auctions but now they had to bid against their very own customers.
Buying a computer and going on the Internet will make winners of antique dealers who take the time to learn how to sell on the Internet with a Home Page. The Internet is doing to the worldwide antique market what trade papers, shows, and group shops did for the American antique marketplace, de-regionalize the selling price.
Many American antiques and collectible items sell for ten to twenty times the standard U.S. price in Japan, Sweden, Italy, Germany, England, and Canada. Ten years ago Canadian cupboards were worth more in America than in Canada. Today, the price for a quality Canadian cupboard is three to five times greater in Canada. Canadian dealers are now coming to the States to buy back the cupboards they sold just ten years ago. If you are an antique dealer and have in stock Canadian cupboards, advertising these cupboards on the Internet will bring Canadian buyers to your shop.
Cowboy and Western collectables are worth their weight in gold in Japan and in Germany. An inexpensive ad on the Internet can open these markets to a rural New England dealer. A fiberglass Charles Eames chair sells for $350 in Sweden. The same chair sells for $85 in Brimfield. The winners in Antique Cyberspace will be the dealers who figure out how to get the $85 Brimfield chair to Sweden and the Cowboy and Western collectable to Japan and Germany.
Besides the overseas market, there is a large and fast-growing domestic market being created by antique dealers who use Home Pages as their storefronts where tens of thousands of purchases and sales take place daily. If you do not own a computer and have a Home Page, you lose the opportunity to be a part of this lucrative marketplace.