There’s no substitute for integrity in antiques business

People often ask me how I have been able to stay in business for so many years. This is a question that is at the heart of the antique and fine art community and I will try to answer it to the best of my ability. For people to hold you in high esteem, your reputation must be spotless and the only way for that to happen is if you live a life where your values, both spiritual and secular, are beyond reproach.  

Your name and reputation are the most valuable assets that you have when it comes to being successful with people, so you must keep them squeaky clean. So what does that mean and how does it involve integrity when it comes to dealing with the public? I guess for a start it is dealing fairly with all the people you come in contact with.

Remember that old adage “One spoiled apple can ruin the whole barrel”? Isn’t it amazing how the simplest sayings from years past still hold true today. Yes, there isn’t anything new under the sun after all.  

Should you make a profit from your efforts? Yes. But the question then becomes, what constitutes ‘fair’?

I would like to share a story with you which began when I was approached by an elderly woman who wanted to sell a vase. After examining the vase, I told her that it was a wonderful piece. She said “Would you give me $50 for it?” She looked shocked when I said “No.” Her response was “But you said it was a wonderful vase.”

It hurts me when people seem to think that all antique dealers are dishonest because I know they’re not. In fact, most of the dealers I know personally are hard working individuals who get up before sunrise and get home far after dark. They study morning, noon and night so that they can be prepared if they run across something worthy of purchase. They often spend their days going through someone’s trash, hoping to find that nugget that will make their day’s effort worthwhile. Now back to the story. You could have knocked her down when I offered $750 for the piece. She asked “Why?”  

You see the vase was a Daum Nancy, acid etched and enameled and worth about $1,500. Boy, would I have loved to purchase that vase because Daum is perhaps my favorite art glass. I could hear my two sides battling it out but my greedy side didn’t win and I hope it never does.

My offer was for 50 percent of the retail price and that is fair, so if I had bought it, I would have been able to sleep soundly that night. She then said, “I will think about it.”

Now I could see it in her eyes: “If he said that the value was $1,500, maybe I should have someone else look at it.” I didn’t buy the vase but I guarantee you that if she ever has anyone ask her if she knows someone who can help them sell something, my phone will be ringing. This business is about people and the larger the group that is supporting you, the more successful you will be. Networking is the name of the game and whatever it takes to let others know that you are an honest dealer will pay off for you later.  

Here are the rules I live by in this business:

If someone asks me what something is worth because I am the expert, I tell them the retail price followed by my offer. Now the person knows the actual value of their possession I have established myself as the expert with them. This way I never have to fear that the person will find that I have I cheated him/her. The people you’re dealing with know you have to make a profit to stay in business so they usually won’t be offended by your offer, especially if they consider you to be someone who is trying to help them. I once had another dealer ask why I felt inclined to educate everyone and my response was that I have to live with myself.  

If, however, I attend a house or garage sale and something is priced for the whole world to see and no one has asked my opinion, it isn’t my duty to give it and it is perfectly okay for me to buy the item at the price quoted. I do have some reservations about that way of buying if the person is completely out of bounds. This happened to me early in my career when I attended a garage sale. I think you will see the merit of this story. There was a young girl conducting the sale and I was startled as I looked over the items being offered. A piece of Daum here, a wonderful carnival glass plate there and even a beautiful Rookwood vase sitting on the table. All were priced below $20. I asked the girl whose things they were and she said “My grandmother’s.” I asked her to stop the sale and she did. Her grandmother was in the house so I talked to her about the value of her items. I hope she had someone look at everything because I suggested that they be auctioned. I didn’t buy a single item from that sale but the great feeling I had when I left that house couldn’t be bought.  

It wouldn’t be fair for me not to share with you what isn’t fair: A dealer I know entered a lady’s home and immediately spotted a painting over her couch. The lady asked what the painting was worth and he told her $300, which she happily accepted.

The dealer was asked the value because of his position as an expert, yet the value of the painting was actually closer to $80,000 than $300. Now that isn’t fair.And no, I wouldn’t have slept well that night if I had been the dealer. Only on rare occasions will one deal retire you, so it is important that you be able to trade with your customers more than once. It’s like the old fable: You don’t want to be greedy and kill the golden goose.

Then, there’s the saying, “You can tell the value of a man by the truthfulness of his word.”

If it is your desire to be an antique dealer for a long period of time, it will be to your advantage to remember the Bible verse: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” ?

Daryle Lambert, with more than 45 years of experience in the antiques and fine art communities, is the founder of the Daryle Lambert Antiques and Collectibles Club. He is also the author of “31 Steps to Your Millions in Antiques and Collectibles” and blogs daily on his website, where he may be reached. 


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