Where are we headed? Veteran dealer assesses changing antiques market

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — For Tom and Nikki Deupree, longtime dealers in 18th- and 19th-century American furniture and folk art, this year’s Mid-Week in Manchester, N.H., show is both an end and a new beginning. Like many in the trade, they have watched as changing tastes and a dwindling supply of quality merchandise force a re-examination of what it means to be a successful dealer in antiques.

“Nikki and I are doing Frank Gaglio’s New Hampshire show, but it’s likely our last,” Tom said in an interview with Antique Trader. “The business has just become too difficult to figure out.”

The Deuprees started collecting and dealing in the 1970s, an era that many recall fondly. Their hunting grounds covered northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and despite many early missteps, they discovered there was money to be made in antiques and art.

“It was a dream world,” Tom said, “with the supply always increasing faster than demand. Demand expanded as well, and that demand was dealer driven, with many of them also becoming collectors. I could name a dozen.

“When the supply was at its greatest, say the 1980s and 1990s, the market was able to sort out good, better and best – the phrase immortalized by Albert Sack’s 1950 book, Fine Points of Furniture. Fresh discoveries beget fresh discoveries, so the supply expanded.

“We made a living in the past on an asymmetry of knowledge – we knew the market and values better than the public – which in the present is less possible. As knowledge improves, the old food chain from country picker to New York City dealer is shortcut. Pickers who used to stop in my driveway on their way down from upcountry now honk on their way by to the city.

“Supply-and-demand metrics are shifting. Over the years, the supply of first-owner, fresh stuff has steadily been shrinking. There are other trends that we all must adapt to or wither away.

“The quality and breadth of reproductions is constantly improving, and it satisfies many buyers who want the ‘look’ at a fraction of the price. There’s also the availability of knowledge, through Antiques Roadshow, eBay and an increasing number – and sophistication – of trade publications. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of material comes to market through auction.

“So what’s happened now? On the supply side, the great stuff stopped coming out and what was great got picked off into private collections. So as the supply of that diminished, prices rose for what was left, and we have today only a few collectors at the top competing for fewer items. There is plenty of money out there, so the prices of the truly great antiques are stratospheric.

Brimfield-07bw.jpg“Demand is slackening for the rest of the material, the middle and entry-level market. Part of it is the economy, partly the availability of reproductions, partly the inevitable cycling of the shifting of tastes, from colonial (waning interest) to Arts & Crafts (still strong interest) to modern (rising interest).

“The wheel will continue to turn, but we’re in a slough right now. The supply of mediocrity is great, with auctions and shows every weekend. I think if you interviewed show dealers, they would tell you that nobody wants brown furniture and the lesser, but sales are OK, just OK for the better country… not healthy, not booming, but they eke by.

“How do they eke by? One, by not cashing out their losers precipitously. One of my favorite dealers always said that each dealer would have a truer picture of the health of his business and the wisdom of his decisions by taking everything they hadn’t sold by December and dumping it in an auction.

“That would surely be a bucket of cold water, so we tend to hang on, hoping for a needle in a haystack.

“Two, they raise prices on everything, including the mundane. Dealers complain that everything at shows that they want to buy during set-up has telephone-book numbers on it. Why? Dealers have to make a living. If they can get one sale at inflated prices (inflated in the minds of the other dealers), they can cover expenses and wait for a better day down the road.

“Three, they form partnerships. True, one only gets a percentage of the profit, but one’s market is expanded. Let’s say I buy something great. I cut in a Philadelphia Show dealer as a partner, and access a retail audience I wouldn’t normally see. If it doesn’t sell there, reduce expectations and market it at a less-prestigious show later in the spring. For the Philadelphia Show dealer, they access a wider range of pickers.

“We have always a good test and harbinger of the market in August (in New Hampshire). We all should pay attention. So how will the dealer do well, going forward?

“First, by marketing their knowledge as an advisor, helping to shape a collection.

“Second, by limiting their purchases to what is most likely to sell; in effect, being more disciplined. This means watching price very carefully. The net effect will be that mediocrity will come down, way down. It already has. Then it can start a life cycle all over again, at smaller numbers, and retail customers can get interested again, because first-timers can now afford it, and the wheel turns.

“Third, by working harder. Not only by broadening their inventory, but by checking every lead. The dealers I know who are successful are working harder than ever.

“Fourth, by using the Internet, both to research prices and to create Web sites. The dealers who, early on, adopted Web sites are doing great with them.

“Finally, by consigning to auction. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. I know many examples of items picked that went directly to auction, bypassing the old antiques food chain.

“I could write a book about this … and will.”