Collectors have the upper hand in making a profit on antiques

In more than thirty-five years of collecting antiques I’ve learned a great many things and made a great many mistakes. I’ve been a collector most of my life and a dealer in antiques nearly as long. I’ve learned one thing that most collectors don’t realize or simply don’t believe — collectors have the upper hand when it comes to making a profit on antiques.

I understand why many collectors don’t believe this. After all, some dealers actually make a living buying and selling antiques, don’t they? While some do make their way as antique dealers, most buy and sell antiques part-time. For some, it’s a business. For others, it’s more of a hobby. All dealers face a lot of expenses that most collectors don’t have to worry about.

As with most jobs, being an antique dealer looks a lot easier from the outside than it actually is. Most collectors attending an antique show or flea market only see dealers raking in the cash. They don’t see all the expenses, nor the time and effort that goes into setting up for such an event.

I’ve set up at a lot of antique shows and flea markets during my life. I won’t deny it isn’t fun, but there are also hours of hard work that most collectors don’t consider.

It often takes me two or three hours to set up my tables and unpack my antiques at a show. It takes just as long packing up the unsold items at the end. There is also all the time involved in cleaning, pricing, and packing all those pieces to get them ready to go to a show. Then, there is the show itself. Some are great fun, but others are not.

When sales are slow sitting in a booth for several hours isn’t the most enjoyable experience. Quite often the profits are small. Worse, the losses are sometimes big. I’ve left some shows very happy with the money I made. I’ve left others knowing that I would have come out ahead if I’d simply given my antiques away.

Huge dealer profits are one of the myths of the world of antiques. Yes, it is true that dealers sometimes scoop up a bargain and more than double their money, but this is the exception and not the rule. I have made huge profits on some pieces over the years.

A few years ago, I purchased a violin at auction for $50, then sold it at another auction for $250. Now that’s a big profit, even after deducting all my expenses. A lot of effort went into finding the violin and selling it, however.

On the day I purchased the violin I got up at 5 a.m., drove an hour to the auction house, spent four hours at the auction, and came away only with the violin and a few other pieces that I bought for my collection. I then made an hours drive back home, cleaned the violin, photographed it, uploaded the photo to the Internet, wrote a description of it, and listed it for sale at Internet auction.

Even considering my time and the costs of gas and Internet auction fees, I made a considerable sum on the violin. The problem is, such a profit is rare. I often expend the same time and effort for no profit at all — or even for a loss!

Even though I had a retail sales license, I never considered myself a professional dealer because that was never my main job. There have been times in my life when I had a booth in an antique mall and set up at a lot of antique shows and flea markets, but even during those years I didn’t depend on antiques for my livelihood. Thank goodness!

Professional antiques dealers have far greater expenses that someone such as myself. While my costs are only traveling expenses, set up fees, and commissions, theirs are much greater. They have the cost of running a shop: advertising, electricity, taxes, telephone bills, insurance, and other hidden costs that escape the notice of most collectors.

Consider also that the dealers often tie up a considerable sum of money that may remain tied up for some time. Any piece a dealer purchases may sell quickly, but it may also set in the shop for years before a buyer comes along.

I recently gave up being a dealer altogether when the state of Indiana sent me a $5,000 tax bill. That sum is many times my total sales! After making a call, I discovered I was sent the bill because I hadn’t paid my sales tax on time, which was not possible because the state had failed to send out the forms.

Instead of sending the forms, they sent me a bill based on an average of sales tax gathered by businesses in my area. I was not pleased that the state sent me an enormous bill because they’d failed to do their job.

Everything was soon straightened out, but I officially closed my business to avoid future headaches. This is just one example of what dealers have to face.

While I’ve painted a bleak picture for dealing in antiques, keep in mind I’m pointing out the expenses and difficulties. I had a lot of fun being a part-time dealer. While I wouldn’t return to those years, I wouldn’t give them up either.

I made some good profits as a dealer, but I actually made more money on pieces I didn’t buy to resell.

Like most collectors, my interests have changed over the years. I’m not a believer in hoarding antiques, so when my interests change I sell off my old collections. By the time I do so the values have usually gone up, sometimes considerably. I often sell no long wanted pieces for two, three, or more times what I paid for them.

These are pieces I’ve kept for years. As a collector, that’s no problem. It’s no hardship keeping a beloved antique. A dealer usually can’t afford to keep a piece for years and years before selling it, however. Any piece sitting unsold is capital tied up. Dealers do often keep pieces for years, but they need quicker sales on most items to keep in business.

I know I’ll still be selling a few antiques now and then. I’ll likely even set up at a flea market once or twice a year. I’ll be doing so to get rid of no longer wanted antiques, however, and not to make a profit.

Oddly enough, I’ll be more likely to make a profit on the pieces I’m selling because they are items purchased so long ago their value has escalated considerably. This is one of the advantages collectors have over dealers.

Even if I just get my money back, or sell at a loss, I still have the profit of enjoyment. That, of course, is the most important profit of all. No matter how you consider it, collectors have the upper hand. ?

Mark A. Roeder is the author of two nationally syndicated columns on antiques, Successful Antiques Collecting and Spotlight on Antiques & Collectibles. His expertise comes not only from researching antiques, but from collecting, buying, and selling them for more than three decades.

You might also enjoy these articles by Mark A. Roeder:

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Useful antiques are still a good buy
Successful Antiques Collecting: Is now a good time to sell?
Collecting vintage cameras: See what develops
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