A candid look at antique toy sales

Sage sees advantage of dealing face to face

Longtime Atlantique City dealer strives to sell better toys

A preponderance of auctions in the antique toy market has put a crimp on show dealers like Tom Sage, but like a Lehmann Dancing Sailor, the veteran dealer from Allentown, Pa., still has a lot of spring in his step. Sage is one of about 100 dealers who has been exhibiting at Atlantique City ever since the world’s largest indoor art and antiques show opened in 1986.

“It’s a big show, a well-rounded show; not only toys but antiques, which I collect also,” said Sage, whose hobby grew into his full-time business about 30 years ago. “Shows are my primary outlet, as well as clients I’ve had over the years,” said Sage.

He has cut back to doing 12 shows per year in the United States and about six in Europe.

“I’ve been going to Europe for 25 years. I’ve been there when the dollar was strong and I’ve been there when the dollar was weak, but I’ve always been there trying to buy. Even there it’s much more difficult to buy than it was five or 10 years ago. Now the dealers in Europe are just not finding the stuff they used to find,” said Sage.

He attributes the diminished supply to the success of specialty auctions more than the arrival of eBay.
“Years ago when somebody died, the family kept the collection for awhile, but then it filtered back into the dealers’ hands. A dealer or two would buy a whole collection and it would filter back into the business. Today when a collector dies, it goes into an auction somewhere,” said Sage.

“It seems auctions have taken over the (toy) business,” he said. “Think about all the auctions there are just in toys with Barrett, Bertoia, Morphy, Inman and Julia. If you average them at two to three auctions per year — five companies — that’s 15 auctions per year, each one does a million dollars-plus. That’s $15 million to $20 million pulled right out of the business. Where people used to come to shows to spend it, now they’re buying at auctions.”

Sage observes new collectors to the toy market often overlook the advantages of doing business with knowledgeable toy dealers for the immediate gratification of auctions.

“New people coming in to buying with considerable amounts of money don’t seem to want to go to shows and learn anything, meet the dealers and schlepp around like the older crowd did. They sit at home and page through the (auction) catalogs, see something they like and bid on the Internet, phone or mail bid. Half of them don’t know what they’re buying. They don’t seem to want to learn anything,” said Sage. “They want to buy at a price where they think they’re getting a bargain. Well, most of the time they’re not getting a bargain,” he added.

“I still have people who would rather see the items than bid on the Internet or at auctions and know what they’re buying,” said Sage, who encounters new collectors at Atlantique City and other shows. “Once you get to them and they get to know you and what you sell, they know the quality is going to be good,” said Sage. “I’ve sold to people over the years that I’ve never met, but once you get a rapport with them that they know whatever they’re buying over the phone or from a photograph is something that’s really nice, then you don’t have any problems and they just keep coming back. They know when you tell them it’s a certain condition, that’s really what it is,” he said.

Dale Kelley, publisher of Antique Toy World, has known Sage for more than 30 years and considers dealers like him a vanishing breed.

“He’s one of the few dealers who goes to Europe every year and knows the market over there and in America,” said Kelley. “He’s well-established. He’s had some great clients over the years and built some great collections, including his own,” he said.

Kelley said Sage is well liked and respected in the toy-collecting community for being a straight shooter.
“I’ve always paid strong prices for good quality stuff. A lot of times people over the years have tried to buy as cheap as they could. Those dealers have sort of fallen by the wayside. I’ve always paid pretty strong prices and worked on a short profit. I don’t mind doing that just to have better items to sell,” said Sage.

While he enjoys the convenience of setting up at the modern Atlantic City Convention Center, Sage preferred the historic Convention Hall, where Atlantique City originated.

“It was a little cozier in the old building where it was divided into two rooms,” said Sage. “I think the old hall had more ambiance. People could go out on the boardwalk, have lunch or go shopping and then come back. Now in the new convention center, you’re too far away from the boardwalk. I think when people leave the show they don’t come back,” he said.

Although Sage has been exhibiting at Atlantique City from the start, he was surprised the show survived its disorderly debut 20 years ago.

“I didn’t think it would last. The first show was utter chaos. When we drove in, nobody knew what was happening. The showcases weren’t in. It was really an ordeal,” he said. “I didn’t think it would progress into a great show like it did.”

Sage has experienced some great Atlantique City shows and hopes the March 25-26 event will be fruitful.
“Everyone has their own concept of what a good show is,” said Sage, who is usually joined by his wife, Lori. “If I sell a lot and make money, and I find some good stuff, that constitutes a good show.”

Despite the uncertainties of the antiques trade, there is nothing like the anticipation of a major show to get a longtime dealer wound up again. It’s a certainty Tom Sage won’t wind down until he’s walked all the aisles at Atlantique City.