How to be the antiques dealer who knows something about art

“Antiques dealers don’t know anything about art” explained the art gallery owner. “You have to be really careful buying art from an antiques dealer because you never know what you’re going to get”.

I didn’t argue with the woman because I knew from my own experience that what she said about antiques dealers and art is generally true. Some of my best art purchases have been from antiques dealers and auctioneers who didn’t know the value of what they had. So, I didn’t defend antiques dealers to the gallery owner.  

In practice, antiques dealers who are knowledgeable and well inventoried in art generally represent their shops as art galleries that specialize in art and decorative antiques. Antiques and collectibles dealers, on the other hand, usually carry art as an afterthought. Often, the art on their walls was acquired in an estate buy-out rather than purchased as individual items. Most antiques dealers offer some type of art for sale, but many dealers shy away from art because they don’t know enough to profit from it.

Antiques dealers who have found that their large furniture items aren’t selling would do well to remember that most rooms have more wall space than floor space. The good news for antiques dealers is that they can profit handsomely from the every-day, run-of-the-mill unsigned art they find at estate sales, garage sales, and auctions. 

It is not necessary to be knowledgeable about signed, collectible art or investment-grade art. To make money selling art in an antique shop, dealers need to know two things:

  1. What most people buy
  2. The differences between paintings and prints

What Most People Buy
As a rule, the general public doesn’t know anything about art, either. When I worked as an art auctioneer, hardly a day went by that I didn’t hear a customer say “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Indeed; what they really mean is that they like what they know! What people know and like is artwork that captures their attention and that resonates emotionally with them. That’s why artists like Thomas Kinkade have sold millions of dollars worth of nostalgia prints.

Ron Davis, in his book “The Art Dealers Field Guide”, suggests that an artworks’ size and subject matter have a direct impact on its’ salability. Let’s look at what Mr. Davis has to say:
When it comes to size, bigger is better and for big artwork horizontal beats vertical. Interior decorators will generally place artwork on a wall above furniture. When buying artwork for your inventory, visualize how the size of the art will look placed over various sizes of furniture. Sofas are typically sixty inches wide, so artwork that is four to five feet wide are in demand. The standard room ceiling height is eight feet, and sofas chairs are roughly three feet high, so artwork that is three to four feet tall fits nicely above a chair or sofa.

Of course, artworks of all sizes are sold, and often the size and shape of the artwork is determined by the works’ subject matter. Here’s what Davis says about subject matter:
“Women are more valuable than men (I wonder; is he still talking about art?). Images of young girls sell better than images of young boys, and looks count. Male or female, the subject must have clearly defined handsome or pretty features.

There is more demand for landscapes than there is for seascapes. Open landscapes with rivers or lakes sell better than interior, forested landscapes. Living things (flowers, fruit, and people) will outsell images of inanimate objects (tools, furniture). Pictures of domestic animals (dogs, kittens, horses) will move faster than pictures of wild animals (again, it’s the emotional connection; people care about their pets). One exception, according to Ron Davis, is cows. For some reason, cows aren’t big sellers; especially to those who had to get up at 4 a.m. to milk them.

More is better than less: a flower arrangement is preferable to a single flower and a bowl of fruit is preferable to one apple. Also, bright colors sell better than pastels, thick paint sells better than thin watercolors, day scenes are preferred to night scenes, and happy subjects are preferred to sad subjects.  This is mostly common sense. Before you buy an artwork for your inventory, ask yourself how it would look from across a room: would a houseguest be able to tell what it is, and not frown?

Let me add a caveat to the above paragraph: my experience has shown that if you’re in a “tourist” town, visitors will always want a reminder of their visit. Visitors to Annapolis, Md., love images of crab boats, and visitors to Ketchikan, Ark., will take home images of wolves and eagles. Also, collectors of historical memorabilia will buy almost anything that is representative of their favorite subject.

Five Basic Artistic Techniques
Of course, artists and dealers will be shocked by my limited presentation. However, my objective here is to suggest ways that you, the antique dealer, can make money selling art in your shop. To do so you need to at least know what technique you’re looking at. If you were a wine salesman, you would only embarrass yourself by calling a white wine a red wine. Knowing the difference between the four basic artistic techniques is almost as simple as telling red wine from white wine.

Often, people refer to any framed artwork as a “painting”. We know that that’s not the case. Too many times, I’ve been baited into surveying an estate by the promise of a great collection of “paintings,” only to find a collection of worthless, poorly framed poster prints.
Here’s how you can identify a painting: it has paint on it. Duh.  If it doesn’t have paint, it’s not a painting. The public perception is that paintings are more valuable than prints. As we shall see, that’s not always the case but all things being equal, unsigned estate paintings can be priced higher than similar prints.

4 Types of Prints

The ready availability of four-color offset lithography has given art prints a bad name. I have often admired a nice artwork only to have my host apologize and say “it’s just a print.” Really? I would love to have a thousand-year-old Japanese woodcut, a Rembrandt etching, a Chagall lithograph, or a Warhol serigraph; all are prints. Prints can be a real moneymaker if you know how to correctly identify them.

Dealers should be able to know the difference between and correctly identify the following:

  • woodcuts
  • etchings,
  • lithographs
  • serigraphs (I’m counting giclees as a type of serigraph).

Trust me, this isn’t hard to do. A detailed explanation of each technique is beyond the scope of this article but detailed explanations and demonstrations can be found by searching Google and/or for each technique. You will be rewarded for your effort.

Antiques dealers can acquire unsigned estate artworks dirt cheap and sell them for a nice profit if they know what people are buying and what to call each type of artwork. Art dealers will still have a “leg up” when it comes to a knowledge of art, but I’ll bet their cash register won’t ring as often.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia licensed auctioneer, certified personal property appraiser, and accredited business broker. He specializes in the valuation and liquidation of estate and business assets. Learn more at his website, at 276-730-5197 or

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