In European antiques trade, timing is everything

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Victor Werner is the kind of antique dealer that collectors from America hope they’ll encounter on a visit to Europe: Gregarious and enthusiastic about his trade, he is eager to provide the stories for his pieces, which range from classical to quirky.

“I’ve been a dealer for more than 20 years,” Werner said while taking a break from selling at the Brussels Antiques & Fine Arts Fair. “As a young man, I was a student of economics and destined to end up working in a big company. But I didn’t want to do that, and opened a restaurant. It was very successful, but I wanted to become a ‘trader,’ to deal in antiques and art.”

Werner and a partner started a small antiques business in Antwerp, Belgium, but after several years, he struck out on his own.

“It’s difficult sometimes to work with a partner in this business. Taste is a very personal thing, and sometimes you don’t agree on which direction to take.”

Werner’s taste is lively and eclectic. His booth is a striking mix of architectural elements, 20th-century lighting, fine art and accessories. In one corner there was a cast-iron figure of a bear holding a shield, standing more than four feet tall. He bought it on a trip to Sweden. It wasn’t in the dealer’s shop, but sat out in the yard, not for sale. Werner eventually convinced the owner to sell it, and it didn’t last long at the Brussels fair. The purchaser — from Austria — was a businessman whose company emblem is a bear.

On the other end of the booth was a monumental figure of Diana the Huntress, created by sculptor Ferdinand von Miller II. Von Miller’s father was a widely known metalworker, and Ferdinand followed in his  footsteps. He is known in America for the figures on the Sinton fountain in Cincinnati, and for statues of Shakespeare and Alexander von Humboldt in St. Louis. He also created the statue of surgical pioneer J. Marion Sims (1813-1883) in New York, and a war memorial in Charleston, S.C.

Werner points out that Von Miller’s Diana, though drawn from classical inspiration, has a distinct 20th-century quality with her stern gaze and stylized Art Deco hair. The asking price for Diana was 75,000 Euro (about $97,000).

The most significant impact of the global recession on Werner’s business has been his trade with the U.S.

“I’ve worked with some very good decorators in the States,” Werner said, “and generally they’re pleased with what I have to sell. I have one client who’s doing shows in the U.S. and he’s just hoping that he won’t lose too much money this year.

“When I started in this business, I didn’t realize how late I was (for the prime buying days of the 1970s and early ‘80s). Even five years earlier, it would have been much easier. But it takes a long time to learn this business and establish your own style.

“I used to go to England and buy a piece here, a piece there, always big money, but always interesting. That’s gone now. In fact, some European dealers are now going to the U.S., buying up antiques that started here, and bringing them back to sell. The exchange rate has helped that.

“In the U.S., collectors and dealers are more realistic. They take a loss and let things go when they have to. Europeans hate to lose money that way, and just hold on to their antiques, hoping for better days.”

For images from the 2009 BRAFA: Part IPart II

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