Antique business

Thomas Woodham-Smith on an old trade in a brave new world

Technology and the electronic age offer start-ups the promise of a tremendous boost and buzz with their swishing iPads and the eschewing of formal clothes. But if you counterpoint this with Mr and Mrs Chippendale in their antique shop in Stow-on-the-Wold, you have a doorway into a painful aspect of modern business.

I am currently organising the Open Art Fair, a new decorative and fine art fair in Chelsea, and have discovered that some dealers don’t even use email. My dear friend Ted, who is an exhibitor, writes a regular newsletter to all his clients and he takes great pride in describing his buying journey for each object that he offers for sale. These letters are taken to the post office and mailed. I love receiving them and revel in his wit and charm.

But now I want him to email me images to put on the website. I want descriptions with measurements and even a price. He does not like it at all. It is as if I am in some way stealing his soul. I have the sense he would lose some of his own history and individuality if he were to embrace the electronic age.

Change for some represents an opportunity, while for others it is a catastrophe: the erosion of all that was good in the past. It is tricky when both positions are a bit right. When I bought the fair from the venerable BADA, one of the UK antique trade associations, I decided to change the layout and colours of the fair. I spoke to one dealer, who had exhibited every year at the Bada Fair since its inception in the 1980s. My new layout meant his stand was going to be in a different location.

He is a modest, academic, unassuming man with great enthusiasm and knowledge, but soon he started screaming at me at the top of his voice from just inches away. When I nervously asked him if he knew he was shouting, he was startled into quietening down. Moving him was like suggesting moving the Houses of Parliament.

There are some innovative “tech” things that your average antique dealer does like, however, and one of them is the advent of smartphones. In the media and anecdotally it is widely represented that with a smartphone you can take magazine-quality photographs. Hundreds of dealers around the country, not just Open Art Fair exhibitors, are convinced they can save a fortune on photography by taking their pictures themselves.

For some this is true: for many, sadly, it is not. A photograph taken on the pavement with a phone in a rush, in the rain and with little regard for reflections, shadows, focus or even being straight on, is not likely to be a thing of beauty. However, every day we get these treasures emailed in with great fanfare, and we are roundly and robustly chastised for not appreciating them. Another new love is Instagram. Dealers used to believe that if you had a website, buyers from across the globe would email in and sales would ensue of great magnitude and volume beyond imagining. Years and concomitant experience taught us that the dream is not a reality.

The dealers embrace Instagram because it isn’t the war-zone of Twitter, or the frumpy pages of Facebook

Nowadays dealers are in love with Instagram and believe this will be the portal to a goldmine of sales. The dealers embrace Instagram because it is friendly and gentle: it isn’t the fierce war-zone of Twitter, or the frumpy pages of Facebook. Instagram is actually fun, and even if sales don’t ensue there is a quickly-built community, your friends and colleagues happily praising your work on their devices in a way they wouldn’t face to face. It is a well-worn joke that people say, “I loved that so much I liked it”.

Banking, surprisingly, is another eld of conflict between past and present. Nearly everyone I am dealing with is a defrocked cheque-writer. Back in the day, everything ran on cheques. If you wrote one, the recipient might take a few days to bank it, and you then had three or four days for it to clear. Writing a cheque gave a week’s grace to try to make a sale before the funds were actually released.

I remember one dealer told me he began his business with a wheelbarrow to move furniture and a chequebook. By the end of the first book of 30 cheques he was up and running.

In Portobello Road cheques would change hands many times, being “made over” again and again until they looked pretty dog-eared and were awash with names and scribbles. There was also the mobile bank. He was a burly guy who had two even burlier chaps with him: he would cash a cheque for you, slicing off an eye-watering commission, but his service kept many a business a float.

These days electronic banking has wiped out the chequebook and is on its way to doing the same thing to cash. The old lie “the cheque is in the post” simply doesn’t work any more. Payment can be made in a blink and that certainly worries the old guard. At the fair we still receive plenty of cheques, which we wearily take to the bank. So there is still grace for some.

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