On nodding terms

Thomas Woodham-Smith says the most vocal customers rarely buy

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Being an antique dealer is a wonderful job. Every day you wake up and think about acquiring new pieces and better understanding what you have already acquired. You can visit other dealers and talk about buying, you can go online, you can telephone or email, and there are even dealers who write letters. This shopping is a great joy.

The second greatest joy is talking about things you have already sold. Some dealers seem to expound endlessly about what they have sold and how clever they were. For others it simply affords a certain quiet satisfaction. Unfortunately, to get from shopping to reminiscing, an antique dealer must go through the process of selling to customers.

My biggest problem with selling is when people don’t like your stuff

Selling is a pleasure for some. I used to work with a man who lived to sell. He did not particularly like antiques but he came alight when there was a punter to hand.

At the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht he enjoyed a very lush dinner, entertaining us by drinking red wine, white wine and beer simultaneously, slugging from each goblet with every mouthful. He was the life and soul.

The next day he lay on the floor in the storage room at the back of our stand. I called the paramedics over and they gave him a couple of paracetamol. I have never seen anyone looking so green. One of his best customers appeared on the stand and I offered to show them round. He bounded Lazarus-like from the floor. A true salesman.

Overweight and florid of face, he was like a semi-dormant volcano. Always emotionally up and down, he erupted small burps with nearly every word he uttered; some came out and some were swallowed, but there was a constant sense that he was about to explode. His interior rumbled incessantly.

Sadly, I cannot emulate his dedication and focus. I would prefer the treasures that I buy to sell themselves. I don’t feel comfortable persuading and cajoling, but it has to be done. Some customers loved my forceful colleague, but some feared being pushed into buying something they did not want.

A couple once rang the doorbell and pressed a small games table into my hands. “We are so sorry,” they whispered, “don’t tell x that we returned it — please.” Others were useless without his advice. One client flew him to Chicago to arrange the objects on a coffee table because the cleaner had moved everything.

My biggest problem with selling is when people don’t like your stuff. I listen while people say, “That is the most hideous thing I have ever seen.” They feel not only entitled to say so, but that it is to my benefit to hear it.

Or they want to share why a table is exactly like one they have, except for a few minor details like size, material, age and design — and furthermore they bought their one for a fraction of the ridiculous price they see before them.

What can you do? Grin and bear it. The two things you hear most are “Is it antique?” and “Is it for sale?” But time and experience do give you a certain thickness of rhino hide.

A peculiarity of selling is the more people speak the less they are likely to buy, and the more they move the less they buy. No one who turns over a chair or examines the underside of a table is ever going to buy it. Those who buy don’t chat and they don’t bend down.

Often selling can be virtually silent. In San Francisco on the opening night of the fair we were reaching the end of the evening, I had enjoyed perhaps rather too many vodka shots and canapés and was yearning to head back to the hotel.

A couple approached the stand and started whispering. After what seemed an age, they asked if the pair of mirrors on the stand were still available. I replied very carefully, “yes”.

They backed away and muttered quietly for a further period, before politely asking if they could buy them. Again, carefully, I replied “yes”. The woman thanked me, gave me her card and said she would call about shipping in the morning. That was definitely the most perfect sale.

The internet has made things easier for unnatural salesmen like me, but personal contact still matters, and it can be fun with a few customers, even when they don’t buy.

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