Only collect

The key to successful selling is to cultivate collectors


This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I have devoted the last 30 years to antiques. I can buy them in any environment, art or design, from all periods, styles and countries. I bought a piece of furniture from a pub where I was drinking and I also bought the tables from a greasy spoon where I was having coffee.

But dealing is not just buying. It is also selling. Unfortunately, I have no equivalent obsession with selling. Objects accumulate in my storage and at home. Our shelves and rooms groan under the weight of furniture and objects. But selling does happen and I am not alone in wanting it to be easier.

We need clients and, better still, collectors

Every dealer yearns for a seamless link between an object’s arrival and departure, with not enough time to grow attached and not too long to grow depressed. We need clients and, better still, collectors. A client will make a purchase, or maybe two, and then disappears. A lovely call or email comes out of the blue and an object is winging its way somewhere else. That is appetizing, but intrinsically uncertain.

Every dealer’s dream is to nourish and develop a collector. Someone with whom you have a direct connection and who has enough room, money and understanding to be able to buy within their field but with a certain greedy gusto and a sense of needy insecurity. Someone who will buy regularly over a number of years but who will always ask you first.

I have a dealing friend who inherited his best collector from his father, handed on like a precious chalice. This is the dream, he is an American who buys when the inspiration touches him and that happens all the time.

He accumulates great things and from time to time makes a generous donation from his collection to a grateful museum; thus freeing more space for further acquisition. The commitment is that he speaks to my friend every single day, and sometimes several times.

I once had a collector of chess sets. He would come to London every three months or so to see what I had found. When something excited him he would begin to gently whistle, if interest matured to acquisitiveness he would burst into song or even do a little dance. Sadly, he does not travel anymore and is too antique for the internet. He was quite an eccentric and the American is more typical. No boon comes without its burden.

Collectors are sufficiently rare that they can sometimes be fought over. I remember a very intense time in Paris in the lobby of the Ritz. There was an American lady, a voracious collector, who always travelled with her pack of Pekingese dogs. Her habit was to choose a dealer for ten years and then trade them in. She was in transition, running in a new one, when we all bumped into each other and the dogs got into an unfeasible knot.

My boss at the time stepped in and heroically untangled the yapping hounds. His reward was broad smiles and an invitation for drinks later.

Both the best and the worst sort of collector is the one that becomes a friend

A few minutes later when the bustle had died down the new man took my boss by the scruff of the neck and pinned him to the wall, some very ungentlemanly threats were uttered, and we were all left a bit shaken. A lot was at stake for him and our seeming to muscle in was not welcome at all.

If my current best collector wants something, he needs it to happen in a blink. I sold him a chair once and he wanted me to make a copy of it. Even though this required a sequential chain of services; a chair maker, a painter, an upholsterer and a specialist fabric-maker we nearly hit the buffers over how long it took to achieve. But I embrace the impatience and the caprice because there is a more than commercial satisfaction in providing the service and overcoming the challenges, both artistic and human.

Both the best and the worst sort of collector is the one that becomes a friend. The fundamental drawback of friendship with collectors is that they slowly and inexorably cease to be customers. You begin with the enthusiasm and shared connoisseurship, then you travel, discuss and buy together and you find yourself advising, sharing or sacrificing profit. The fundamental capitalist principle goes out of the window. You end up having a lot of fun and you help build an interesting collection. But there is no commerce.

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