E N D O F A N E R A
Come hail, rain, shine, heatwave and snowstorm, for at least 48 weeks a year
for more than 20 years I ran an outside stall on London's Saturday Portobello
Road antiques market. Ditto the Bermondsey trade market near Tower Bridge,
but this was inside in a small shop unit. Back then Bermondsey trading started
around 10am Thursday and went on, often all night, until Friday afternoon,
many deals being sealed in the pub.
It was something of a culture shock when suddenly macho guys started drinking
orange juice. The drink-drive laws came in and it hit us that without a licence
we were out of business. Before that no one thought twice about drinking
two or three hot toddies to keep away the cold on a freezing market afternoon.
There was a hierarchy among dealers - make that market traders- I'm not talking
about the Knightsbridge gentry. This was basically divided between those
of us who went out on the road to look for stuff and those who stayed behind
and waited for it to be brought to the London markets or run to their shops.
Many 20 to 30-somethings started when I did in the mid-1970s. You needed
very little capital or even knowledge to start up, an old van to get around,
a lot of energy and an understanding that if you didn't get out there and
hussle you didn't earn any money. Every day was an adventure, a challenge
- it was the huntin' shootin' fishin' aspect of seeking out the unfindable
and persuading other professionals that you couldn't possibly pay that inflated
price as we needed to make a living too, that kept us going. The adrenaline
and making deals were the things.
Selling was a necessary evil. Show me an antiques dealer who likes to sell
and I'll show you 100 who would prefer just to buy the items they like and
would hold on to if they could afford to keep them. Selling turned money
around to allow funds to buy lovely things that you could enjoy for a while
then pass on to others, then go out and buy some more.
It was all summed up for me one particular early Bermondsey morning. I'd
hit on an 1850's Daguerreotype photograph that I should have bought as I
had some knowledge of the subject. But it was expensive and my partner had
told me that we were short of money and just to buy certainties, and not
to speculate, so I left it. I was wrong. Had I looked closer I would have
learned it was a full plate picture of an important Victorian politician.
It changed hands three times that morning, among gung-ho guys who I knew
well, then turned up in a Christie's auction. The next time I saw it was
in the New York apartment of a top of the pile New York collector.
But that isn't the point of the story. When we started out dealers were happy
to deal among each other, take a cut and allow something for the next guy.
No one worried too much about getting top dollar for everything, because
there was always next week and other treasures to find.
Today an item of that calibre would not turn up on a market. The owner would
simply put it straight into an auction. Multiply that by several items a
day over hundreds, even thousands, of dealers and it doesn't take an Einstein
to work out that the quick turnover/small profit mentality that was peculiarly
British had to adapt to changing circumstances.
Over the years entrepreneurs started up occasional large fairs around the
country, each running usually three times a year. It made a change from the
weekly, usually London, markets. And it was brilliant for the small trader
who often came into contact for the first time with many thousands of British,
European and, at the bigger ones, American and Australian dealers and
collectors. However, big business stepped in and the antiques business has
now gone corporate, most of the major British fair chains being taken over
by the exhibition arm of a national newspaper. On any month, and often each
week, from several hundred to several thousand converge on large halls, horse
race courses and pensioned-off airfields to buy and sell. There are several
magazines including the bible, The Antiques Trade Gazette which is also owned
by the newspaper group, to tell you where they all are.
But there developed a downside. Why turn stock over for a small profit to
a British dealer when you can get a better price to an overseas' one or an
international collector? Prices have equalised (more often than not upward)
and British dealers couldn't afford to earn the bulk of their income from
each other any more Then, around three years ago, the economic climate changed.
European dealers, the major staple of British income, stayed away because
the English pound was, and still is, too strong against the Euro and major
European currencies. And though our prices didn't change that much, their
buying power reduced by around 30 per cent. The business is being stifled
and is grinding to a halt. The famous battle cry that there's nothing to
buy isn't quite accurate - there's more stuff out there spread out more thinly
amongst more dealers than ever before. What we mean is that everyone, including
the original owners, want and expect the market price and there's nothing
dealers can earn a profit out of. The knowledgeable dealer who has for decades
- maybe even hundreds of years, remember Shylock? - backed his skill and
judgment out of his own back pocket, bought at source, and passed on to a
specialist dealer or direct to a collector at a fair mark-up, is being squeezed
out of business. And it isn't fun any more. An era has passed. You're on
your own guys
- enjoy Ebay.
is a London- based antiques dealer who has specialised in Victorian
technology for more than 20 years. She has a world-class collection of antique
and toy sewing machines, and edits an international journal on the subject
with subscribers in 16 countries, the largest group being American. She has
collected '60s and '70s jewellery for 10 years and has a special fondness
for Scandinavian abstract, particularly Bjorn Weckstrom's Space Series