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By  M a g g i e   S n e l l

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.

 Maggie Snell
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 Jewellery.

E-mail: maggie@ismacs.u-net.com

Web site: http://www.sew-sales.com

Text Copyright © Maggie Snell and Vanessa Paterson
Photographs courtesy  Maggie Snell, Patrick Kapty, and Marbeth Schon
Web design by Marbeth Schon

www.mschon.com

Design Copyright ©Modern Silver Magazine October 2000

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