Was a time when, with the vicissitudes of traveling, it was more remunerative for the merchant to bring goods to the consumer than it was to wait for the consumer to bring himself to the merchant. The Yankee peddler, of course, is the classic example of the intrepid merchant whose stock in trade consisted of the necessities, and not a few luxuries, that the erstwhile buyer located far out in the sticks would see in rare visits to town, often only annually, coinciding with the post harvest marketing of crops or livestock.
Perhaps my few readers have noticed that times have changed. Travel is no longer a hazardous affair undertaken only as a necessity, although my latest transcontinental plane trip did make me ask myself if the trip were really necessary. That aside, the dearth of door to door sales- does anyone remember the ubiquitous Fuller Brush man?- should indicate that the nature of retail has changed. The rapid evolution has seen the high street retailer now replaced by the shopping mall, which itself is quickly fading into obsolescence with the proliferation of online purchases at the ethereal ‘virtual’ storefront.
Still and all, some retail trading venues continue to, if not flourish, then at least exist in a specialized niche that would be hard to imagine disappearing from the landscape. In this respect, I think of the well-established art market cities of Paris, London and New York. The famous salesrooms and the finest dealers all inhabit these cities, and any expansion to other regional centers in Europe, Asia, or North America is now something of the past, the occasional ad hoc sale and exceptional fair not withstanding. The why of this isn’t tough to figure out- the buyer pool for what it is that is purchased at the rarefied heights is extremely limited, and it is easier to capture a larger part of that pool if items are offered within an established venue.
It is, then, a surprise to find that the world’s premier art and antiques fair is seriously considering an expansion to China, ostensibly to capture, on their own home turf, what is perceived to be a burgeoning pool of collectors. The why of all this mystifies me as, with sales over the last several years since China has become a real player in the art market, the Chinese themselves have had no difficulty in finding their way to the established centers- and beyond. Moreover, while the Chinese have purchased art and antiques of other national schools, their overwhelming preference has been to repatriate their own treasures. One wonders, then, with the fair’s reputation predicated on the offering of a panoply of fine material from around the world, how broadly successful a new world class fair could be.
It comes as a further surprise that one of the prime movers in the effort to launch a fair in China is one of the major salesrooms, who doubtless will have an overarching selling presence at the fair. While length of purse might make the salesroom of value in assisting to market the fair, the not so hidden message, it seems, would be to perpetrate the notion, a specious one I’ll admit, that one might browse the stock of the established dealer and pick his brains, but then make the ultimate purchase from the ‘wholesale’ salesroom. The fair dealers would at best serve as a decorative backdrop to support the larger marketing agenda of the salesroom, in a relationship as synchronic as that enjoyed between the invading army and the maidens of the besieged town.
Perhaps the experience this week of a consortium of English salesrooms whose vaunted premier sale in China left ¾ of the offered lots unsold, and patronized by a paltry number of prospective buyers, will send a message to show organizers and prospective dealers that the Chinese market is already adequately served, and an in-country presence will not automatically result in a sales Golconda.