The sense, or scent, from Shaw Avenue

shaw-adobeWe are pleased to be on familiar turf, which turf is actually incorporated into the adobe walls of our Cliff May design premises. ‘No place like home’? Not exactly- but something along the line of a realization, in my seventh decade, that one’s hometown is an ineluctable part of one’s matrix. Of course, a body can change locales, but takes with him inescapable elements of home. I cannot ever escape the link I have with the clay soil of this neighborhood and at this point in my life, I have no desire to.

Some wags when reading this might, when considering our move, borrow a thought from Louis D’Ascoyne in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, to the tune of changing the medieval splendors of Chalfont Castle for the modern conveniences of Balaclava Avenue, SW, but as with Fresno’s impact, so has everything else had an effect, arguably not as great, but nevertheless things that, wherever and how often I move, will stay with me. The occasional whiff of coal smoke on a cold night in Islington, the smell of sewer gas at Jackson and Sansome in San Francisco, and the enveloping warmth of the plumeria scented night air in Honolulu. Why all these smells? In fact, the clay soil of old Fig Garden in Fresno has a particular smell that when damp, adobe bricks give off, too. I don’t really know why scent is the predominant sense as I write this. Actually, I do- the lawn is being mowed and the scent of newly mown grass is pervasive as it can only be on a warm Fresno day.

We’ll further consider vernacular Fresno- art, architecture, and culture generally. My own interest aside, I have to say, however, that the arts organizations locally find fundraising more than a modest struggle, the presumption on the part of the well heeled donor base that anything locally must perforce be second (or third or fourth) rate, that high culture is a phenomenon found in the great urban centers. Piffle. Culture is the natural byproduct of the sentient beings we all are, and from the vantage point of experience, over sixty years worth, I look forward to exploring this from the respite of Shaw Avenue.


An early morning email from one of the better local designers at once chided me for moving away from Jackson Square, but, having left the neighborhood herself a few months ago, quickly told me that moving was the best thing she ever did. I must say, we still have the occasional feeling of ambivalence, as we do have some people down here we will miss seeing, but believe me, by no means everyone.

A few of you know that for a significant part of my working life, I was engaged in commercial lending with a large bank. Asset based lines of credit to middle market companies, with the occasional commercial real estate loan, were what kept me busy, and up to the mark, as most of the businesses I dealt with, although legal entities, were basically the alter egos of the primary owner. All self made, they were to a person extremely sharp and always with their heads in the game. Then, too, were my colleagues within the bank- a few were occupied primarily with keeping the seat of the swivel chair warm, but mostly they were bright and hardworking. All, both customers and colleagues, had strong opinions that they were not reluctant to give voice to. That said, strident conversations were a rarity.

I say this because, in our years in the trade, strident conversations with colleagues are a frequent occurrence. It has astonished me what a petty, spiteful group of individuals are gathered together in one vocation. The why of this is mystifying, but the result of long custom, no longer surprising. A bit of insight was given me early on by one of our less collegial neighbors who, when I decried the leaving of a vaunted colleague on the street for the greener pastures of New York City, told me, and I quote- ‘What do you care? That’s just that much more business for the rest of us.’ What a fool. Any diminution of a venue makes it less of a venue and less of a destination for buyers. The not surprising upshot, when the dealer in question left Jackson Square, we noticed no uptick in business. Using our surviving colleague’s rationale, we should all of us be millionaires, because where we once had nearly 30 dealers in the neighborhood, we now have three. And when we leave, there will be two. They will reap, I suppose, but what they will reap will be the whirlwind.

It seems, though, that the penny did eventually drop, but it hasn’t resulted in anything but additional spitefulness and backstabbing. We had not so long ago a gentleman interested in a piece of our stock, but it was an item about which he was unfamiliar and wanted to have someone of expert mien provide a second opinion. We never say no to this, although it is a circumstance that rarely presents itself. Still, nothing happened until a week or so later, one of our neighbors presented himself right at 5PM. He had been drinking and his first remark was ‘Well, I guess you know why I’m here.’ I didn’t, but when he asked to see the item in question, I put two and two together. His examination was at best cursory, however, and he left without further comment. In fact, nothing further was said to us at all, save being copied on an email sent to the prospective buyer warning him off the purchase, citing a couple of inaccurate and biased criteria. Mind you, this is someone whose own place of business is less than the throwing distance of a large stone away from our front door, yet he did not extend the courtesy of discussing this matter any further with us, before he contacted the client in an effort to put the boot in. I must say, when Keith and  I read the email, we instantly paid a call on our neighbor and told him he was an asshole. We were not so upset, however, that we failed to notice in his shop an item similar to the one he was engaged to assess. Whether his attempt to knife us resulted in a sale for him I don’t know, but what I can say for sure is that he gained our everlasting enmity. Sue him? Ironically, he did us a favor. We sold the piece shortly thereafter for more money.

Diminishing a colleague’s stock in order to put forth one’s own seems to be a favorite trick and it can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. Not so long ago, we had a vetting issue at an antiques fair on an item that we knew was perfectly fine. Rather than relabel our piece with a description we knew to be inaccurate, we decided to just not exhibit the piece. What a surprise to find, later during the run of the fair, the dealer that had raised issue with our item, brought in something similar of his own- with the connivance of the vetting chair! Again, we were in the long run not damaged, as we sold the item to an institutional collector.

While one might initially suppose that commercial advantage (read ‘greed’) might explain a fair amount of this, it is hard for me to believe that so many of our colleagues would be so stupid as to think that a sale lost by me will necessarily result in a sale for them. Witness, of course, the dealers who’ve left, with no increase in revenue for those of us who survive. Beyond that, though, none of us have the same stock or the same look. Similar, perhaps, but the overall aesthetic that each dealer brings to his stock in trade is unlike that of any other dealer. We have people who will trade with us almost exclusively, while our colleagues certainly have a loyal cadre of buyers, as well. While we do have all of us spot sales, no one’s business is built on it. Even on the internet, we find that, as much as in the storefront, buyers still like our signature look and tend to return.

In the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s, though, dealers at least locally cut a fat hog, with dot com companies and their stock option rich owners buying wildly, with dealers achieving incredible markups. With the crash, everyone’s fortunes changed, with dealers very much diminished, both in revenue but also, crucially, in outlook. Keith and I missed all that, beginning trading full time in mid 2002. We’ve never known anything but tough sledding, but our surviving colleagues have never recovered their equanimity following the glory years. We see ego run amuck all the time. One nearby colleague whose fortunes are vastly reduced will tell anyone within five minutes of meeting them, regardless of subject or appropriateness, about his participation in the New York Winter Antiques Show. Our most telling experience, and ongoing for our entire tenure in business, is the absence- I don’t mean dearth, I mean total absence- of referral business from other dealers. I don’t mean it seldom happens- I mean it never happens. Our attitude has always been one of trying to keep business local. If we don’t have what the customer is looking for, we happily will refer them to someone we think might. As well, we do make purchases from other dealers from time to time, usually with a particular customer in mind. This always engenders- wait for it- ill-will from the dealer from whom we make the purchase. ‘Ill-will’? Yes, in spades. Not so long ago, we purchased a set of 12 chairs from a curmudgeonly colleague for a client who happened to ask us for a long set of chairs. When we returned to the dealer to also purchase a sidetable, he brushed us aside, telling us that, next time the client was in town, he could come in and make the purchase himself. The fact was, the client had been in, but found the dealer and his premises so off-putting, he had no desire to return.

So, while I suppose we still have some lingering ambivalence about closing our storefront, none of it is associated with the benighted neighbors we’ll be leaving behind. God bless them, as they stew within their own juices.

‘Best price’

As we make the transition from actual to virtual, and look forward to the cost savings that jettisoning the albatross that has become our gallery space will engender, we will continue to have the frequent non-buyer/tire kicker. One would assume that, with the anonymity and shield from reaction/retribution that is the common feature of all online activity, newly emboldened buyers and browsers will in increasing numbers be kickers of tires and rattlers of chains. Interestingly, we have found that we as frequently experience this in our bricks and mortar as ever happens on the internet. The why of this is hard to imagine. I suspect though, that, face to face, people might not be bolder, but are more driven out of nervousness to say something, appropriate or not. ‘What’s your best price?’ is a not unusual gallery query, and nothing to which we take offense. I have never done what a colleague suggested, and offer the rejoinder ‘200% of retail is what’s best for me.’ We generally assume that ‘What’s your best price?’ is an honest question from a good faith buyer, and our standard rejoinder, equally sincere, is ‘We try to price our prices fairly, but if you have something in mind (or in the alternative ‘if you have a budget’) we’re happy to hear it.’ About 90% of the time, the conversation ends right there, and we know that we have ferreted out a tire kicker. Happy to let them browse, of course, but we know that a purchase is as very far distance from that which would be idiomatically described as in the offing.

However, what we have found, when the one out of ten that does offer a price in response does so, we have someone sincerely interested in making a purchase. Also, and this is very interesting, we have never, ever had anyone offer us something a fraction of what our price actually is. The why of this is likewise unknown. I remember very, very well when we started out and were participating in our very first big name antiques fair, the dealer whose stand we took over told us sourly that the fair was a Mecca for buyers who came at the 11th hour, only to offer, his term, low ball prices. This was a fair we did for nearly 10 years, and made some phenomenal sales, and nothing of the sort ever occurred.

This sounds ridiculously self serving, but it has occurred to both Keith and me that, although our material is not to everyone’s taste, it is likewise not in everyone’s budget. In fact, it is in very few people’s budget, and that’s not our design. We don’t seek to be exclusive or particularly high toned. Basically, we offer what appeals to us, pieces about which we have an interest and can represent with a degree of passion, and that passion, while not necessarily infectious, is more likely to find kindred spirits than offering material strictly because we think we can make a buck.

And I suppose that’s why, when someone does offer us a price, it is generally within reason, and that reasonableness almost invariably allows for some kind of compromise that will result in a sale.

Vintage, again

Always a confluence of items, my last blog engendered a fair old amount of response, and it also coincided with an invitation to the launch of a website devoted to the sale of vintage material. Interestingly, the young lady that invited me had the title of ‘curator’. Hmm…what, I wonder, does that entail? Particularly curious, now that I had a look at her website. Perhaps she’s able to suss out the nature of the stains on the ‘vintage’ upholstery, or determine what sort of household pet it was that made the bite marks on the chair legs. Of note, their featured consignor is a local fellow who proudly offers his wares as worthy of the Paris flea market. He’s bragging about this?

Sadly for those of us who are offering period material, there has been a proliferation of sites devoted to the sale of vintage items that I have seen frequently characterized not as used furniture, but as- wait for it- ‘pre-loved’. But now currently ‘post- rubbish’ or ‘pre-dumpster.’

As my devoted blogophiles will recall from my last entry, I remain surprised that a lot of design has so far plumbed the depths that vintage material constitutes a laudable addition to an interior scheme. Mind you, I’m not talking about fine quality 20th century design, but pieces that are looks-like but isn’t kitsch, and pet-stained soft furnishings. I guess if you miss your first college apartment that badly, this is the look for you. Ugh!

What remains a sad fact, though, is that so many people just don’t know. The notion of what period material means for a dealer or a knowledgeable collector is lost on nearly everyone else. We posted a nice Sheraton period card table online as a featured item the other day, and I immediately received a comment from a poor benighted soul about the problems he had restoring his Sheraton period card table- the one his parents purchased from Baker Furniture in the 1950’s. We were not, as they say, on the same page.

Nor are most people. That sounds snotty, but it is a value neutral fact and something that dealers, collectors, and designers need to increasingly get used to. If one does a key word search for ‘Sheraton card table’, I’d venture to say that, amongst a few good period examples, there will be lots and lots and lots of old-ish vintage pieces. And with the plethora of sales sites that offer mostly vintage material, those period pieces will be in the distinct minority. Given that not everyone is a seasoned collector, this vast array can’t help but confuse, and what choice? By default, the buyer uses the only tool within their ken, and that is- shop by price. Using this single measure, will the buyer get value for money? Probably not, but if the effort is to recreate an upscale version of a college apartment, it might be a step up from what they’re used to.

‘ -speak’

What we used to term jargon is now ‘(pick your industry)- speak’, and while ‘jargon’ had the connotation of something that was, within its context, esoteric and recondite, certainly in the antiques, art and design trades, most of the short hand terms are used to give something cachet. Watching the Antiques Roadshow, the proper name ‘Chippendale’ is widely applied to virtually any furniture piece in even the vaguest of mid 18th century English or English colonial style and of such degrees of quality, usually bad, that it is surprising that we haven’t heard that the master’s mortal remains have spun to the surface of the ground above his final resting place.

A trade-speak term that has sadly found currency is the term ‘vintage’. As near as I can understand it, ‘vintage’ is anything in the decorative arts that has some age but is not nearly an antique. Terms change, but something that is now vintage is what I would have termed for most of my life ‘used furniture’, or if speaking amongst my franker colleagues, ‘firewood’. As my few loyal blogophiles will know from reading one of my recent entries, very many new furniture mass market retailers are producing pieces of vaguely period design, and whose faux distress both in show frame, upholstery, and underframe, while meant to betoken age actually functions to mask inherently poor quality. It is therefore comical to see in the work of many designers an admixture of so-called vintage pieces that by their inclusion seek to give some sort of sophistication and depth of feeling to newly made crap. Just one man’s view, of course, but any contemporary use of a 50’s Heywood Wakefield coffee table is always going to put me in mind of Eve Arden and ‘Our Miss Brooks’.

I’ve seen this bizarre mix of the pseudo period and the vintage lots of times recently, and in a couple of settings here locally- early 20th century houses of neoclassical design- the juxtaposition was truly horrific. The newly bleached parquetry and painted over/painted out plaster grotesqueries and arabesques did make matters jarringly worse. I do not know why householders do not know that unusual compositions in marred and inappropriate settings do not betoken cleverness. They are what they are- just plain odd. Mind you, I am not stumping for some notion of strict adherence to a design aesthetic that, even in its own time was largely the fancy, albeit a studied one, of the designer. The interiors whether of Robert Adam or Frank Lloyd Wright were rarities in their own day, and seldom survive unaltered. Eclectism is the natural result of spaces lived in and when this happens to good effect, it becomes a happy union of the period and the more contemporary, when and if, of course, exterior and interior architecture provide a congenial matrix. An interior scheme that is botched in conception, disjoined from its surroundings, won’t be helped by the addition of so-called vintage material.

In praise of the painted (and gilded)

af12012-0116What occludes the fact that Georgians loved their movables to be colorful is that so very little painted furniture survives. What’s often the only thing on offer through most dealers is dour, heavily oxidized- or in antique dealers’ speak ‘beautifully patinated’- mahogany and not to the taste of absolutely everyone. More’s the pity, as the notion that period furniture runs to one class of goods risks turning off a number who might one day become collectors.

I would venture to say that, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, painted furniture significantly outnumbered those pieces of mahogany, probably because painted pieces, made from common and vernacular timbers like deal, beech and oak and then applied with a splash of paint, were much, much cheaper to produce than those made from exotic imported woods. The brightly colored and high style armchairs pictured have frames of beech, seats of cane, and although finely decorated, the labor to perform the task was in the day the least expensive part of the operation. How times have changed. Even a dense wood like oak could be made to look light and sexy with the right sort of coating.

af02022-0116The George II period japanned coffer on stand is composed of thick planks of quartersawn oak that, while in themselves heavy, are fancifully decorated with a  red japanning that contributes a lightness that minimizes what would otherwise be the dark, glowering mass of the coffer.

The other feature of painted furniture, particular for seating, was that it was a cheap and cheerful support for something that was infinitely more expensive- its fabric covering. In this modern age of machine made fabrics, we’ve no notion of how extraordinarily expensive furnishing fabrics were 200 or more years ago.

af02015-0116All hand spun, hand dyed and hand loomed, the intensity of the labor involved to produce fabric made it immeasurably expensive, and the quintessence of luxurious display.  We’ve tried to replicate this sort of pairing on the sofa pictured, covered in an Italian silk lampas of 18th century design.

But what’s overlooked in all this is the simple fact that, though today mahogany can seem hulkingly overpowering, in its own day it was not. Crisply carved with a wash of red pigment to bring out its own ruddy color, mahogany furniture was very, very bright in a way that would seem garish to today’s collector. As well, the carved details were then often gilt heightened as an accent, witness the cabriole legs of this Chippendale armchair in the French taste.  This gilding, not surprising, seldom survives as it would wear away over time, or be stripped off as fashion changed.

af03007-0117The English sea victories over the Dutch who formerly dominated the trade in exotic woods gave England a corner on the mahogany market, which became, after about 1730, the favored exotic timber. Dense and colorful, often with beautiful figure, mahogany also takes wonderfully to carving- so much so that the beauty of the wood itself was often intentionally subordinate to the carving.

The George II gilded console pictured is masterfully carved mahogany- but also covered in a mixture of both oil- and water gilding to contribute tonal differences that heightened the carving’s three dimensional effect. We’ve done a bit of archeology on this piece, and determined that it was always gilded- the supreme luxury of an exotic material, extraordinarily wrought, and then finished with luxurious surface decoration.

af03027-0117Sadly, changing fashions, and ephemeral surface decoration, meant that most painted furniture even of the best quality, when nicked or damaged, was simply thrown away. Furniture made of the more exotic woods survived, partly because, as their surfaces were less prone to damage, they looked a bit better for longer than their painted counterparts, and partly because, higher priced initially, they were regarded as inherently more valuable.

The Downton Abbey bump

Like millions of others, I was glued to the TV this past Sunday evening, watching the further travails of the extended Crawley family and their retainers, in the redoubtable, albeit sanitized, Highclere Castle, now more familiarly known as ‘Downton Abbey’. I like the performers and their performances, and by and large find the setting and the situations, and their resolutions, believable and consistent with the day and age in which the characters live- sufficiently consistent, that is to say, to garner besides me an audience of historicists, heritage groupies, and those who just want to be entertained. I am a fan of Julian Fellowes who understands life amongst the great and the good better than anyone now writing, and if you want something that is thoroughly entertaining, read his novel Snobs of a few years ago.

No question, the interest in the series is a real phenomenon, and we’ve been asked over and over if its success has lead to a spike in interest in our material. Surprisingly, the answer is no, and the why of it is hard to fathom. Clearly, the interest in ‘Downton…’ is heightened by the accuracy of production detail lavished upon it. One would presume that this would spawn some significant stab made toward life imitating art. If it has, someone would have to point it out to me. We have had locally a British-themed restaurant open, but this has more to do with the local Brit ex-pat whose fortune made in the tech industry funded its development. But purchases of moveables, so far as we can see, in anyone’s effort to recreate their own personal homage to Downton Abbey has yet to take place. If we made a sale to everyone who inquired about a bump, we would indeed realize one, but so far, nothing of the sort.

We were sorry to hear of the death of a good friend and longtime family trading partner whose overarching presence in the raisin industry in my home town of Fresno made him something of a celebrity. I mention this as, in remembering this gentleman, of how often I had wondered why it was that, despite a burgeoning demand for natural and additive free food products, production, prices and demand for the excellent product that sun-dried raisins are has actually declined over the past three decades. As I was discussing this for the umpteenth time this morning on the phone with my father, he opined that it was a lack of consistent promotion within the industry to keep raisins in the mind of the consuming public. Possibly, but it seemed to me that, with raisins a consumable  known since antiquity, demand should proceed apace whatever the promotional efforts, however flawed.

‘Downton Abbey’ and natural sun-dried raisins- highly disparate one would assume. But in my mind, similar in that both have a niche that, while popular within it, should spawn some broader and expanding interest. But neither has done so, and in both cases, the why of it is any body’s guess. Perhaps my small but ever so loyal cadre of readers will have something to say, either about Downton Abbey or natural sun dried raisins. Who knows? That might stimulate a bump or perhaps two that, at least for me, will aid in providing my daily crust.

What passes as modern

We were pleased to be joined by a colleague for a smart drink yesterday post 5PM. Keith and I do this from time to time, often enough, one would presume, to identify some favorite watering holes. Unfortunately, those venues we initially identify as appropriate for a hang out designation frequently change staff, and bar menu, so what might otherwise be a comfortable spot becomes, sooner rather than later, unfamiliar, often with its pleasant characteristics shed. That this happens is an odd phenomenon, as I always feel that one’s core business is repeat business, but as with so much these days, the received wisdom is that frequent change is essential. Exactly why that is, I don’t know- we still believe that relationships are a necessary component of any successful business, and would be furious at ourselves if, changing for the sake of change, we ran business off.

As a consequence, we tried out a new spot, the lobby bar of the local branch of a well-known international chain of luxury hotels. We had been in before, not all that long ago, and while the food and service were adequate, albeit changed from our last visit, the décor was not. What had been in the last year a comfortable, cheery environment of overstuffed chairs and banquettes was changed to something that reminded me of the stock in trade of one of the furniture rental stores- angular seating furniture with black painted show frames, angular low tables with stone tops, and while the banquettes were still there, they were, as was all the seat furniture, upholstered in dour tones of black and gray.

Frankly, though, this mimics nearly all the lobby bars of all the local luxury hotels. Scotch that- the local branches of all the luxury hotel chains. Locally owned hostelries are not as abundant in San Francisco as they once were. And therein lies the tale, with chains of hotels going the way of every other mass market retailer of goods and services- every one copies everyone else and with such frequency that no one maintains any particular distinction for very long. We see this everywhere. As it happened, our cocktails out were preceded by a visit to the San Francisco Design Centre where we had remarked about the sameness of so much of the showroom material, any one of which, or all of whom, for that matter, could have supplied furnishings- with no variation in style or palette- to all the hotels. A funny story just occurred to me, about a gentleman in the antiques trade who said that when he looked across his shop he saw shiny surfaces and all of them brown. Mind you, all the same is no more interesting in period material than it is in contemporary, so our longstanding attempt in own gallery is to pleasantly interrupt that sea of brown with some painted finishes, gilding, and distinctive fabrics. However, when we looked across some of the showrooms we visited yesterday, it was not a sea of brown that we were greeted with, but one of a dull gray. Likewise the hotel bar- only relieved, but thank goodness it was, by the warm brown of my neat rye whiskey. Oh, yes- and Keith’s Manhattan.

‘Cheap is cheap’

midnightInParisCribbed from Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, ‘cheap is cheap’ quotes the character Gil’s would be mother-in-law, an erstwhile interior designer, when Gil is taken aback by the multi thousand euro price for a pair of teak deck chairs at the Paris flea market. I was taken aback, too, at the ask price for something that, assuming they were actually period, should sell for maybe $500 each. But the point is made, that very often designer and collector haunts absolutely gouge their punters- whether locals or auslanders. That said, this propensity for gouging that seemed so long established a feature of dealers in the favorite venues has become something of an anachronism by the time Woody made the film in 2011. Still, the point is well made- some people will pay an inordinate price to be able to say that an item was purchased at the Paris flea market, or in the Cotswolds, or on the Via del Babuino. Not too many anymore, though, as the Cotswold dealers have become as scarce as hen’s teeth, and the Paris fleas sell items that so betoken a flea market that that becomes the overarching feature, decidedly detracting from what was formerly a good talking point.

Certainly the internet has become the great equalizer, with punters able to with very little effort see what an item should really sell for and as my few loyal blogophiles will have noted in my last blog, the panoply of items ostensibly similar has brought the asking price of everything down.

And down in every respect, including quality. In this regard, I think about a mass market retailer whose stores, website and catalogs have proliferated mightily in the last couple of years, with a fair old amount of their material offered as period in style. With a vaguely distressed look and soft furnishings covered in off-white linen and secured with darkened upholstery tacks, one might, if one’s vision were bad, think they were in fact making a purchase of a flea market item, distressed in finish as one would expect furnishings would achieve in the fullness of time. Not so long ago, we received one of their catalogs, which was, I was surprised to find, about as thick as the Manhattan white pages. Although artfully produced, what caught my eye immediately were the (cheap) prices for literally everything and, given the production quality of the catalog, those prices seemed to represent extraordinary value. I saw, for instance, a period appearing chair at a price fractionally the price of what we could produce a similar chair in our own workshop, which we need to do from time to time when a customer requires us to augment, say a set of 8 dining chairs when they may require a set of 12. In looking at referenced catalog, I thought, well, perhaps chairs from this catalog merchant might serve us as blanks.

That was my thought, until I had the opportunity to inspect chairs, and indeed all the merchandise, at the retail outlet, which, consonant with the catalog, was artfully arranged. The merchandise, though, was, to use a technical term, complete crap. Poor quality timber, poorly finished, and the joinery so badly done that we’d be unable to use anything even as a blank. Clearly, not quality, but temptingly cheap and appealing to those, and they are legion, who haven’t seen quality and are consequently hooked by ‘looks like but isn’t’ and reeled in by price. Well, as has been said before, cheap is cheap…


In my former career in the banking business, ‘disintermediation’ was the term we used to describe the dwindling of the cash the bank held on deposit for customers, flowing as it would from time to time from bank directed investments- usually money market accounts- toward customer-directed investments. Hardly exclusive to banking, in simple terms the phenomenon would accurately be described as cutting out the middleman, and in these days of internet trading, disintermediation is an occurrence every retail merchant must be able to cope with.

I suppose the most immediate effect has been the shrinking bricks and mortar environment, with those merchants who represent a variety of product lines finding that their stores are used largely for display, with the shopper making the eventual purchase online and frequently directly from the manufacturer. For the rest of us, particularly in the art and antiques world, where our stock in trade is not just distinctive but in most cases unique, one would presume this wouldn’t happen. However, as a friend and colleague whose speciality is decorative boxes pointed out, his competition for sales can come from bizarre places, Target being one of them. Although we wish it were otherwise, not all of our prospective customers are of shall we say a connoisseurial bent. Say for instance one sought a Regency period decorative box to use to discreetly store the TV remote- this is a common contemporary use!- highly likely one will come up with something in period style and, viewed on the screen- or more frequently these days the iphone- the style example for $26 will look just the ticket, and the $2,600 period example, albeit fairly priced for what it is, will be given the go by. But more than that, when searching online, the browser will be met with a panoply of different items, far removed from what might have been the focus of their search, and like as not their ultimate purchase itself equally as removed as the apple is from the orange.

That’s a lot of the problem the trade faces, with internet shopping largely determined by the key words merchants include to describe their products. Nothing governs this, and the result is a fragmentation of the customer’s online search, carrying them very far afield from what it is that they originally had in mind when the search was contemplated. But even when the search remains relatively focused- using the Regency box example- price shopping becomes the order of the day, and the independent merchant in the antiques trade finds himself competing head to head with mass market merchandisers. And the result? The better capitalized merchant will survive, and the independent merchant will go the way of the buggy whip.

With the struggle the trade continues to undergo despite the improving worldwide economy, the general presumption- or at least the opinion we’ve heard most often- is that tastes have changed, and there’s less of a passion for period material. We tend to discount this, as our buyer demographic has remained basically constant since we established our retail gallery nearly 12 years ago- the buyers are basically the same age, in the same lines of work, and in the same geographic areas. What has changed is the increase we’ve experienced in the online, price driven ‘spot’ buyer of less expensive material- people who are unlikely to ever darken our gallery threshold.
What all this leads me to believe is that the online sales phenomenon that is quickly displacing bricks and mortar, is also fragmenting the dollars normally spent on antiques. The disintermediation that is an inherent feature of online purchases also exposes the buyer to a dizzying panoply of items to purchase. What might be assumed to be, with an improved economy, more money to spend on antiques, is, to the detriment of the antiques trade, hugely fragmented by a disproportionately larger number of items to spend that money on.