How to make money as an antique dealer in the 21st century.
By Carl young
The life of an antique dealer is more than a job, It’s a way of life! The adventure of finding little pieces of history, researching each item and finding them new homes is a rewarding and intriguing profession. Antiques drift in and out of fashion and as time goes by more and more items become antiques meaning there is always something new to learn.
During the late 20th century / early 21st century there was a massive seismic shift in how people find , purchase and sell products and antiques is no different, This game changing shift is called the internet and with it comes not only great benefits but great challenges specifically to the more older oriented business of selling antiques. I have created this book to help some less internet savvy older people to believe that the internet is not the end of the industry but a new beginning if properly navigated. I also am writing this guidebook to inspire younger people who are looking to build a good career in a very interesting business field that I love.
I hope this book brings some value to you and helps you through the challenging shift from analogue to digital dealing or maybe inspires you to start out doing something you love to make a living!
Internet changed the game!
The antique business typically has a quaint history of person to person dealing and collecting antique and curio items , Your trip to your local antiques shop was your only real chance of finding the antique and rare items you desired for your home or collection, This gave the dealers who owned such shops great power and enabling them to control and manipulate the market creating supply and demand. All great for the antiques dealers of years gone by!
Then came the internet in the late 20th century and everything changed and there was a seismic shift in power when it came to who controlled the market, because of all the newly created supply the internet brought to the market the price of many different collectable and antique items dropped like a stone giving more power to the buyer.
Ebay, Etsy, Amazon and many other large websites created a massive worldwide marketplace for anyone to buy and sell antiques and collectables at the comfort of your own home. Suddenly these mass-produced items that generations of the past i.e Royal Doulton figures, collectable dolls, collectors’ plates sank in value as the market became flooded.
The introduction of the internet has unfortunately come at the expense of many old time dealers and collectors due to the changes this new market place has brought to the prices and availability of antiques all over the world, Along with the fact that older people tend to struggle a bit more than younger people with technology leaves a large gap in the market for younger more tech savvy internet antique dealers of the future.
So we have discussed problems and challenges that the internet has brought to the antiques market over the past 20 years but this shift in dynamic also brings great benefits along with it that can be used to great advantages for the next generations antique dealers, One of the main plus points the internet has brought is the size of the potential customer base you can build, Years ago you maybe only had people who lived or visited your general location to count on buying your stock to keep you in business, But now with the wonders of the web you can build a worldwide customer base at very little cost and you must use this to your advantage. Ebay for example brings millions of potential customers to your front door every day for a very small fee in comparison to owning a store in a shopping mall in New York and you just have to work on how to get a portion of that massive customer base to buy your product.
Another major advantage of the internet is educational, pre internet era acquiring the knowledge about antique and collectable items was a slow and painstaking process. Many hours were needed spending time going to local auctions, reading as many price guide books as possible and speaking / getting to know other more seasoned antique dealers was a necessity for gaining the required knowledge to be able to operate as an antique dealer, This work would have been classed as your apprenticeship back then. Nowadays all the information you need to educate yourself in the business is freely and quickly available on websites like Google etc so use this advantage to increase your knowledge at a faster pace and also with internet phones this can also help you cut down on your mistakes by researching before you buy!
All this being said you must still be prepared to lose a little money by making mistakes especially at the start but don’t let this deter you as you learn fastest of all when it hits you in the pocket. These losses are like your tuition fee.
Manoeuvring through changes in fashions and tastes
As in all walks of life and business customers are widely influenced by fashions and tastes when purchasing products, For example not so long ago brown furniture became massively out of fashion, nobody wanted it and It was near impossible to sell achieving all time shockingly low prices even at auction, you could have bought a nice 19th century mahogany chest of drawers in good condition for under £50 at auction when before you would have been paying £150-£200. Some canny smart antique dealers took it upon themselves to look to the popular fashions in the market which at the time were white furniture for the modern minimalistic homes and simply started painting the old brown furniture with white chalk paint and slightly distressing therefore adapting an old piece into a modern fresh piece of furniture ideal for the modern market, dealers made seriously good money doing this and it goes to show you how important it can be to think outside the box and look to adapt to the current trends in order to earn a living selling antiques. Some people think this is blasphemy to paint an old piece of antique furniture but it sure beats it ending up in a skip or bonfire and to be quite honest upcycling furniture has been around for hundreds of years and is just good business at times.
Sourcing stock is without a doubt the most exciting part of the antiques and collectables business, spending you time travelling to antique malls or stores, auctions and vintage fairs to find undiscovered gems is like a new adventure every day and can be very addictive.
Auctions can be a seriously exhilarating and fun way of buying your stock, The energy and nervous tension that builds in the Auction room gives you a rush of adrenaline when bidding on items you want and can be a great way of getting both quality and quantity of items at reasonable prices. Beware that people can have a tendency of getting carried away in the auction room, bidding too much money for items after getting caught up in the drama of the sale, you must observe a level of restraint and discipline. The key is to go through all the items beforehand (called a viewing) set the top price you are prepared to pay then write it down and do not go above that on auction night. Try and look at all items as business stock and don’t get too attached to them when bidding. You have to be cold and calculated to some extent.
P.S …. Don’t forget to add on you auction fees when calculating your bidding price, Typical auction fees are between 15 and 20%, buyers must pay this on top of the hammer price of the item you win.
House clearances can also be great value and good way to get a lot of stock in one place saving you time and money, Generally all the stock you will get from a good house clearance will be good ‘’Fresh to the market’’ stock which has not been peddled around from dealer to dealer in your local antiques trade. Storage can be an issue with house clearances however as you are normally buying a house full of items ranging from large furniture and beds to small items and jewellery so depending on what you deal in you might need storage to hold larger or non-antique items like kitchen appliances until you can find a dealer who buys items like this, Alternatively you can also use local auction houses to sell all the items you do not want.
The best way to approach house clearances is to visit the house first off with a pen, notepad and a calculator, go through all of the items in the house that have value to you as an antique dealer write them all down with the price next to them that you are prepared to pay, then simply add all the prices together, deduct your costs from the total like van rental, petrol etc and there you have your offer price. Do not pay money for the other items you do not want as if you struggle to sell them you will be struggling to come out with profit in the end after all your work.
Antique fairs, flea markets etc
This method of finding stock for your antiques and collectables business is different from all the others, this method requires some detailed knowledge into specific items as you will be travelling from town to town visiting flea markets, antique fairs and malls etc trying to spot items that other dealers might have missed, cherry picking can be a fun adventure using all your experience and knowledge to find diamonds in the rough. The cost per item using this method will for sure be more expensive so you need to make sure you are hitting certain criteria when purchasing, you can use these three guidelines if you wish.
1. Make sure the items you buy are the right price to make it worth your while , bartering could be an option but you need to make sure you deduct your petrol, time, food costs from your sourcing trip as they will eat into your profit so try and get as low a price as you can.
2. 2. Go for interesting and unusual items which can be more desirable and easier to sell. We will go into a little more depth about this later.
3. Buy with clients in mind, on a sourcing trip I like to buy items I already have clients for, items I know I will be able to move straight away on return to one of my regular customers.
Building a good client base online is very important and the best way to do this in my experience is by using the 3 stages I have outlined above when purchasing stock, add into the mix daily listing to your store with great descriptions and excellent images and you are well on your way.
Sourcing stock and having the courage to believe in yourself moving forward by spending larger amounts of money on better quality items is key to building a successful career in the antiques business, Consistent listing, turnover of stock and a constant improving of stock quality will ultimately dictate the success of you online business.
Repurposing vintage and antique items
Repurposing less fashionable vintage and antique items can be a great way of earning good profit in the antiques business. As discussed earlier brown antique and vintage furniture has been on a dire slump for the past 20 years now with considerably more supply than demand driving prices low and creating an interesting angle for the canny antiques dealer to profit from. As an example for you buying antique brown mahogany and oak furniture could not have been easier with auction houses all over the world filled to the neck with various pieces and many good solid sets of chairs, sideboards, wardrobes and chests of drawers selling for very low prices, at some auctions you could have filled a van for a few hundred pounds.
But then you would have had to put in the work cleaning and sanding the items down, then repainting the furniture with the more popular pastel coloured chalk paint and finishing with a destressed style and a coat of wax. So, for a few hours work you should (if done well) have transformed an unfashionable item into a fresh new desirable piece of furniture with a few hundred pounds selling price for under £50 in investment. The demand for good solid pieces of furniture will always be there it’s just a matter of fashions and styles that dictate the market, as I have mentioned the same piece of furniture that was lying in an auction being sold for under £50 with just with a lick of paint and some care can be transformed into a desirable piece of furniture for the modern home.
This does not just apply to furniture however many antique tired looking unfashionable items can be transformed into something highly desirable and quite valuable with a little imagination and outside of the box thought.
Look for unusual items
Due to the increased availability of antiques due to the internet many antique and collectable items have lost a lot of value and the scarcity that pushed the prices higher is no longer there, basic supply and demand issue! Finding valuable and desirable antique and vintage items is harder that ever before but unusual and one-off items are a good area to focus on as demand will always outweigh the supply for many items like this.
Unusual items can range from upcycled items like old car light made into house lamps, large items as these are harder to source and move and even pieces like quirky hard to find items that are not common even in online sites like Ebay.
Items like this are obviously harder to source but well worth the searching as these types of items always command higher prices and generally sell a lot quicker in my experience anyway.
Specializing is also a very smart way to go about building your career in the antiques and collectables business. One of the greatest strengths of being a specialist in a field is the advantage gaining detailed knowledge on a subject, details can be the fine margins that make you a profit when buying especially in a field of general antique dealers. Not only from a purchasing perspective but specializing in a subject can also give you advantages when selling you items, having a reputation as a specialist in your field gives customers greater confidence in the items that you are selling and will for sure in time build you strong base of loyal customers. Reputation goes a long way in any business!
So now you have a grasp on what stock to buy and know where to find the items you want to trade in you now have to focus on the ‘’flip side’’ of life as an antique dealer, finding people to buy them! The internet gives you a great advantage in this area than generations gone by as we have already discussed earlier, Websites like Ebay, Etsy, Amazon and many more are so well established that they literally bring millions of potential customers right to your doorstep for a very small fee in comparison to what you would be charged in rent on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles for example or any other high street in the world that guarantees you a shot at selling to millions of customers a month.
I personally have always like to go by the old saying “don’t put all your eggs in one basket’’ and use at least two or three online platforms at the same time to maximize your exposure to you massive client base and this also helps when one store is a little quiet the others can keep you ticking over as this happens from time to time in any business.
In this day and age it is so important to focus a good portion of your time in learning all the aspects regarding online marketing, with the ever growing online marketplace to get yourself and your items as close to the top of the pile as possible is key to building a successful online business especially when operating your own website and certain other online marketplace which can require you to draw as many customers as you can to your store, even on websites like Ebay where millions of people a month are directed to your platform it is still good practice to learn how to please the Ebay and Google algorithms to get your store to the top pages of these platforms.
Social media is also a necessity to push your items forward and as it’s predominantly a free advertising tool meaning it is madness not to take full advantage of this, Get yourself an account with as many social media platforms as you can and start publishing as often as you can to maximize your exposure and boot your sales! I use Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram but there are many to choose from, just see what works best for you.
Using all the tools that come along with selling on online platforms like Ebay and Etsy are a good way to give your sales and views a great boost, for example Etsy has a section that is called ‘’Etsy groups’’ which is like a community sub section to the selling part of the website which encourages sellers to get together, discuss and help each other moving their businesses forward. This can be a powerful tool that I would strongly recommend using not only for brand awareness but for general learning and increasing sales.
Learning about SEO (search engine optimization) in another very important part of online selling that I would recommend getting to grips with, getting to know the little things search engines react to that can push your listings further up the pages on Google, Ebay or whatever website search engine you decide to operate from will be an enormously great benefit to your business and a skill that will only get more and more important to understand through the next twenty years of online selling growth.
Using the right keywords, tags, titles , descriptions along with good quality clear photographs works wonders in getting your items visible to millions of people online as these are the types of things that the algorithms on major search engines like because they are trying to provide a quality service to their customers. So, the more you comply with what the search engines want the higher up in the rankings your items will go meaning more sales! This part of the modern antique dealing business sounds complicated, but it is really not, there are loads of good websites which explain how to get the best from your SEO and show you how with simple steps.
As you can see, like many other industries the internet has changed the game dramatically and it is so important to embrace the evolution and reap the massive potential rewards of this amazing new worldwide marketplace.
I hope you enjoyed this guide and found it some value to you, I also hope that you take this information forward with you in growing your online antiques and collectables store and wish you the absolute best for your future in the business.
All the best