When shoppers make the effort to visit an antiques show, they should be able to expect that every item in each dealer’s booth is an antique—an object with history and heritage that is authentic to a past period, not recently made.
It is difficult enough for antiques show patrons to view thousands of items in all of the booths and make decisions about what they like, what will work in their home, what will enhance their collection, what fits their budget, and so on. They should not also have the pressure of needing to worry about the age or authenticity of the merchandise for sale.
The titles of some shows prepare buyers to expect that not everything for sale will be antique—for instance at a show called an “Antiques and Design Fair,” a recent moniker for shows that mix old and new (usually high-end, artisan made) goods, or at a “Flea Market,” a shopping venue well-known for anything goes.
But there should be no place for selling contemporary merchandise at an event billed as an Antiques Show. Period. That is our strong opinion.
This long-standing pet peeve of ours was reinvigorated recently when we saw this brand new furniture displayed prominently in a booth at an antiques show:
It is a recently manufactured hickory game table with four hickory hoop-arm chairs from Old Hickory Furniture Company, Shelbyville, Indiana.
The handwritten tag identified the set as “Old Hickory” (true), and it was dated as “20th century” (not true—it should have said 21st century). Even if the dealer thought the set was made as far back as the 1990s it was disingenuous to tag it simply as “20th century,” leaving it up to a shopper to determine when in the 100 year period from 1900-1999 the furniture was made.
We would classify this set simply as contemporary furniture, possibly lightly used, but definitely not vintage and not antique.
The set was priced $2,800 which might be slightly less than it would cost at a contemporary furniture store, but far more than its resale value as used furniture. Since shoppers attend antiques shows hoping to go home with a treasure that will likely retain its value, it is a sad outcome if they unwittingly purchase something whose resale value becomes a fraction of what they paid for it before the ink on their check is even dry.
So how do contemporary goods end up at antiques shows? Here are a few ways:
1. An unscrupulous dealer takes advantage of the cachet of an antiques venue to sell used or unused contemporary goods for more than they are worth. Once the merchandise catches the eye of an eager shopper, the dealer may or may not tell them its true age. Some sellers are not ashamed to bring new things to an antiques show, and will unabashedly tell people, if queried, that it is not old but nevertheless “has a great look.”
Although not excusable, that is slightly better than a dealer who blatantly represents new merchandise as old (luckily there are very few dealers on the show circuit who fall into this category).
We were recently called in to purchase furniture from a rustic home that was going on the market, but we left behind a number of contemporary rustic pieces that had been sold to the homeowner at an antiques show, complete with an elaborately fabricated story about the lodge where they originated in the 1920s.
We happened to have encountered that seller and his merchandise (produced by craftsmen he hires) at various shows over the years, so we were already familiar with the whole saga. The homeowner, however, was dismayed to learn that he would have to figure out a way to sell those pieces in the used furniture market, for much less than he had paid for them.
2. A dealer is truly unaware of the age of what they’re selling. Every dealer makes mistakes now and then, and it can be harder for generalist dealers to know everything about the many types of antiques they buy than it is for dealers who have deep knowledge of one or a few specialty areas. But most dealers worth their salt develop a good feel for the age of objects, regardless of their familiarity with the particular type of antique they’re examining. Plus it is not hard to find another dealer who can shed light on an object in question. Mistakenly representing the age of an object for sale at an antiques show should rarely happen
3. Apathy. It is not uncommon to hear dealers and show promoters say that “Nobody cares anymore” about the age of objects as long as they look appealing. We hear that comment both from dealers who themselves have gone over to the dark side so are making excuses for mixing contemporary goods in with their antiques, as well as from those who maintain the integrity of selling only antiques, but bemoan the lack of antiques-only integrity among their colleagues.
Although there may be a grain of truth to the statement that buyers do not care as much about the age as they do about the appearance of an object, if they factor in purchase price, availability of the same or similar merchandise on the regular retail market, and diminishment in resale value, they should be less than enthusiastic about purchasing new things at antiques shows. Glimmers of buyer apathy about an object’s vintage should not be a legitimate excuse for letting antiques dealers’ age standards slide down a slippery slope.
4. Lack of consequences. If dealers round out their booths at an antiques show with new merchandise (which after all, is easier to find than antiques), and successfully sell that merchandise for a profit while experiencing no backlash whatsoever, it is only human to keep seeking those rewards.
Despite issuing grave warnings against bringing new merchandise to antiques shows (see excerpts from two show contracts below), show promoters rarely ask dealers to remove new objects from their booths, nor do they often disinvite the offending dealers to future shows.
There are several reasons for this. One is that it is getting harder for promoters to rent all of the floor space in their shows so they can turn a profit on the event, so the last thing they can afford to do is lose dealers.
Another reason is that vetting the age of merchandise at a show is a huge undertaking, done only at high-end, long-running shows such as the Winter Antiques Show in New York each January. Promoters of smaller, mid-range shows cannot be expected to do formal vetting—it is simply impossible, not to mention highly stressful and unpleasant when it engenders confrontations.
However, by asking a few dealers to remove goods that are blatantly not antique, word gets around quickly that someone is actually monitoring dealers’ merchandise, which can result in fewer new things being brought to future shows (no dealer wants to take up limited space in a van with something that might get booted off the floor).
It may not seem fair to the few dealers who are asked to remove something new when there are other new things on the floor. But if they signed a contract that included a passage similar to those below, they have no right to complain about being asked to adhere to their contract.
Here is an excerpt from an antiques show contract we recently signed:
“All merchandise must be antique and suitable for a high quality antique show. No reproductions will be acceptable nor will objects with extensive restoration be permitted. We reserve the right to remove at our discretion any and all objects deemed unworthy of the show. Our decision in this regard shall be final and binding.”
And another one, which is even more to the point (emphases in the original):
“The Exhibitor agrees to display and offer for sale ONLY antiques. NO MODERN REPRODUCTIONS OF ANY KIND AND NO MODERN DECORATIVE OBJECTS MAY BE OFFERED FOR SALE.”
Clearly it is not okay to bring new goods to shows with contracts such as these. That is not to say that antiques dealers can’t legitimately choose to sell contemporary art or fine craft pieces in their own brick-and-mortar or online shops where they can distinguish them from antique merchandise; they just should not bring those things to Antiques Shows.
So What’s to be Done?
Beyond maintaining professional integrity with the merchandise in their own booths, dealers do not have much power or influence over the goods for sale elsewhere on the floor of an antiques show. In fact, shoppers can have more influence than dealers on this issue by taking the steps listed below, which also happen to be good ways to ensure that they spend their antiquing dollars wisely.
1. Attend only shows that are known for their roster of reputable dealers.
2. Ask questions about any merchandise that interests you. Most dealers love to share their knowledge.
3. Demonstrate to dealers that you care about antique integrity by explicitly asking the age of anything you’re interested in when an age is not noted on a label, and walking away from it if it is contemporary.
4. Give feedback to show promoters (who are usually easily found by inquiring at the show office) if you are unhappy about seeing contemporary merchandise on the floor.
We don’t want to create the impression that most dealers are passing off new merchandise as old—far from it. The vast majority of antiques dealers really do care about the age of the things they are selling, and adhere not only to their titles as antiques dealers, but also to the rules set forth in their show contracts that forbid bringing new merchandise.
So by all means, antiques enthusiasts should keep attending antiques shows, get to know the dealers they are buying from, then relax and enjoy the process of learning about and acquiring antiques.
We conclude with the simple hope that something good will come from discussing this issue openly. Now we’ll happily get back to the positive business of finding, buying, and selling great old things!