It could be argued that when dealers of a certain generation gather, they are wont to complain about their lot. A favourite theme is nostalgia about ‘the good old days’ of the 1970s and ’80s when business boomed, before i-thingies and the internet wrought seismic changes in consumer behaviour and swung the power pendulum away from seller to buyer.
Another tendency has been to view the trade associations in a tribal fashion: the ‘establishment,’ venerable, 100-year-old British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA), contrasting with the nimbler LAPADA (the Association of Art & Antique Dealers), a relative youngster at 42.
Recently, though, a new sense of practicality and urgency for change seems to permeate the trade, forged perhaps by a non-stop emisson of new regulations from Westminster and Brussels, together with the challenge posed by Brexit. Subjects that were once taboo, such as BADA working more closely with LAPADA, perhaps even (whisper it) merging to become one body, are now openly discussed.
How far this mood of pragmatism extends was tested when ATG hosted its first dealer-only round table in April, with participants grilled on the state of the market and their willingness to build common ground.
- Alastair Dickenson, Alastair Dickenson Ltd
- Helen Linfield, Wakelin & Linfield
- Ian Butchoff, Butchoff Antiques
- Robert Young, Robert Young Antiques
- Claudia Hill, Ellison Fine Art
- Patrick Sandberg, Patrick Sandberg Antiques
- Julia Boston, Julia Boston Antiques
ATG: Now that shocks like Brexit and the US election have eased, is the trade in a good place?
Alastair Dickenson: I feel more confident now than I have in years because our greatest strength is our expertise and longevity – we who have soldiered through thick and thin. I made a loss for two or three years after the 2008 global financial crisis but I got through it.
And the first months of this year have been the best in 10 years. I don’t know if it’s luck or having the right things at the right time. Sterling’s fall in value has helped a lot.
“The first months of 2017 have been the best in 10 years. The fall in sterling’s value has helped a lot
Robert Young: We did the Winter Antiques Show in New York in January and business was good, though Americana is suffering a bit, having scaled ridiculous heights. The sterling-dollar exchange rate helped, and regardless of whether you were Republican or Democrat, everyone was concerned about Trump. But the appetite was good.
Julia Boston: I’m rather similar. We ended last year and started this year better than ever, having been hit for six in the middle of last year.
Claudia Hill: I deal largely in ivory-based objects so I would be lying if I said my business has not been affected by the uncertainty over ivory.
But ivory objects are not banned and I do continue to trade. We’re hoping the government won’t ban ivory but in the meantime, I’m reinventing myself. I’m diversifying into objects that don’t involve ivory – enamel and oil miniatures and drawings – but at the same time educating the public that dealing in antique ivory is not prohibited.
And Brexit – a good or a worrying prospect?
Claudia: Brexit’s biggest challenge, not just to dealers but everyone, is the lack of time. Two years isn’t enough to negotiate a trade deal that’s acceptable to all of us. I do want our continued contribution to European security but I don’t want the UK making vast annual payments to a European budget. But above all I want access to the single market. At this point in time, it’s hard to contemplate the VAT and customs implications of us leaving Europe.
Julia: We do a lot of business in Europe and I voted to remain in the EU. I continue to fight Brexit, supporting the various legal challenges to the government’s withdrawal plans.
Everything was going very well before the referendum last June. Yes, some EU legislation has been a pain, but none of the positives of EU membership have been talked about in the media. Many of the people who voted for Brexit are going to be poorer when we leave.
Another challenge is auctions becoming more attractive to private buyers. Can dealers hold their own?
Patrick Sandberg: There is still the reality of people who don’t want to buy at auction and prefer to go to a shop because they get a full service – they can come in and out, look, borrow and then know that they can ask for a discount on the ticket price.
We spend the money and put our stock together with expertise. With all the work we do to get our shops to look the part, we’re offering customers so much these days.
Ian Butchoff: One thing we all have as dealers with longevity in this business is the ability to look at something and remember that 30 years ago you saw something similar. That’s where we have our advantage.
Alastair: We need auctioneers as much as they need us. The trade buys a huge amount at auction and I sometimes sell at auction.
Robert: The other advantage dealers have is the ability to curate. While auctioneers are agents, we select what we sell and choose how to present it. The dealers who are succeeding are curatorial dealers who select with their eye.
What do you say to young dealers to encourage them about being in the trade?
Ian: How does a young dealer get to the top? Hard work!
Helen Linfield: The young dealers I know are incredibly hard working. They buy at Newark and Ardingly and in France and Belgium and use Instagram to sell – and an object is sold as soon as it goes up! It’s the new way of dealing and they will soon have their own established businesses.
Alastair: You were the same at that age, Helen – massively keen, rushing around buying and selling but using different methods.
Of the established generation, I feel a growing polarisation between a few very rich dealers and everyone else. Today there are only three or four dealers who can go into an auction room and spend £100,000-plus, whereas a few years ago, there would be at least 10.
ATG: If Brexit makes sourcing stock from Europe harder, what are the easier routes?
Alastair: We’ve all had to readjust over the past few years and I buy rare things from all over the place. We’ve all bought wonderful things at auctions that haven’t been properly catalogued but it’s harder now with the internet and because private buyers are bidding directly.
The private source is still strong. When you’ve been in business for a long time you’ve got clients for 30 or 40 years. Clients of mine come to me with fantastic things to sell that they inherited or I’ve sold to them, and want to resell because they don’t fit in their collecting right now.
But my favourite way of buying is from the trade – dealer to dealer. Your readers may recall a lovely lady called Pamela Howell of Phantom House Antiques, who used to joke that the best bargains were to be found on Bond Street. I have to say that’s true of me.
Robert: We all love dealer-to-dealer trades. You don’t have the issues about description or condition, you establish relationships and the goods find their way to you.
Patrick: At the BADA fair in March I was astonished to see the quantity of inter-dealing, even at that level – buying and selling. It was fun seeing dealers at the end of the fair walking at speed between stands with their purchases.
There’s much talk of the ‘passing trade’ disappearing.
Helen: We did have a shop but we sell via fairs and on the internet now. People are cash rich and time poor and will pop into a show or buy online. We offer them both LAPADA and BADA codes of practice – in other words, we market to buyers by giving them confidence in what we sell.
Patrick: I’m fine with my passing trade. I’ve been on Kensington Church Street since 1989 and it’s one of the last antiques streets in London. I have total strangers walking into my shop wanting to buy a piece of furniture. As a ‘boring English furniture dealer’ I am delighted to still have a shop because I sell more this way than at fairs.
If people want to buy good quality English furniture and are willing to pay the right price, they are now limited in where they can go. That’s why, if you’re in a district like Ken Church Street, you have to keep promoting it.
Alastair: People know where you are, Patrick, and that must count for a lot for your personal brand.
Helen: Petworth still has passing trade. Some antiques shops became dress shops and are now reverting back to antiques. Four new shops have opened in Petworth recently – specialising in 20th century – and are doing well. People are coming out of London to live and going locally to furnish their shops.
It helps that we have a landlord in Petworth who promotes the town as an antiques destination. He is buying up shops and renting them to dealers at a low rent.
Patrick: We’re all moving to Petworth! It costs me £36,000 a year in rates just to stay in my shop.
Robert: We’re on several online selling platforms but with the goal of getting people to come to our premises. We know how many people come into our shop every day and how they came to be there – it might be thanks to Instagram or our stand at Masterpiece fair.
While we haven’t got the capital to do big advertising, we use free media like Twitter and Instagram and invest in fairs to meet a new body of people. But it’s always with the aim of funnelling them back to the shop.
“We’re used to hearing Americans say ‘my interior decorator has to see this’. Now UK buyers say the same
What influence do interior designers have on the UK trade these days?
Julia: The proportion of my business with interior decorators is big. We’re used to Americans saying ‘my interior decorator has to see this’. Now UK buyers say the same and seem to have less confidence.
Ian: The big change for me is that buyers these days aren’t collectors, but rather they’re furnishers. And interior decorators are the furnishers. Sometimes decorators’ noses can be put out of joint, because they haven’t physically found the piece and may say ‘oh no, that’s not going to work’.
How has the profile of the collector changed, in your experience?
Robert: The model of the old- fashioned collector is being reinvented. We have a growing customer base of – ‘collector’ is the wrong word – passionately interested customers aged under 40. They’re buying what might have been considered a collection in the past, to create a home environment, cross-pollinating old and contemporary. It’s very positive.
Alastair: I’m interested to hear you say that. It throws open the argument about whether ‘the look’ is now more important than the object. I have few clients under the age of 50 but the younger ones I do have want ‘the look’. When I started, people collected a lot.
In silver there are still collectors of small objects but a more general area like Georgian silver is so difficult to sell, compared with 30 years ago.
Claudia, you’re in a very precise area – how is your collector changing?
Claudia: People want to collect miniatures as investments, but I encourage them to think about their history and how they work in a contemporary setting.
And the dealer associations – has their profile evolved too?
Patrick: I was a BADA member when LAPADA was set up and I joined that organisation too because I felt LAPADA was more proactive and approachable. Since it was founded in 1918, BADA has been seen as an old-fashioned, exclusive gents’ club. This is changing – in the past few years it has adopted a more modern approach.
Helen: I agree with that. BADA has learnt a lot from LAPADA, who were the underdogs and they’ve had to work hard because of that.
Robert: BADA’s different now. It’s exploring many ways of giving value back to members. The certificates of provenance are genius – I have people emailing me up asking for them. And, most importantly, they’re admitting younger dealers – there have been three newly elected BADA members recently, highly qualified and excited to have BADA accreditation.
Ian: When I first got into dealing in the late 1960s, I had no capital and was selling Victorian things. I recall asking a BADA dealer if he had Victorian furniture to sell and he said yes, but only if I loaded up at the back of his shop, not the front! That’s because in those days, BADA dealers couldn’t sell anything post-1830. For this reason I would never have been accepted as a member. So, in 1974 when someone said, ‘we’re starting LAPADA for dealers who can’t be BADA members’ I thought ‘what a great idea’.
“A big reason to merge the associations is the potential to have a stronger dealer-owned online selling platform
How distinctive are the identities of BADA and LAPADA?
Claudia: It must be confusing to the outside world. I’m a member of both and they now offer the same things: an exclusive fair, codes of practice, helplines for legal and financial advice and a conciliation service.
Patrick: The two associations are working hard to promote and protect the trade – both doing ivory, droit de suite, everything – but it’s ridiculous having two bodies doing the same thing. Which is why the suggestion to merge is getting more compelling.
What advantages would a merged entity have?
Helen: We’d have one, louder voice in government circles on big issues such as CITES.
Alastair: You’re right. If there was one strong body with strict rules – whether they are BADA or LAPADA rules – we’d have a much more dynamic force.
Robert: There would be cost savings. For instance, those who are members of the two associations in order to stand at both fairs are essentially paying a tax to do so.
Patrick: One body would result in greater promotion of the trade, and give us a stronger hand in negotiating with third party online selling platforms, which are very powerful entities with more staff and more resources to get the search function right. These sites charge commission on any sale, with sometimes punitive terms and conditions. A big reason to merge is the potential to have a stronger dealer-owned platform, which can market our objects directly to clients, buyers and institutions.
“A merger might mean you lose figures from the top tier of BADA
Is a desire to stand at the two fairs the reason why dealers are members of both trade bodies?
Helen: No! There are lots of reasons to be in both associations.
Patrick: But what most members will be thinking about is how a merger would impact the fairs. There’s overlap between them – at BADA’s most recent fair in March, about 60 of the 95 exhibitors were members of LAPADA. But this could be worked out.
Helen: So if we did merge, there would still be two strong fairs.
What are the other objections to a merger likely to be?
Robert: You may lose figures from the top tier of BADA who could object to being in the same club as some LAPADA members.
Patrick: Let’s take a 35-year-old, who started like you, Robert, buying good stuff and she or he’s a member of LAPADA. Does that mean she or he is a lesser mortal?
Robert: Compare that 35-year-old starting out with a second hand transit van with the dealer who has spent their life selecting and editing objects of the very best quality, building a business and a clientele. The long-term dealer doesn’t want to be in the same club or portal where there are five items claiming to be the same thing, one being the quality object that you’ve got your money in and the other four lookalikes are selling for close to the same margin.
Patrick: That’s actually happening already, Robert. Your fine piece of treen is sitting on sites with others of lesser quality.
Helen: For the record, LAPADA monitors all its members, doing spot checks, to make sure they are maintaining standards.
Alastair: If only we could get over this barrier of the elitist side of BADA apparently being superior to LAPADA. Things are very different now to when LAPADA was first set up. If there was one strong body with strict rules, regardless of whether these are BADA or LAPADA rules, the trade would be a much more dynamic force.
Would tiered membership help?
Ian: Membership levels – from low to the very best. What’s the problem with that?
Robert: This happened in the US, where they have an antiques dealer association and it fragmented when they took in members that the top people didn’t want. And those objectors formed their own group.
I agreed to come onto BADA’s council recently to help create a body with energy which extols the virtues of old and ancient things to a contemporary market that’s in a state of flux.
If you create layers, you’re muddying the waters. The Olympia fair used to have gold, silver and so on, and only ‘the establishment’ took heed of those badges.
Alastair: I still think layering within a new body would allow the ‘elite’ to still feel elite.
If a merger were to happen, how could LAPADA members avoid feeling ‘taken over’ by BADA, which is richer in resource?
Helen: I’m a BADA member and on the board of LAPADA and I can safely say we are not interested in BADA’s money. All we want to do is combine to be stronger. But I believe some at the top of BADA are worried that they are a wealthier body and that LAPADA might somehow dilute those resources.
Robert: In any BADA council meeting I’ve attended, I can honestly say that issue has never arisen.
All this said… is the conclusion not ‘better together’?
Robert: A combined membership of 800 dealers won’t make a difference in the eyes of government, not with Brexit going on. It seems I’m the only one at this table who doesn’t think a merger is a good idea, while closer cooperation is.
Ian: Go back to when these associations where formed – there weren’t the challenges of legislation and business rules that we have to deal with today. Trade associations in other industries have streamlined, so it’s not ‘if’ LAPADA and BADA merge, but ‘when’. It’s inevitable.
Be part of the antiques industry debate
- Have your say on the issues raised in this round table:
- Should BADA and LAPADA merge?
- Will Brexit be good or bad for the trade?
- Can dealers be their own masters when it comes to e-commerce and digital platforms?
- Is the passing trade disappearing?
Send us your views to email@example.com or by letter to Noelle McElhatton, Editor, Antiques Trade Gazette, The Harlequin Building, 65 Southwark Street, London SE1 0HR.
Debate hosted by Noelle McElhatton, editor, Antiques Trade Gazette
Our panellists’ trade body participation
Members of both LAPADA and BADA:
- Butchoff Antiques is a member of BADA, the Kensington Church Street Dealer Association (KCSADA) and a founder member of LAPADA, with Ian Butchoff a board member
- Ellison Fine Art
- Patrick Sandberg Antiques – Patrick is chairman of KCSADA
- Wakelin & Linfield – Helen is a board member of LAPADA and chairman of the LAPADA fair committee
Members of BADA:
- Robert Young Antiques – Robert is BADA vice-chairman
- Alastair Dickenson Ltd – Alastair is a former BADA council member
Member of LAPADA:
- Julia Boston Antiques
- Noelle McElhatton, ATG editor/host
- Richard Lewis, ATG chief operating officer
- Roland Arkell, ATG contributing editor
- Frances Allitt, Dealers’ Diary writer
- Laura Chesters, ATG news editor