It’s a thorny one, this. I might not make many new friends, but dealers, auction house specialists and other ‘experts’ (if you really want to use that word) will undoubtedly nod knowingly. They may even sigh in agreement.
Let me start this off by saying that, like any normal, adjusted and sociable human being, most people who work in antiques, collectables and 20thC design are happy to help. They count themselves lucky to be working in the area they do, they enjoy it, and they’re keen to encourage others to find the magic they did. Thinking commercially, they may even gain a new client in the future. A rich seam of passion ready for mining runs through. But the problem comes when this help, be it a value, more information or advice on places to sell, is perceived as a free public service.
Take a fair, any antiques fair. A dealer is behind his or her stand, eagerly checking out the passing crowd around it for potential. Someone approaches with an item they own, a photograph or question about something they have at home that they may have recognised on the dealer’s stand. If it’s quiet, and there’s not much of a crowd directly around the stand, then it’s a good time to ask politely if you can pick their brains. Small groups chatting with a dealer around a stand can help to make it look popular – people see people and wonder what’s going on, so go over to see. It’s human nature. Many antiques people also have a little of the showman in them, and answering a question allows them to work with a crowd as well as the person they’re helping. This usually works – the dealer is using their brain and expertise, possibly attracting a crowd, and is helping someone with their object. They may even get a sale or purchase out of it. Perhaps even to or from the person they’re helping. If the object in question is unusual and new to their eyes, then it can be exciting and helpful for the expert too. In this business, we’re all learning all the time.
On the other side, the fair is busy. There’s a stream of people looking at the objects for sale and some are clearly considering making a purchase. The dealer is making decisions about who to serve first, and is observing what they are looking at for future reference. The same person approaches them with the object, photograph or questions. This does not work. Major fairs and can cost thousands of pounds – just for the space alone. Electricity, travel, and hotels add to the bill. Even smaller, regional fairs can still cost hundreds. That means a dealer has to make that money back via their ‘dreaded’ margin. And also regain the costs of the stock that they’ve sold. Every hour and every potential client counts. And unless you buy something, however small, you’re not one of them. Yes, you may think that you’re making an exclusive offer for sale but, in many cases, you’re really just checking out the lie of the land.
The question that should be asked before both options is down to simple politeness and common sense – ask the dealer if it’s a convenient time and DO take no for an answer. Use your eyes and brain. Even if they are sitting in a chair staring into space, you don’t know what they are thinking about. It might be the sale or purchase that pays for their fair. You may sincerely intend to sell them your object but think sensibly, especially if you want to maximise the results of your potential sale.
And it’s not just fairs or events either. It’s all too easy to fire off an email to a dealer or auction house specialist asking a question about something you own. Believe me, it’s typically not as quick and easy to answer. Let’s consider time here. On the odd occasion, the answer is simple and the expert knows it off the top of their head. It still takes 5-10 minutes to type and re-read an email and send it. It needs to be polite, helpful and concise. It needs rereading because the expert wants to avoid ambiguity, errors and negative feedback (to use an eBay term) if they got something slightly inaccurate. Some double-checking may be needed, potentially adding another 10-20 minutes. Grey cells aren’t always 100% reliable on the spot are they? And it’s more dangerous when you’re writing it.
If the question isn’t one that trips off the top of their head, then the reference library or the internet comes into play. And, usually, also some research into possible avenues of sale which can take in the geographical location, abilities and wishes of the seller. That can take anything from 20 minutes to over an hour, or far more. Then the email needs to be typed. And reread. Once or twice a week or so may be fine especially if, as I say, it’s enjoyable for the expert asked. But when someone ends up spending hours a day ploughing through mountains of emails they feel obliged to answer, that’s not really fair is it? You may think you’re the only one with a question, but I can guarantee you’re not. Dealers, auction house specialists and related people are often not paid as much as you think. They often work long hours in unfriendly conditions with no guarantee of success and every guarantee of cost. Even if they are commercially successful, then in addition to the hard work put in to make that happen they have lives outside of work too, just like we all do. Why should they spend it answering questions…..for nothing?
And that’s the nub of this thorny issue. Whenever you ask a question, either in person or by email, you’re getting free advice. Yes, FREE advice. You wouldn’t expect that from a plumber, solicitor or accountant, would you? So why is an antiques expert any different? They’ve studied and worked hard to gain experience over years, just like those other noble professionals have. Who gets the upside in all this? You, and only you.
Unless you hand over money or a similar reward for their work and expertise, you’re getting something for nothing. You’re dining on the proverbial non-existent free lunch. If you’re ever confused about your entitlement to this, because you paid an entrance fee or bought a catalogue or whatever, just consider your reaction if your manager asked you to undertake a task or do your normal job and said you wouldn’t get paid for it.
I reiterate the fact that most people are happy to help, but think about what really happens at the other end of your question. Remember that what you’re getting is truly is free, and purely a result of the kindness and enthusiasm of the person you choose to ask.
First published on IACF.co.uk, the organisers of the largest antiques fairs in the UK at Newark, Swinderby, Ardingly and other locations across the nation.