The Journey of Antiquing – 3

There are many factors working against the antiques business. The economy is taking its toll. Baby boomers are downsizing. Young people prefer “vintage” or “retro” to “antiques.” Even the interior designers seem to have it to easy to seek out real antiques.

One of the biggest concerns about the future of antiques business is the source of future demand. Will the younger generation shop for antiques in future?

The answer is yes, although just like the tides, certain styles may ebb in and out of fashion. The desire of owning things is human nature and it applies to baby boomers as well as to generation X and Y.

Times are Changing for Antique Dealers and Collectors
Times are Changing for Antique Dealers and Collectors

It is true that consumerism has depreciated the value of “things” and products today aren’t meant to be used forever. Not only electronics, but also furniture, is upgraded every couple years. But there is also a noticeable trend against the abundance (i.e. mass-production) and easy access (i.e. intangible electronic files).

Alex Ross in his recent article “Infinite Playlist” says: “Putting on an old-fashioned disk and letting it play to the end restores a measure of sanity.” This may explain why the archaic LP is enjoying an odd surge of popularity among younger listeners: it’s a modest rebellion against the tyranny of instant access. That has been observed by dozens of stands near New York University and always-crowded record booths in the Brooklyn Flea. Similarly, even though point-and-shoot digital cameras are available for less than 100 dollars each, rangefinder cameras and twin-lens reflex cameras bring back the pleasure and surprise of “decisive moments” to the young generations. In the garage flea market, I have even seen a few get hooked by the monstrous view cameras. Not accidentally, the vintage pictures are getting up in their ranks quickly at the flea. After all, this generation is both blessed by the abundant material and information and cursed by that which devours individuality. (Who would care for trivia anymore if one can use his cellphone to find the answer in a few seconds?) Thus antiques with each being one of the kind which still requires labor and knowledge to operate and maintain is an alternative way to standout, besides microblogging or videoing.

However, even if the future generation is ready to shop antiques, few dealers are ready to “talk”. I have no doubt about the depth and breadth of the knowledge dealers possess, but few have mastered the facility to reach the young generations. In a recent trip to Rehoboth Beach All Saints’ Antiques Show, which featured some prominent dealers. Yet only a few have websites that show contents instead of just one page. In one case, an old gentleman told me that he was curious  seeing someone like me (Asian in the lower 30’s) at the show. For antiques business, the lack of email or web communication is less detrimental than the lack of common language to entice younger people. Dealers underestimate the impact of e-Business (whose benefits include business can scale) and more importantly a lot of them don’t get the concept that nowadays you don’t have to shake the hands to get aquatinted with someone, especially those from younger generations.

The future of the antiques shopping patterns can also probably be reflected by the change of practice in auction houses. A few years ago, Sotheby’s regarded partnership with eBay as a not-that-great practice and newspapers or magazines with auction dates, locations and some highlight items were the predominant source for savvy collectors. Nowadays, all major auction houses have adopted internet platforms to first allow lots to be viewed online and second allow bidders to participate online. Smaller auction houses choose services from auctionzip or auctionflex while larger auction houses choose liveauctioneers, artfact or like Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bohams’ create their own applications. Swann Galleries’ previous poster sale showed that approximately 30% of the bids were from internet.

When I talked with a dealer, he shook his head. “I need to touch the thing, need manipulate and examine it. Without that, how can you enjoy it?” True, but how many people can touch, manipulate and examine it without disseminating the information online?

Read the previous posts in the series here:

The Journey of Antiquing – 1

The Journey of Antiquing – 2

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


Hui, you are really onto something. In her 2004 book, “Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need,” luxury-market research guru Pam Danziger predicted this trend would kick in around 2010. She characterized it as a new craving for the authentic. You are also right about many, if not most, antiques dealers: they simply aren’t prepared to reach next-generation antiques buyers. I see the source of the problem as two-fold. First, there’s no national association for dealers that would lead them to embrace social media. Second, dealers are small businesses and resources (time and money) are really tight. While many dealers in their late 40s and early 50s “get it,” they can’t make the investment needed to make social media work for their businesses. As the economy improves, they will begin looking seriously at social media. For now, they need people like you to urge them, encourge them educate them–and scold them.

Why do rich folks have houses full of antiques & art? Because antiques are decorative, useful, and hold their value. Gen X ‘ers concede the “decorative point”, but not the “useful” point. Antique furniture does not fit the Gen X lifestyle. Modern computer workstations are more useful than an old flat-top desk. A dealers best “pitch” is to educate the new buyer regarding the investment value of antiques. The dealer still may not sell the flat-top desk, but will likely sell occasional and accent pieces, and get good prices for them.

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