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Not just old relics: the antiques dealers stepping into the future 

When you’re offered a seat in David Swanson’s antique shop there’s a wide range to go at; chairs of every size and timber fill the premises in Petworth, West Sussex, all of a 17th or 18th century vintage and various shades of brown.
After 35 years in the business his passion for traditional furniture still endures, yet, as he enthuses over the craftsmanship involved it seems the buying public are less enamoured. In the trade, “brown furniture” has become an almost derisory term for items dating from around the 19th century, which have fallen out of fashion, usurped by the trend for more contemporary 20th century pieces.
“You couldn’t buy the timber and employ a man to make that for what I’m selling it,” he says, gesturing towards a mahogany writing bureau.
“They are too big for the modern home, and tastes change. However, there will always be people who see the beauty in these pieces – they will just sell more slowly.”
Not just old relics: the antiques dealers stepping into the future 

Customers have new ways of finding antiques, rather than just dropping into shops

Credit:
Christopher Pledger
He may be waiting a while. The Antique Collectors Club has recorded a fall in prices for the eighth year running. While the UK remains the second largest arts and antiques market after the US, sales fell by 18pc between 2006 and 2016 compared to a 4pc rise in sales globally.
“The industry has some unique conditions because obviously you can’t produce antiquities so it’s entirely supply-driven,” says Pontus Silfverstolpe, co-founder of Barnebys – the world’s leading search service for auctions and dealers.
“The UK has always been a fairly traditional market focused on classic antiques and old masters, while the growth area in the last decade is modern art and design. But there is also a deeper issue; we are seeing the effects of decades of mass production and disposable, non-quality items, which resulted in the Ikea generation – those in their 30s, 40s and 50s, with less understanding of quality and durability.”
As Petworth’s longest-serving dealer, Swanson is used to the ebbs and flows of a “fragile” business. He survived three recessions, the fall out of the 9/11 terror attacks and mad cow disease – which deterred US visitors to the UK, As well as fluctuating trends, he also blames the growing ubiquity of online auctions for denting profits.
Not just old relics: the antiques dealers stepping into the future 

Britain's market is traditionally based on classic antiques and old masters

Credit:
Paul Grover
“With up to 300 lots of furniture to get through, most auctioneers knock down the hammer on something they know is undervalued simply to get through it all. It is having a bearing on prices. Nearly every village used to have a couple of antique shops but that’s gone because of auctioneers taking over. Sites such as Salesroom.com mean people can sit at home in Surrey and bid on something in Edinburgh or Dublin, making it so easy for them they don’t need to come to the shop.” This may explain why it’s a very quiet Friday lunchtime, aside from a passer-by asking to measure an oak coffer chest in the window.
It is far removed from the Eighties heyday when a queue would form before the shop opened and London’s well-heeled would pack out his then 14 showrooms.
Yet with 28 antique and art dealers still in residence, the town continues to draw established dealers, including those from London who see a Home Counties antique hub with cheaper rents as the key to long-term survival.
Former Chelsea-based business Dickson Rendall chose the town’s “quintessentially English nature”, over the “new rich” of Tetbury in Gloucestershire, to sell their 20th century French and Italian works, which are aimed at a younger market.
“Brown furniture has not been popular for some time and we don’t see the point in trying to resurrect it,” says co-founder Lesley Rendall.
Not just old relics: the antiques dealers stepping into the future 

The 'Ikea generation' views furniture as disposable, not something to hang on to

Credit:
Julian Simmonds
“A lot of younger people from London have second homes around here and modern tastes; we’re not going to sell to ‘locals’ in the cosy cottages who like the old-fashioned look.” Located a few doors down from Swanson, their showroom highlights how polarised the market has become. Art Deco lighting and coffee tables in glass and iron are among the items typically selling from between ?2,000 to ?12,000. Yet for all the focus on a new generation of buyers, there’s a distinctly old school scepticism over how technology is affecting this most traditional of trades.
“We are on Instagram because you have to be these days, but if I was spending ?5,000 I wouldn’t want to rely on a photo online,” says Rendall. “And we’d never buy (stock) online either – there’s far too many fakes around so items need to be seen in the flesh.” Perhaps not surprisingly John-Paul Savant, the chief executive of Auction Technology Group, which runs online auctions on behalf of 1,500 UK and European auctioneers, takes a different view. Traditional antiques dealing, he says, will have to adapt radically to stay competitive.
Not just old relics: the antiques dealers stepping into the future 

Buyers can now go online to take part in antiques auctions
Beyond giving auction houses a new lease of life, he says the company’s site, thesaleroom.com, which shows live auctions via a webcast, is an opportunity rather than a threat to traditional dealers, with access to more than 8m items across 18,000 auctions a year. “It used to be that dealers would take a couple of days out of their working week to drive to an auction to find a few items to sell, whereas now they can monitor several auctions at once and carry on selling in their shop while using the traditional dealer skill of an eye for the unusual or undervalued,” he says.
“Many of the dealers say the site has become their lifeblood for sourcing stock. It’s creating a new class of dealer who is leveraging all the technology available to buy and sell their wares to a much wider audience.”
BBC’s Antiques Road Trip expert, and owner of Kilcreggan Antiques, Roo Irvine had an online presence before she opened her shop in the Argyll and Bute holiday destination. Heavy use of social media has enabled her to reach the “true collector”, better placed to recognise the value of more obscure items than the tourists that come through the doors.
Not just old relics: the antiques dealers stepping into the future 

Antiques Road Trip presenter Roo Irvine, right, says social media has enabled her to meet 'true collectors'

Credit:
Twitter
With her TV work taking her to new sites across the UK she has seen first-hand the number of digital natives who supplement online trading with a physical presence. “For those starting out who can’t afford high rents, indoor antique centres are proving a great option; they can stick a cabinet in and join 150 other dealers.”
Others are sharing the costs by creating their own hubs in new places such as Hampton Court and Ingate Place in Battersea, a former furniture depository, which has also lured seasoned dealer Joanna Bourne. After 42 years on Chelsea’s King’s Road she has retained a London postcode by sharing an appointment-only studio space with another dealer to showcase early sculpture and tapestries at a more affordable rate.
“You can only do such much online. I still need somewhere for people to come to see the pieces up close because what I’m doing is a rarefied market and not really for the Home Counties. It’s a tough business but I can’t give it up because I enjoy it so much. Life would be very dull without antiques. I’m optimistic the business will find a new audience.”
Barnebys’ Silfverstolpe says the value put on sustainable and ethical business practices by a new generation chimes with the recyclable credentials of antiques.
“Sustainability is the world’s strongest trend and the rules of the antique market fit better than anything else,” he says. “A 25-year-old is buying into the sharing economy, items that are bought and sold several times and can be passed down. It’s up to those in the trade to communicate these values and seek customers outside their existing comfort zone; it’s a prerequisite for the industry to survive, but the opportunity is there.”
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