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The Art of the Dance
(with apologies to Fred Astaire)


Perhaps the most frequently asked question posed to an antique dealer is ‘where do you find all this stuff?” The query for politeness sake necessitates a response, but what may appear to be a simple question is in reality, the most byzantine of the entire profession. Where do we get what we sell?

Though even dealers cannot stop themselves from asking each other ‘where did you find that?’ when shown something that makes our eyes pop, it is considered not quite ‘comme il faute’ or a proper question in the trade. The longer you are in the business, the less a question it becomes. You soon amazingly realize there is an endless supply. And there is.

‘There may be trouble ahead, as Fred Astaire sings,
but while there’s music, before the fiddler’s have fled,
before they ask us to pay the bills,
and while we still have the chance,
let’s face the music and dance.

Our music is the objects of desire, our dance is acquiring these objects. It is a delicate performance both challenging and energizing, and each dealer has their own fancy footwork. Of course we would all love the aplomb of Astaire but without such talent, it is the arcane consanguinity of being in the right place at the right time, with expertise and finance in sufficient proportions. A dealer’s inventory is their lifeblood, and must constantly be renewed with new merchandise of quality, that is both desirable and affordable. Which of course means that we must buy right. As in all trade of buying and selling, whether stocks or antiques, you make your money when you buy. So you must buy right.

Antique dealers buy everywhere, anytime, from anyone. We advertise, we travel, we never stop looking, and mostly we never pass an opportunity to buy. We buy single pieces or whole estates. We buy from other dealers, from pickers, from auction, estate sales, private clients. We buy from people walking into our shops. Each negotiation is a practice of diplomacy and discretion, seeking a satisfactory deal for both buyer and seller. The seller must be aware of several dictum.

First, a professional appraisal valuation is not in play here (i.e. a certified written report with comparative valuations used for IRS charitable purposes, insurance replacement, or division/liquidation of assets). Rather this is an immediate judgement call of what the object is worth to the dealer, and at what price the seller will be comfortable concluding the sale. Do not expect a dealer to professionally appraise something you wish to sell to them. If you want a professional appraisal, find a disinterested appraiser and engage their services. A reputable dealer cannot appraise an object and than buy it–it is a conflict of interest. Although many dealers do appraise and than buy, it is usually a circumstance where the parameters are clearly defined, and both parties have an established relationship of trust and commerce.

Second, a dealer likes to buy in ‘lot’, that is a number of items grouped together and a single price for all. That way, if you have miscalculated on one thing and you paid too much, you are confident you
can make it up on something else for which you paid a better price (better margin for resale). Clean-outs, downsizing, estate and probate lots are the primary source of heroic amounts of ‘stuff’, and require careful agreement in writing, between buyer and seller.

Third, a dealer likes to buy ‘fresh’ merchandise, meaning that other dealers have not seen it. If you shop your antiques to several dealers we will know it in a very short time and the more dealers who refuse, the less likely you are to get your ‘price’.

Fourth, Buyer and Seller should never be an adversarial relationship. A dealer will buy from a client in good faith, and pay in most instances, one third of the value of an object–which is a typical auction, or
fair-market value. Why only a third? Fair market value is defined as that price at which a willing buyer and willing seller, each party without duress, agree to an exchange of goods. The auction market is
where this fair market value has been historically defined and a dealer will pay what they know to be a fair auction price. From years of auction records the dealer knows that unless the object is truly rare,
it can be bought for a third of retail value. Perhaps not all the time, but enough. Reputable dealers keep constant eyes on the auction market and can readily assess merit and value. After all, such expertise is our business and without it our enterprise would not prosper.

While the above is only a small offering to the curious, now you may have some inkling of why-- when you ask the question ‘where do you get all this stuff’-- the antique dealer will smile, get a distant look in the eye, and after a moment say ‘everywhere’. During that moment we are parading before our inner eye and ear all the steps we painfully learned and passionately pursue: there may be trouble ahead, but while there’s music, and while we still have the chance, let’s face the music and dance.
Remember, Ginger Rogers did it backward and on heels!

  Editor's note: Susan Alon, rare book specialist and former Yale curator, is proprietor of  MiRIAMGREEN Antiquarian Bookshop & Gallery located at 88 East Main in Clinton (860-664-4200). Comments and suggestions for future columns are welcomed.Wire . Next week, what makes a book rare, valuable, or just old.  


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