Dealers lament sales slowdown; online auctions provide a lifeline

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout New England and the U.S., antiques dealers are having a difficult time drawing customers, canceling major shows from Boston to Minnesota as would-be buyers scale back on purchases during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“It’s awful,” said Ann Beckman, co-owner of Grass Roots Reruns, one of more than two dozen shops operating in a row of historic Woodbury homes and rustic barns. “A lot of people have just dropped out. You have to be able to weather the storm.”

A multimillion-dollar industry dominated by mom-and-pop shops and part-time enthusiasts, antiques dealers across the country are feeling the pinch.

Organizers canceled the 50th anniversary Ellis Antiques Show in Boston and the Chicago Botanical Garden Antiques & Garden Fair and Preview and haven’t decided when they’ll be rescheduled.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts also canceled its 2009 show, one year after marking the event’s 25th anniversary.

“It was purely economical,” said Kim Cameron, who was to be co-chair of the show. “It was not a fun decision to make and not fun to do on my watch,” she said.

Connecticut’s Farmington Antiques Weekend will still take place this June 13 and 14 despite losing its major sponsor, Country Home magazine, after the publication folded this year.

Organizers expect about 200 vendors and up to 5,000 shoppers during a two-day period, according to Jon Jenkins, whose family annually organizes that show and 17 others.

He’s using a blog, Web site and e-mail to keep his customer base coming.

“It definitely takes customers with money in their pockets to make this business work,” Jenkins said. “But deep down inside, people like the stuff. Antiques are the physical objects that connect our collective past. They evoke memories. …Nobody ever sits and looks at the vase they ordered from Crate and Barrel with a great story about how they bought it on the Internet.”

For those who have money, buying opportunities abound. A trend that has continued to gain momentum and attract opportunity seekers with cash is auctions featuring live Internet bidding, which allows a person to participate and bid from anywhere in the world as a sale is actually taking place.

“We’ve seen very high prices paid online for fine art, antiques and rare collectible items such as Hollywood memorabilia and comic books,” said Julian R. Ellison, CEO of “By connecting bidders worldwide with auction houses who use our service, LiveAuctioneers exponentially increases the potential bidding pool. This results in very profitable online sell-through rates, which can run anywhere from 20 to 70 percent, as well as a greatly increased level of competitive underbidding [bids that are not successful but have the desirable effect of boosting the eventual selling price].”

Ellison said antiques dealers who sell from shops, co-ops or group antique malls, have been flocking to a new business model: collaborative online auctions.

“Internet auctions are helping many dealers to move their merchandise and keep their businesses afloat,” said Ellison. “Essentially, a group of dealers selling from one central location, such as a multi-dealer antiques gallery, will select merchandise from their current stock to upload to a communal electronic auction catalog. The catalog is promoted through LiveAuctioneers, and bidders are able to lodge their bids on the lots of their choosing through our site. An example would be the dealers of Showplace Antique and Design Center in Manhattan, which has conducted regular auctions through LiveAuctioneers for several years, now.”

Store owners back in Woodbury are trying to woo customers using sales and trade magazine advertisements. They are also lobbying for freeway signs that would direct motorists toward their historic district.

Gail Lettick, president of the Woodbury Antiques Dealers Association, says buyers are pickier and less prone to impulse shopping. Customers are focusing on “utilitarian” items such as tables, chairs and bureaus.

“No one has lost their passion, it’s just that their pocketbooks are a little less full, or a lot less full,” Lettick said.

Some shows are pumping money into advertising to keep, or even build, their customer base. The Connecticut Spring Antiques show drew about 70 dealers and 1,400 shoppers – a 15 percent increase – this spring after expanding its advertising budget by about 20 percent.

Attendees seemed more vested in the concept of antiques than ever before, show manager Karen DiSaia said.

“They know what they’re looking at, it’s not just a commodity,” she said. “These are pieces of art that are imbued with the things going on around them in the past. …Every piece has its own story that becomes part of your story.”

Catherine Saunders-Watson of Auction Central News International contributed to this report.

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AP-ES-05-30-09 0000EDT