Antique dealers are involved in the buying and selling of a wide range of second-hand goods that have become valuable over time.
Being an antiques dealer entails buying antiques, such as furniture, pottery or memorabilia, and selling them on for a profit. Antiques can be sold by means of an auction, private sale, retail premises, internet sites, or market stalls. There are many different areas to specialise in and successful dealers develop specialist knowledge of market prices in order to spot good opportunities for profit.
Antiques dealers are almost exclusively self-employed and therefore the rate of pay is highly variable, depending largely upon knowledge and expertise, the individual area of specialisation and its market performance, and the number of hours committed to finding and subsequently selling stock.
In addition, access to a good customer base, through whatever means necessary, is crucial for maximising returns. Many people hear stories of big finds in the antique world, and these do happen, but by and large the process is one of buying items and selling them on for a modest profit.
As with any self-employed position, those with no skills or knowledge should not expect to earn good, or even reasonable money. However, an experienced dealer might hope to make in the region of £20,000 to £50,000 a year, and an expert considerably more, especially in the more lucrative areas of the market, such as Chinese porcelain.
The role of an antiques dealer is to provide customers with an interesting and varied collection of pieces of art or aesthetically attractive items which they will desire. These items are often used for furnishing homes and interiors, or for adding to collections of objects which individuals are concerned with. They provide pleasure and constitute tangible assets which can be traded or handed down, and will often be expected to accumulate value over the years.
Common tasks performed by antiques dealers usually include:
- Travelling to shops, sales, and markets in different areas to buy stock
- Negotiating prices for the sale and purchase of stock
- Building up a reputation and customer base
- Selling stock to individuals
- Preparing stock for sale through restoration
- Working with partners to increase buying power
- Valuing and displaying goods for sale
- Completing business accounts and keeping records
No specific qualifications are needed to become an antiques dealer, and this is something that many people find attractive. Research skills and in-depth knowledge (of issues such as identifying valuable items, negotiating, spotting fakes or copies) gathered via practical experience are very important but sometimes a good eye is all that is required. Spotting things that people will want to pay good money for is really the most important thing to be able to do.
Formal qualifications which would assist the ability to trade in antiques, or increase the chances of being taken on by an auction house, would include:
- An MA in Arts Market Appraisal at Kingston University
- A postgraduate course at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, in fine art for example.
Being an antique dealer requires a wide range of skills including:
- A keen eye for valuable items and aesthetics
- Attention to detail
- The ability to operate a private business
- Good selling and buying techniques
- Thorough knowledge of market prices
- Motivation to work independently
- Good communication and interpersonal skills
- Persuasion skills and confidence
Being an antiques dealer involves working in a wide range of environments, but these rarely entail consequences much worse than being slightly cold and wet (when attending outdoor fairs, for example). A lot of time will be spent inside houses, shops or auction rooms, or in a private office. However, some time may be dedicated to travel and this can mean long hours on the road, often early in the morning, as it is sometimes necessary to get to fairs and markets early to catch the best items on sale.
Many antiques dealers enjoy their jobs and do not find their work particularly stressful. However, running your own business is never easy and requires determination.
Although no formal experience is required to be an antiques dealer, in practical terms experience is everything, as luck and aesthetic judgement are usually not sufficient for building a stable and reliable business.
Experience of dealing with people, haggling for prices, gaining information, and finding the best places to buy and sell stock are the keystones to establishing a position in the trade.
There are few major employers for antiques dealers but the largest are the major auction houses:
These auction houses employ experts to value and sell goods. Otherwise, employers might include large antique shops, which require managers, assistants and general sales people to help run their businesses.
Many antiques dealers start out working from home and then build up to start operating a stall at a market or fair, and then go on to open a permanent retail store. Most dealers spend the majority of their time working independently and there is no standard or formal career path to follow. Hierarchy and expertise in the trade is based on knowledge, skills, and reputation, and these can be achieved in many different ways, but usually through experience.
Also known as…
- Art dealer
- Furniture Maker
What’s it really like?
Frances Little, 57, is an antique dealer working in Oxford.
How long have you been working as an antiques dealer?
For over twenty years. I started university quite late, as a mature student, and I experimented with a number of different jobs before I settled into antique dealing. My degree was in history so I think I always had an interest in the past, and could get excited about things with special historical significance. I find it easy to enter into the past and imagine the environment and context affecting people and the things they produce. I think you can tell a great deal about a culture, its tastes and imagination from the things they produce and leave behind.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
The days I work vary greatly, but the main thing I have to do is control my stock. This means having a good store of things to sell by balancing how much I buy with how much I find.
If I go out to a sale I often have to get up early and drive a long way. There are some shops and auction rooms around the area but often the best things are to be found in the most unusual places – even car boot sales or charity shops, the places where nobody else looks. Big sales are held regularly in places such as Newark and these are often good places to look.
If I go out buying, I have to arrange the items I have bought in my stock room upon my return. I work from home, so my office and my stock room are in the same place. If I am selling I make trips to auction houses or individuals.
Sometimes I will take items directly to private buyers who I know will be interested in the things I find. My specialist field is ceramics, which is very much a niche market and there are only a small number of buyers, so I have to be constantly looking for new things and new ways to sell what I have.
The internet has been a big development for the trade because it means a global marketplace can be accessed. It is still in its infancy and there are problems with trust and accuracy of descriptions but the opportunities it presents are undeniable.
Other frequent tasks performed include dealing with requests for valuations and completing descriptions on items for sale catalogues.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
I love not knowing what I might find. Once you begin to develop an eye for things it is quite addictive and the moment of finding something really special never fails to excite me. This can also be a curse, though, as you can spend all day looking and not find a single thing, which can be very demoralising.
However, the continual search for things is compulsive, and there is a huge satisfaction in being rewarded for your knowledge and spotting something that nobody else does, even in specialist trade environments like auction houses.
The other aspect is a business one. I enjoy the process of dealing with people, haggling over prices, and holding your cards close to your chest. The job is often far from glamorous but some of the characters you deal with are very interesting, and you have to know what you’re doing at all times.
Do you have any advice for potential employees?
I would not recommend this job to anyone who wants to get rich! It is hard work and the only thing that keeps me going is a love for the objects I look for. Without this appreciation of the aesthetics of the items the only other motivation would be the money, and I don’t think that’s enough.
It is also vital to specialise. It is very important to know more than other people about what you want to sell. This means it is difficult to be a general antiques dealer, as featured on many of the antique shows on television. My advice would be to choose an area you like and find out as much as you can: spend as much time as possible out and about and doing research, buy specialist books, and talk to people as much as you can. Individuals may not always be forthcoming with information but you can always pick details up and train your eye in the process.