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Where Have All the Young Dealers Gone?

When you look around the room at a Wedgwood symposium or Fine Ceramics auction, you won’t see too many young faces. Of course young collectors exist, but they are certainly a dwindling group in so many areas of the antiques market today. I wrote about this phenomenon in my blog post, Where are all the Young Collectors?

The lack of young antique dealers is just as large of a concern for those of us in the business. I grew up in the antique business, and in the early 1970s, I was part of a shop that included my father and brother. In those days, generational antique businesses were quite common, with fathers and mothers, or parents and sons and daughters, working together under the same roof. Many of the successful names in the business today honed their skills under the tutelage of their parents. Unfortunately, these days it seems as if the baton is being passed on less and less.

Dealers are the heart of the antiques business, the cheerleaders, and the energy that keeps the whole system flowing. They cultivate collectors. They hunt at all hours of the day and night, in the four corners of the globe, at auctions, flea markets, antique shows, shops, and online for treasures at the right price.

Dealing in antiques is a challenging yet rewarding profession. You work for yourself, set your own hours, and create your own challenges. The adventures are endless and it’s very social. Dealers have always bought from one another believing there’s still the “room” in an item to turn a profit. Have you heard the old joke about two antique dealers and one item on a deserted island? They kept each other in business for years.

All joking aside, one would think that this type of business would be very attractive to the younger generations. The advent of new technology, including online databases and social networks, has added a new dimension to the field, and of course it’s still all about the thrill of the hunt.

So where are the twenty-somethings? Why are dealers dwindling in numbers?

Dealer booths at the 2013 Miami Beach Antique Show

I welcome your comments as well, but first here are a few of my thoughts. For one, it’s more difficult to be a dealer in today’s market. Back in the 70s shops were thriving, shows had a tremendous amount of energy (many with lines extending around the block before the first day opening), and goods seemed more plentiful. People seemed to have more expendable income and there were collectors out there interested in practically everything.

Today, many dealers I know have either given up their shops or sit in the shop and do their business on the internet with the occasional weekend consumer browsing through. Success in shows isn’t what it used to be and the traffic at many shows has slowed considerably. Collectors are at a more advanced level of collecting, making it harder for dealers to find material they want. The business needs young collectors to keep the momentum going, but these young buyers are few and far between.

Young people who may be interested in dealing in antiques but who didn’t grow up in a family business may run into issues. First, where does their knowledge of what to buy and sell come from? Second, will they have the capital to invest in starting their own business?

It takes a sizable amount of capital to jump into the business with both feet, and the risk of buying something that might not sell is always a concern. Young people who recently graduated from college typically carry loans that they’ll be repaying for ten to fifteen years after they’ve graduated. Certainly working for a seasoned antique dealer or in an auction house for several years or longer might be today’s dealer “college.” With this type of on-the-job experience, a young dealer can acquire knowledge, observe trends, learn the values of the trade, and create relationships with established dealers and collectors.

Young dealers are the future of the business and those of us who are veterans in the antiques professions should encourage the twenty, thirty and forty-somethings we encounter.

Are you a young dealer or do you know someone who’s thinking about a career in an antiques field? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

10 thoughts on “Where Have All the Young Dealers Gone?

  1. The older antiques dealers and collectors drove the young ones out. It is very hard to make any money as an antiques dealer and hard to amass a good collection as a collector. A silver specialist at a prestigious New England auction house might make $20,000 a year. If he gets laid off and goes to law school, then works very hard he may make 10 times that or more.

    It is exceptionally difficult to earn six figures as an antiques dealer. As a collector, you need to earn six figures just to have the disposable income to compete with the old collectors who have driven up the prices over the last 40 years, whether the subject is wedgwood or bottles. As an active young collector now (of bottles), I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been driven out of the field when I was still young enough to start a new profession where I earn disposable income, even if I’ll never become a successful dealer. Not that I don’t bear a grudge, of course!

  2. As a young dealer and collector, I can honestly say that they’re aren’t a whole lot of us around. I’ve been around the business for about 6 years (since I was a senior in high school) and specialized in period antiques and furnishings since 2010.

    At 23 years old, I still work a regular job, but attend 4 or so auctions a week, sell online, have a showcase and a booth at a gallery in New Oxford, PA, and this year have started setting up regularly at the DC Big Flea with more shows hopefully coming down the road. I love every minute of it and work with a close group of mentors to learn as much as I can whenever I can.

    There may be a waning interest among my generation in antiques and items of the past, but I know Im doing everything I can to generate a passion for historical items and I encourage everyone in the industry to do so as well. Im here for the long haul, and with a growing support from young and old dealers alike, 20-somethings might soon again find a passion for antiques.

    Donny Caltrider
    Caltrider Antiques & Americana
    Hampstead, MD

    • Thank you for your comments. It’s so nice to hear that you are going about the antiques business in the right way. All of the avenues you speak are excellent opportunities to learn. Antiques are very tactile and being out there in the “field” is the best way to acquire knowledge and experience. I applaud you for your efforts and would be glad to help in any way that I can. Please feel free to contact me directly at Skinner.

      Best Wishes,

  3. I have been a collector for over 40 years. I have 6 children one graduated college last year and one this May from U. South Carolina… the daughter graduating in May has expressed her desire to take her History / liberal Arts degree and apply it to dealing in fine art/ antiques , I suggested working for Skinner and learn the business… she is excited for me to help that happen… I am building a large Condo project in Marlboro , used Murphy insurance for years and have Arthur Bergeron as my lawyer.. I would love to meet the principles and discuss my idea…
    Rick Roper

  4. Great article. I especially enjoyed the desert island joke – so true of our profession. 12 years ago (at the age of 32) I small antiques shop, moving into a large antiques centre about 5 years ago. Even now at 44 years of age, there are still very few dealers who are younger than me. During my time in the business I’ve seen dealer numbers dwindle at all the big fairs and in many of the antiques centres. It is a worry.

    • Paul

      I enjoyed reading your comments regarding the dwindling number of new antique collectors entering our profession. My personal feelings why this has been occurring is that many of today’s technologies are not being embraced by the older well established dealers thus a younger market is not being addresses. We opened an antique center 2 years ago in Dutchess County NY 80 miles from mid Manhattan. Our center is fairly large at 7000 plus sq feet and surrounded by older well established antique centers. At the rime we were planning our marketing strategies
      we incorporated the latest technologies and internet based marketing & I I happy to say while our nearby antique center neighbors have lost dealers we are nearly full with an ever increasing traffic count and sales volume while maintaining an above average caliber of merchandise.

  5. i’m 32.. i was working with my uncle for a few years and we did pretty well. but my father worked as an antique re finisher too so i grew up in antique shops and the whole thing has changed. with ebay and the internet, everybody likes to comparatively shop.. which is fine until they don’t realize there is a difference between “sold” listings and whatever some guy threw up for $20,000 when it never sells over $300. and as was already mentioned, the economy is rough.. and china is no help. with a population having less money and retail stores cranking out knock-off items as prices less than the raw materials itself.. even i feel terrible making offers to buy items. I do kind of remember as a kid when beautiful turn of the century bureaus would fly out the door for $400 and today they sit around at $150 and whoever does buy it, just paints it anyway. they don’t care how old or new it is :/

    there are true collectors still, of all ages.. but there again, some will just watch ebay until that item they want pops up and buy it there, even if you have one yourself but want “too much” which would otherwise be a fair price to everybody except that guy on ebay that listed their item very cheap because they stumbled on it at a yard sale for $5 bucks. there are some (not many) younger people getting interested in the trade, but more due to things like “steampunk” and all that upcycling stuff. some of it looks great.. but others….. well, i’ve watched people destroy beautiful pieces to “make” something that they were going to sell anyway. and they price their creation under what that now broken item would have been worth, not counting the time and other items they used to make that funky lamp.
    i would love to have some more hands on experience with truly nice pieces… it just kills me to watch people destroy beautiful pieces because they just aren’t very popular right now.

  6. I am 26, have been in and out of the antiques business since I was a kid and have been working in an auction house as a cataloger for about 7 months now. I find that my age puts me in the minority in my field and that is something that intrigues me … and resulted in me googling the phenomenon and finding this post. As to why this is the case, your guess is as good as mine. I think part of it is that younger people don’t see the fun and adventure that is possible in the antiques business. They hear the word “antique” and they think about their grandmother’s teacup collection and don’t explore any further. That’s why I started my blog “The Antiquer’s Apprentice,” as a way of showing how interesting and accessible antiques can be for everyone. I don’t know if it will help anyone, but I definitely agree it would be nice to see more 20-somethings in the business.

  7. I repeatedly watch experienced older antique dealers ignore young dealers and young buyers on a regular basis. It is assumed, and wrongfully so, that young dealers and buyers should be interested in the similar items that older dealers like. It is also assumed that the same marketing methods would continue to be used by newer dealers. Retailing, regardless of product, is an ever changing industry and if we don’t accept that then prepare to be left behind.

  8. I agree with Dave Mueller completely. I am 26 and have been going to antiques fairs with my parents for years (20+). Recently, as I have been going by myself to these fairs I am never looked upon favorably. The knowledge I have amassed is not respected, and the dealers do not engage or want to teach anyone they consider unworthy or without the means about their goods. A lot, I find especially in the US, price things unreasonably to what their goods are worth now. I see prices on things from the 80s and they just assume they will get a buyer one day.

    Additionally, retail is an ever evolving business and a lot of young people only want to buy something if it is convenient for them. That is just a fact. Though hunting for a Victorian wardrobe would be great and something to hold for a long time, buying one from Ikea or Westelm is more convenient, and also more disposable.

    I live in New York as well, and I am the only one I know who is seriously interested in antiques. One thing I have observed among my friends is that they do not want to have the obligation of owning and caring for things. They value experiences over possessions and do not see the need to buy a nice piece of furniture when they can buy something cheap and throw it away when they move to their next apartment.

    Making antiques more accessible will definitely help, but I also think it is somewhat of a change in lifestyle too that has caused the decline in antiques, as well as interest among the younger generations.

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