The Young Collector
Andrew’s dad, Bob, has been working on his legacy—a list of his personal rules for life, success, general happiness, and whatnot. This started with Andrew’s grandfather Frank. Near the end of his life, he was riding in the car with Bob, and he said, “You know, I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s all about follow-through.”
Bob got excited. Here was this man, who didn’t really talk much about deeper things, opening up with this very deep life philosophy—following through on commitments to family, following through on promises, etc. And then Frank said in his deep Kentucky drawl, “Yep, follow-through—done wonders for my bowling.”
Bob decided to take this not necessarily in the spirit with which it was intended but in the spirit with which it was received. He started making his own list of life rules. After he got to the point where he had too many rules to easily remember them, he turned them into a note on Facebook, and he adds to them every now and then.
Some of the rules are quotations and common sayings. Some of them are pithy observations that one or another of us has made over the last few years. Every now and then, we’ll suggest one for addition. (Our contributions are normally too abstract for his taste. We proposed one of Nora’s gravest offerings: “Don’t lean in the frog chair,” a valuable lesson she learned after being dumped on the floor by a cartoon character folding camp chair multiple times. It has yet to make an appearance. He didn’t like “Don’t spit avocado on the cat” either. Hmph. Go figure.)
All this talk of rules, since we have so many these days, and since we often think about what life lessons we’d want Bean and Bug to take into the world, has made us think about the life lessons or rules we’ve learned in the antiques business. So far, we have just a few. We hope you’ll send us a note or an e-mail or drop by our Facebook page and let us know yours!
Rule #1 (a rule that has wide applications): Know when to say, “I don’t know.” None of us knows everything. None of us will ever know everything, not even a tiny fraction. We’ve found that two things happen when we are willing to say we don’t know, both of them positive. First, we’re actually able to learn. If you have to pretend that you know everything all the time, it can be hard to learn new things. The only way to learn, as most of our first-grade teachers told us, is to ask. If you know everything or feel the need to look as though you do, then you wouldn’t be caught dead asking.
Second, people tend to trust you. Not that we don’t trust people who have information, because we absolutely do, but when people are willing to say, “I don’t know,” it does convey that they’re probably being honest and forthright. Otherwise, they’d make something up. Hearing “I don’t know” is actually pretty reassuring, when you think about it. We’re always grateful when we meet a dealer or an auctioneer who is willing to stand next to us scratching his or her head too and say, “You know, I’m not sure about that.” On the other hand, nothing is more disarming and genuine than someone who just says, “I’ve never heard that term before—what’s it mean?” Why don’t more people do this? We don’t know.
Rule #2: Don’t be greedy. We know times are tough. It’s the odd dealer or auctioneer who isn’t still watching the bottom line very closely. (Let’s be honest: many of us never had the luxury of ever stopping to begin with.) There is no shame in trying to make a profit. Once upon a time, time was money, but these days, information is what has value. If you’ve got the necessary information to make a smart purchase, you absolutely deserve to profit from it. We also know that collectors may not understand what goes into shows or auctions, and that they can certainly benefit from an honest explanation of expenses. A 200% markup is often perfectly appropriate, and most of the auctioneers we’ve talked to over the years say it takes about 30%-40% in commissions coming in (between the seller’s fees and the buyer’s premium, depending on the material, the region, and other factors) to come near the break-even point.
What we’re talking about is just being willing to leave a little money on the table. Maybe you could get that $500,000 painting at your full commission, but the goodwill created with a discount can be smart customer relations and offer future income. Maybe you picked up a chest at an estate sale for $1500 and feel it’s worth $20,000. Consider the possibility that you can flip it to a customer for $10,000 (or $15,000 or even $17,500) without even having to haul it to a single show. You’ve still made a huge profit, and you’ve made your buyer happy, even if that buyer is a dealer who turns right around and marks it up to $25,000. This isn’t only about goodwill with customers either but about personal peace and contentment as well. There’s a choice between being the kind of person who does her best, learns from it, and moves on feeling satisfied with the experience, and the kind of person who revisits every decision over and over, feeling resentful or displeased because things weren’t just exactly perfect. We all know people who fall into both categories. Which kind do you prefer to stand around talking to when you bump into them at shows?
Rule #3: Know your place in the food chain. We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with ambitions and aspirations; we’re always trying to do more, do better, get ahead, and learn more ourselves. Understanding where you fit in the big picture will help you make better decisions when it comes to buying and selling and when it comes to taking steps to advance. Following Rule #3 also means being OK with Rule #2. Sometimes the best or right thing to do for your customers (for instance, referring someone to a larger or smaller operation better suited to their needs) isn’t necessarily the choice with the larger profit.
We have a good friend who is a dealer, and she typifies this rule. We’ve learned so much from her and from her experiences over the years. A mutual friend has pronounced her to be “an intelligent bottom-feeder.” Not only is it true, but she knows it is true and is completely happy being just that. Her talent is not necessarily broad knowledge; rather it’s deep knowledge in a few commonly overlooked areas. This means that she can pay $50 for a box lot, pick out two things to sell for $100 each, and dump the rest in another auction. She doesn’t bid just because things are cheap if she isn’t confident that she knows enough to know what she’s getting. At the same time, she doesn’t go after more expensive things if she feels there’s a potential for a costly mistake.
Over the years, she has gradually expanded her comfort zone, but she’s done it in a natural way that involves a natural evolution of the knowledge she already has. Being comfortable with what she’s offering (and remembering Rule #2), she has cultivated clients, including collectors and other dealers, who are happy to purchase things from her fairly quickly, meaning she can often flip things efficiently. Yes, they often go on to double her asking price when they offer it, but she’s profited already and accepts that she’s part of a bigger process. Over the years, she’s gotten more comfortable at stretching both her knowledge and her investment, but overall she knows exactly where she fits, is comfortable there, and makes it work for her. She knows that being a “bigger” dealer means bigger mistakes, bigger investments, and, quite likely, alienating the dealers she’s worked with by becoming more direct competition.
At the same time, there’s Rule #4: When opportunity knocks, you at least need to look through the peephole and see what (or who) is there. Some of the unhappiest dealers we know are those who are so rigid about what they like or what they know that they find it hard to adapt or consider other options. If your specialty is painted furniture but you’re sitting in an auction where sterling silver is bringing less than scrap value, that’s an opportunity. Don’t walk around wearing blinders. Just because you really like to handle New England furniture with original surface doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit on midwestern stoneware if it is going cheap at your local auction. Remember, there are plenty of ways to sell stuff besides in your shop or your booth.
Rule #5: Good friends are everything. (Really remember this when it comes to Rule #2.) More than once, we’ve had a question about something (Rule #1) and posted it on Facebook. Within hours, if not minutes, the full resources of dozens of the smartest, most helpful, most intellectually curious people we know are brought to bear on our query, complete with citations, proposed theories, additional questions, and names of other people we should involve. If you’re not of the Internet generation, it can be hard to explain, but these situations typify the sense of sharing and community and problem solving that seems to be missing from modern life, so there’s a real thrill from witnessing such rapid and cohesive joint effort in progress.
Technology really has made it easy to pass things around for opinions, even if it’s just sending a photo via e-mail, and we’re always astonished by how readily everyone we know provides information, even when they might technically be considered “competition.”
So, those are some of our “rules.” We’d love to hear yours. Consider writing, e-mailing, or just stopping by Facebook to share. We’d be glad to count you among our friends. Of course, we are still learning, because we definitely don’t know everything. That’s putting Rule #1 into practice, because none of these rules are any good without action. Maybe we need Rule #1A: It really is all about follow-through.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoung AntiquesCollectors), via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectors.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest