In the Trade
Bruce Phillips didn’t get into this business because he loved antiques. He got into it because he loved traveling to faraway places—Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, India—and selling antiques was a way to underwrite the traveling life. “It’s an accidental career,” he said. He’s been doing it for almost 35 years.
Phillips’s business, Fair Trade Antiques—which he runs with his companion, Rachel Grabelsky, from his early home in rural Heath, Massachusetts, near the Vermont border—has long been known for its stock of Anglo-Indian and European colonial antiques. But he has branched out in recent years as the market for brown furniture from anywhere on the globe has nosedived and as the supply of good material from South Asia has dried up.
“Our Anglo-Indian furniture is dwindling,” Phillips said.
Bruce Phillips sits on an oversize cane settee, perfect for taking a nap during a South Asian monsoon. The wood, he said, appears to be rosewood under an early dark finish. The piece is $6900.
These large hurricane shades with foliate and grape decoration, from the second half of the 19th century, are 22½" tall and $4400.
Phillips’s late 18th-century cape in Heath. When he bought it in 1987, it didn’t look like this. “It was the first house I looked at. I saw it. I bought it. It was a wreck.” He doesn’t sell a lot from the house but said, “We love to have people come by.”
Now lighting accounts for about 70% of his sales. He has a stock of salvaged overscale marine lighting with an industrial look that works well in modern interiors, and, as he always has, he still stocks a great variety of period “bell-jar lighting”—the blown glass hanging hall lanterns, sconce shades, and hurricane shades that are often thought of as Anglo-Indian but which, in fact, frequently were made in Europe.
Phillips grew up in Bolton, Massachusetts, back in the days, as he said, when “Bob Skinner was working out of a tent attached to his garage [in Bolton].”
He attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, went to the University of Washington as part of a UMass transfer program, and graduated from there with a sociology degree. He spent summers salmon fishing in Alaska, saved the money he made doing that, and took off for foreign parts. “What’s better to do with a sociology degree than travel?” Phillips asked.
Initially—sitting in places like Kathmandu—he was not thinking specifically about financing his travels with antiques. He bought anything that was cheap and easy to take home: women’s clothing, scarves, tablecloths, carved wooden boxes, and jewelry.
Back in Massachusetts, he sold his stock at flea markets, beginning, he thinks, in about 1984. “I was at a Wellfleet flea market, and a dealer suggested I do Brimfield.” He did, focusing on his supply of wooden boxes and bowls.
“I was pricing stuff real low and sold out almost immediately,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hmm, I think there’s something here.’” He added, “Early on I was selling a lot of new women’s clothing—reversible, bright-colored jackets from Kathmandu that folded into a bag. We sold thousands and thousands of them. It funded getting started with antiques.”
He started exhibiting at shows, and for the next couple of decades, he earned his living primarily as a show dealer. Phillips said his first “real” antiques show was a Bernice Bornstein event in Woburn, Massachusetts.
“My booth display was black tablecloths over three folding tables with brown bowls and boxes,” he said. “A dealer there said it would be a good idea for me to get some lights.”
Gradually he moved on to more, and better, shows. “We did twenty to twenty-four shows,” he noted. “It was my only source of income.” He exhibited at Farmington, Connecticut; Bridgehampton and East Hampton on Long Island; and several Massachusetts shows, including some at “The Castle” in Boston.
As was the case with many dealers, things boomed for him in the 1990s. Phillips said, “In the early nineties [Diane] Wendy asked us to do her shows and that really ramped up our business.” He said he did most of the shows on the Wendy circuit: the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City; White Plains; Morristown, New Jersey; the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.; and “a couple in Connecticut.”
The Wendy years proved to be something of a golden age for Phillips. “She had a well-heeled clientele, and they kept coming back,” he said. He was able to cut back on his show schedule and still made a decent living. “For four or five years there in the mid- to late nineties we were doing just ten shows, supporting a family [he has a daughter and a son], and took summers off.” During this period, he said, some 70% of his business consisted of sales to designers shopping the shows and exhibiting dealers in preshow sales.
His buying trips—primarily to India—would last a couple of weeks at a time. He said, “I’d go to four, five, six cities, and I’d buy from thirty to forty dealers. Dealers got to know me and knew what I liked. They might not know my name, but they knew me as ‘the dealer in shorts.’ It was really exciting. You never, never, never knew what you might find.”
As well as furniture and lighting, he was selling “a lot of architectural pieces.” He said, “A couple of forty-foot containers a year was plenty. We were on a six-month rotation for years.”
He said furniture made in northern India was more likely to resemble European models. That’s where he’d find pietre dure pieces, for instance. In the South, because of the heat and humidity, cane furniture was plentiful. Mahogany predominated in eastern India; teak in the South. Also, he said, “You’d find a lot more stone architectural pieces in the South. A lot of good quality was available.”
Carved wood capital with remains of blue paint.
A partial view of Phillips’s many architectural columns. “They’re pretty much all teak,” he said. Some retain old worn painted surfaces. Others are unpainted. They come with separate capitals and bases and sell in the $900 to $1900 range per full pair.
Eventually, Phillips said, he left the Wendy circuit. “I got priced out. My last booth at the armory was eighteen feet and eighteen thousand dollars.” Fortunately, he added, “At the time there were plenty of other shows.”
But, as most show dealers know, those shows faltered as their public lost its taste for antiques. And the Great Recession didn’t help. “We were buying less and selling less,” Phillips said. “We didn’t know what the endgame was going to be or even if there was going to be an endgame. Everything dipped. Prices came down. There was less designer work. People weren’t buying second homes or weren’t fitting them out.”
This massive Art Deco sideboard/display cabinet is teak with fruitwood trim. It’s fascinating to see how a European design was interpreted by Asian cabinetmakers. It’s entirely handmade, with dovetailed hardwood interiors. The size is 54" x 72" x 19". It has a lot of style and quality for $2700 (real cheap by the pound).
Fair Trade survived the recession thanks largely to repeat customers—many of them retail—that Phillips had acquired over the years. Rachel Grabelsky noted, “We have a customer in Chicago that we’ve sold more than a dozen lights to. They’re everywhere—in the powder room, the laundry room. Now they’re doing their weekend home.”
Phillips and Grabelsky still do seven or eight shows a year but confine themselves to ones that are short and low cost. He points to his truck parked by his barn as evidence of how few shows he now does: “We’re home a lot more. I use the truck so little that I saw a wasp making a nest in my side-view mirror the other day.” Recent shows have included Rhinebeck, Washington Depot in Connecticut, and four or five other low-cost venues “where we’ve had good luck.”
This teak noodle press with a stylized cow beneath the handle is something no home should be without. Under the cow is a well with a colander-like metal screen. Turn the handle and noodles come through the holes. Phillips said that it’s early 20th century and priced it at $600. It’s 31" x 21" x 18".
He doesn’t mourn the end of the show era. “A show is such an insanely inefficient business model,” he said. “You pay for the booth, the hotel, the restaurant to reach a relatively small audience. And now at shows people are sometimes just wandering around blankly.”
Although Phillips and Grabelsky may be home a lot more, they are not idle. They have gradually migrated their business to the web. Now “seventy-five percent of the business is online,” Phillips said. “It’s mostly new faces and places we’d never go to do a show. Australia and England have been good to us. And all over the country.”
“We’ve even shipped pieces to the Cayman Islands,” Rachel added.
Phillips has had a website since 2003, but he said it “languished for a long time with very little attention. At shows you’d circle the website when you gave people your card, but it was like an online photo album.”
That all changed when Rachel joined him. She handles much of the tech stuff on their website. “In the last five or six years we’ve been doing much more online,” Phillips said. About 40% of online sales are retail, with the rest going to the trade. Grabelsky said, “We maintain it and add new items. We come up pretty high on searches.” If, for example, you Google “antique bell jar lighting,” Fair Trade comes up first. (Oddly, given the idiosyncrasies of Internet algorithms, if instead, you Google “antique bell jar light fixtures,” Fair Trade comes third. And if you try “antique bell jar lantern,” it comes second.)
It is not a passive business. It may be impersonal, but it’s profitable, Phillips said. He may indeed be “home a lot” but added, “I don’t have time to call my own. It can take twenty to thirty e-mails to sell someone a light. You have to know about the space it’s going in, what’s around it, what scale it should be. It’s so hard to get people to just pick up the phone and call. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s almost a vacation doing a show. We were spoiled when we were doing shows.” But, he added, “I guess it’s a good sign that we don’t have time.”
Fair Trade has been on 1stdibs for about a year and a half. Phillips said, “All in all, that’s been successful, but it’s nerve-racking. We can go a couple of months without an inquiry and then a week where we sell a lot.”
That pattern typifies the Internet. “You never know when it’s going to happen,” he said.
Another good thing about the web, Phillips said, is that it “reaches the customer who isn’t as concerned about price as you might find with a random sample of people at a show.” He can sell at a price high enough so that he doesn’t need a deluge of sales.
Grabelsky also posts on Pinterest, but the couple doesn’t plan to do a lot of other Internet-based marketing. Phillips said, “We talk about it…if the days were twice as long, and we were half the age.”
Phillips has cut back substantially on furniture, partly, of course, because the market is soft, but also because good South Asian furniture is hard to find, and what’s still available is priced high. In India these days, he said, “Mostly I walk into their shops and the dealers shrug and say, ‘I don’t have anything.’ And if they do have something, they’re asking as much as I could sell it for.”
Lighting has proven to be particularly popular online. Phillips has assembled a substantial array of salvaged marine lights. During their working lives, these fixtures usually were covered in layer upon layer of gray marine paint, but when stripped, they turn out of be made of brass and copper that looks great in modern interiors. “It’s good for younger buyers,” Phillips said.
His period lighting also can mix nicely with many interior-design styles, which is certainly a plus in today’s market. A 19th-century bell-jar lantern can look just as interesting as an accent in a modern room as it can in a restored Classical or Victorian home.
Single period lantern, 8" x 17", $1350.
This 16" x 17" single copper and brass lamp from about 1950 is $1900.
One of a pair of brass marine lamps, 21" x 15", with convex lenses. Phillips said all his marine lamps are refitted with porcelain sockets that take standard bulbs up to 300 watts. This pair is $3200.
Phillips has a lot of it. “I always bought bell-jar lanterns,” he said. “I thought I was getting in over my head and bought more than I was selling, but now I’m selling a lot to people doing restorations.” The biggest problem in this field, he said, is that many people can’t distinguish (and often don’t care to) between real and reproduction lights. There are always, he said, “customers who will go with one that’s half the price.”
The future, from Phillips’s viewpoint, looks as though it will be less specialized. “I’m more eclectic now, and I’m buying more domestically,” he said. At a recent show he offered a 1968 Ford Mustang grill in his booth.
As someone who appears to have successfully made the transition to the Internet, he said, “I find myself encouraging my dealer friends to get a website, but it’s a hurdle for many of them.”
A hurdle he has vaulted and landed, apparently intact, on the other side.
For information, contact Bruce C. Phillips, PO Box 122, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370. He’ll give you directions to his home in Heath when you contact him. Phone (413) 337-8513; cell (917) 734-7665; website (www.fairtradeantiques.com); e-mail <[email protected]>.
Brass-bound rosewood officer’s chest, 24" wide, with a later custom rosewood base made in India, $1100. Phillips dates the chest to about 1900. He notes that South Asian furniture often dates later, a generation or more, than its design would suggest. It is not unknown for dealers to date these pieces to the early or mid-19th century, when, in fact, they may be much later.
A striking pair of teak residential doors, 65" x 39", with iron rods and raised panels in nicely worn blue-green paint, $1900.
Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest