Author’s note: The following article was rejected by AntiqueWeek earlier this year, even though the topic was originally approved for use on the editorial page by the publication’s editor. The story sat in-house, ready to run, for roughly three months before it was killed off. No explanation was given. It is published here exactly as it was submitted.
Over Cokes and coffee one afternoon several years ago, I sat with a group of people who represented a broad spectrum of the antiques industry. Among them were dealers, show promoters, shop owners and auctioneers. At one point the discussion turned to the growing number of antiques shops and malls that have closed. All agreed it was unfortunate to lose those businesses. However, not everyone thought shop closings were news that should be reported in trade papers such as AntiqueWeek.
The logic was this: People need to hear good news, not bad. Folks should be encouraged, not disheartened.
While I’m glad to be an ambassador for the antiques industry through my role as a writer, I believe it’s essential to report the good and the bad. On more than one occasion I’ve traveled to a town, expecting to find an “Open” sign in the window of a specific antiques shop, only to discover an empty storefront, the business having closed since I was last in the area. In my mind, reporting shop closings is a service to the public.
However, this is about much more than merchants who have called it quits. It’s about the naked emperor.
I sometimes wonder if the industry as a whole is afraid to say the king has no clothes. We are willing to overlook the bad things out of fear they make the hobby seem less worthy of pursuing.
We’ve got to do better. As an industry, we have to set the bar higher if we want people to trust us, if we want them to buy what we’re selling.
Auction houses need to lead the charge in getting things right, because they are the most visible part of the parade and often leave a paper trail that testifies against them when they get things wrong.
I recently saw a listing for a pair of chairs being sold by a notable American auction house. Unfortunately, the description had two glowing errors. The names of both the designer, Gilbert Rohde, and the maker, Heywood-Wakefield, were misspelled.
In another case, an American-made stoneware pitcher embossed with a good luck symbol (a reverse swastika) was offered as a World War II Nazi piece made in Germany and having a connection to Heinrich Himmler. I believe it was an honest mistake by a cataloger who was more familiar with military items than Americana. But for those who knew better, it made the auction house look silly.
Add to that the problem of condition issues that are downplayed or ignored altogether. I’ve seen auction houses point out a minor flaw, such as a chip to the foot of a step-back cupboard, but not mention that the cupboard was obviously married — the top and bottom from different sources.
I know what some people are thinking. This is the antiques industry. We’ve all been told, “Buyer beware.” That’s just not good enough. Actually, it’s not good at all. Sellers do everyone a disservice when they don’t provide correct and complete information about the objects they offer.
We need to take a lesson from the airlines.
The head of a major U.S. carrier once noted that when passengers see dirty lap trays, they’ll assume the engine maintenance isn’t done well, either.
I understand what that CEO meant. When I see “Gilbert Rhode” and “Haywood Wakefield” in an auction listing, I wonder what else the auction house has gotten wrong. It certainly doesn’t encourage me to bid.
Professionals in the antiques trade could stand to scrub their lap trays. In the end, it’s not just the customers who benefit — it’s everyone in the business.