Antique dealers leave the good old days behind

The likes of Mallett can no longer rely on browsers, writes Laura Chesters. They have to sell online or at the big shows

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The Independent Online

When Mallett unveils its latest sale at its Mayfair headquarters today, the listed art and antiques dealer is praying the event will kickstart a period of what chief executive Giles Hutchinson Smith calls “ferocious trading”.

After a decidedly lean period, the art and antiques dealer has it all to play for.

Yesterday Mallett revealed a weak trading update and Mr Hutchinson Smith described the first four and half months of this year as “relatively quiet”.

Long gone are the days when shoppers would wander off the street into a Mayfair gallery and snap up a piece. Now dealers have to market their wares on the internet and plough money into the biggest fairs and events globally to win new customers.

One of the key sales periods is about to start: between mid-May and mid-July there is a flurry of fairs, with next month’s Masterpiece London 2014, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a key show for the top end of art and antiques dealers. The next peak period is in the autumn, with events such as New York’s International Fine Art & Antiques Dealers Show.

Mr Hutchinson Smith said: “The market has moved swiftly. Now it is about concentrated periods of trading. Business is now much more lumpy. This is now an event- based business rather than a gallery-based business.”

Antiques dealers have had to step out of their old-fashioned market into a modern world, where big events and the internet are as important as a swanky central London address.

Mallett, which was founded in 1865, is finally going to start selling its wares online, with Mr Hutchinson Smith saying that  the internet business should “iron out some of the lumps.”

It will trial sales of up £20,000 for the first six months and, if things go well, it will look at upping the price.

Mallett isn’t the only one to realise the market is much more volatile and that it can’t rely on shop trade alone.

It noticed the trend and began discussions eight years ago with its fellow dealers Apter-Fredericks and Ronald Phillips. Together they launched the Masterpiece  art fair in 2009.

Masterpiece, now in its fifth year, has 157 exhibitors from more than 10 countries, with over 30,000 visitors each year.

Harry Apter runs Apter- Fredericks, a dealer of 18th- and early 19th-century English furniture, along with his brother Guy. They are the third generation of a business that started in 1946. Harry Apter said business has seen brisk so far this year and sales are up on last year, but he admitted: “The antiques market is event driven. But life itself is event driven. People want excitement and the old-fashioned style of antiques trading is gone. Businesses have to change with the times.”

He added that a new world of potential buyers has opened up at these events. “We meet people who would never have gone to an antiques fair or gallery before.

“Now buyers are not looking to fill a whole house with antiques. It is about signature pieces. They might be looking for that one statement piece – a table that can be used as a table, not a museum piece.”

Even across the wider antiques market and right down to the lower end of  the sector, things have had to change.

Mark Dodgson, the secretary general at the British Antique Dealers’ Association, which was founded in 1918, said: “There are fewer county towns with local antiques dealers now. The internet has changed things but also how people spend their leisure time has changed. We are competing for cash with Lamborghinis and expensive holidays. The antiques market has become ultra competitive.

“There is also the added issue of rent. With less footfall, it is harder to justify a gallery when rents are rising. In Mayfair particularly, some galleries have been priced out by luxury brands who can pay much more for the space.”

But the showroom isn’t dead. Mr Apter argued: “The gallery is still very important; people like to know they can visit the shop. Even if they don’t, they like to know they could if they needed to. It lends credibility to the business.”

And even the giants of the auction world also have to follow the “seasons”. Orlando Rock, the deputy chairman for Europe at Christie’s, said: “There are two key gallery seasons in decorative arts. Our ‘Exceptional Sale’ – an auction of the rarest and most important works from the traditional decorative arts, where we curate our very best pieces – is a key sales period.”

But he pointed out that the bigger auction houses can also sell successfully in between these key periods due to their size and reach.

With such an unpredictable art and antiques market, why would an art dealer remain listed? Under the scrutiny of shareholders and the wider financial market, Mallett is open to the vagaries of specific trading periods and yesterday its shares tumbled by nearly 14 per cent.

Mr Hutchinson Smith conceded: “Being a public company of this size, in a business that is very hard to read, is not a comfortable suit. It is no surprise it is rare to have a listed art dealer.”

It is thought Mallett could look at either going private or moving to the junior Aim market, but for now its shareholders have to cope with the highs and lows of the art and antiques calendar.