Making a career in antiques

"How to get in to the antiques trade" is a question that crops up with great regularity and one which has almost as many answers as there are people already working with antiques. Ask any ten dealers or auctioneers how they started and the chances are that there will be ten completely different answers.

On the face of it, antiques might seem an easy option; plenty of people have made successful careers in the trade without any formal qualifications, and antique dealing is one of the few occupations that has no fixed system of training; beguiling stories of fat profits abound. Yet anyone who has tried to make a living in the antiques trade will tell you that in reality it is far from easy: success requires a great deal of hard work, experience, knowledge, considerable capital and, above all, that elusive quality, flair. More people have burnt their fingers — and worse — by disregarding these basics than most of us have made trips to antique shops. Even to keep a weekly market stall supplied with continually changing stock, a dealer must be constantly out looking for suitable goods at the right prices; he or she may have to travel many miles at all times of the day or night in the course of the hunt and should always be alert to new sources of goods.

All this costs money, and the more capital you can muster, the better the business can prosper. Vast numbers of antique dealing ventures have failed through lack of funding or through dealers underestimating the amount of capital which they need to cover all their costs. While it is possible to make antiques a profitable sideline on a shoestring, and with luck and perseverance this sideline may eventually grow into a full time career, few people find that they can make a living at the outset unless they have considerable financial back-up.

Knowledge — as much as possible — is another essential. This can be a deep specialist knowledge in a particular area of antiques or it may be a broad general knowledge encompassing many aspects, and enabling the dealer to spread a wide net.

Above all else there is a magic ingredient known as "flair" which really marks a good dealer on any level. Flair goes beyond knowledge and experience and implies discernment, an artistic eye, enthusiasm and perhaps a dash of salesmanship; it is an innate quality which can lift a dealer out of the ordinary whether he operates from a market stall or a shop in Bond Street.

Whereas flair is something you either have or have not, and whereas money may or may not be available to you, some degree of knowledge and experience can and must be acquired before embarking on any kind of antique dealing venture on your own account. There are many routes open to you, from taking degree or diploma courses in the fine and/or applied arts, to working as an antique dealer's assistant or saleroom porter.

While three or four years at university studying congenial subjects like history of art, architecture and perhaps a language or two seem enticing and may be a valuable background they are hardly the equipment for a career in antiques. Only a small handful of universities offer courses that are at all relevant to the antiques and art trade and places are not easy to come by: those available are snapped up by the highest academic fliers.

Privately run courses, some providing a diploma or postgraduate degree on successful completion, may be a more vocational alternative or addition to university. They are shorter, one year is usual, and several are specifically tailored to a future in the antiques or art trades. Their disadvantage is that nearly all are expensive and only one or two are eligible for state grants.

There is a form of do-it-yourself course which may be nearly as good as any of these and which has the virtue of continuing for as long as you like, and perhaps for a lifetime; it can be followed full or part-time and can be tailored to individual interests. A DIY course is a matter of reading and studying on your own and making visits to museums, country houses, salerooms and dealers' shops, asking questions and handling objects whenever possible. Evening classes and museum and gallery lectures can also be useful. The self-discipline required to follow successfully such a path of learning is in itself a good training for anyone seriously embarking on a career in antiques.

For many, the most obvious way to begin is to find a dealer who needs an assistant and to learn as much as possible from him or her. The advantage is that this way you can earn while you learn, but the knowledge acquired may be limited, either by the unwillingness of the dealer to part with information — some are very secretive — or by the nature of the goods themselves: a shop specialising in ceramics is hardly the place to learn about silver or furniture.

But once employed in the trade it is less difficult to find another job, and experience with different sorts of dealers can build up a useful bank of knowledge. It is not always easy to find a job in an antique shop, and most are badly paid, however congenial. Few dealers advertise vacancies, preferring to rely on the grapevine for new staff — who are more likely to have previous experience if they are found by these means. However, a widely accepted method is simply to go round from shop to shop in a given area and ask. It can be demoralising when the answer "no, sorry" comes back again and again, but perseverance should be rewarded in the end.

Writing letters of enquiry to long lists of dealers can be similarly disheartening and is a slower process, but can save footwork as well as face if you happen to feel less bold than brass. 

Working as a saleroom porter used to be the conventional bottom rung of the saleroom ladder, and many eventually moved away from the auction to dealing. While several of the big auction houses now employ "career" porters and while it is perfectly possible to rise to the dizzy heights of departmental expert without doing time as a porter, this is still an invaluable way to gain experience, involving as it does the handling of large quantities of goods and at the same time hearing the opinions of the knowledgeable.

Indeed, almost any job in a saleroom carries useful learning potential whether your intention is to make a career in the art auction world or as a dealer. The volume of goods passing through and which can be handled is inevitably much greater than in any dealer's shop, and there are usually experts about to answer the questions of the enthusiastically curious. Other openings in the auction field include saleroom assistants, who watch over goods on viewing days, sales clerks, front counter staff who take in objects brought for sale and summon the appropriate expert, and secretaries.

Finding such a job is another matter. The bigger auctioneers, like the major dealers, are inundated with unsolicited applications from would-be employees and can afford to be choosy. Such qualifications as a degree or diploma, or knowledge of languages, may be useful if not essential, and any previous experience in the antiques world can tip the scales in your favour.

Most people agree that buying on your own account is one of the best ways to learn about antiques, but few dealers' assistants aspire to this until they have spent many years working in a shop or gallery, or unless they have been taken on, perhaps after previous experience or training elsewhere, with a view to partnership in the future.

Taking a stall in an antiques market or in a one-day fair can be a good start, and should not involve a large capital outlay. If the project is successful it can be allowed gradually to grow from a part-time hobby into full-time employment.

Antique dealing is one of the few careers open to people in later life. Many turn to it on retirement or after redundancy (the golden handshake has set many a dealer on the path to success), and often these later arrivals have a lifetime of interest and collecting behind them. While there is a huge difference between collecting for pleasure and making a living by buying and selling antiques, their knowledge both of their subject and of the trade gives them a distict advantage, whether they deal on a small scale in fairs and markets, or from elegant premises of their own.

It is important to remember that antiques, whether from a dealing or an auctioneering point of view, is a heavily over-subscribed profession, and only those with iron determination as well as all the other attributes mentioned will first get in, and then get on.

Further Reading

  • Noel Riley: Careers in Antiques (Kogan Page, 1984)
  • Noel Riley: Running your own Antiques Business, second edition (Kogan Page, 1986)
  • Guide to the Antique Shops of Great Britain (Antique Collectors' Club)
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