Labor Day is a working holiday for dealers, whose life is harder than it looks


August 29, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Open a newspaper anywhere in the country and you're likely to find advertisements for antiques and collectibles shows. Go to one, such as the Labor Day weekend antiques fair at Baltimore's Convention Center, and you'll find more than 400 dealers who have traveled from all parts of the country for the opportunity to sell you something.

Labor Day weekend traditionally is no holiday for dealers or antiquers. That is particularly true this year as shows proliferate, dealers compete for customers' disposable income in tough economic times, and an increasing number of collectors search for the best buys (often in collecting fields virtually unheard of a decade ago), hoping to hit the jackpot by outwitting unsuspecting dealers while also trying to avoid costly mistakes.

With so many shows and dealers to choose from, sorting them out by quality and variety of merchandise, knowledge of their fields, reliability, prices and customer service can be challenging for even the savviest shoppers. In an industry in which the adage "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) often rules, more and more collectors are asking, who are the folks we're buying from? How do I know if they're good and reputable? Some collectors even wonder what life would be like if they became dealers and hit the road in search of fun and fortune.

Interviews with show dealers, collectors and show promoters confirms that the antiques and collectibles business in many ways is no different from any sales field: The best dealers work hard for their money, have mastered their product lines, have a flair for merchandising, are "people people," try to educate their customers, price their goods fairly and value their reputation more than a quick buck. Most of all, they're passionate about what they're offering, generally because they're collectors themselves.

Shopping tips

Walking into a show for the first time, it's often hard to know which dealers to trust; your best protection is using common sense and asking lots of questions. In many ways, this industry is self-regulating, with show managers and fellow dealers often policing dealers (not always successfully) who stock booths with fakes or shoddy merchandise or create an unpleasant atmosphere for shoppers. Although sometimes it's hard to spend lots of time with each customer, any knowledgeable dealer should be willing to explain how or why he knows a piece is authentic; what makes such an item rare or desirable; whether it's damaged or has been repaired; and why it's more or less expensive than similar examples in the booth. No honest dealer should balk at providing a customer with a written receipt fully describing a purchase, and guaranteeing its age, origin and condition. And if a buyer later becomes dissatisfied or concerned, most good dealers are willing to repurchase the item for what the customer paid.

When it comes to prices, collectors often ask dealers: "Is this the best you can do?" Typically, deals can be worked out. But if an item proves to be over your budget, most dealers prefer customers to politely excuse themselves and leave the item behind, rather than haggling over prices, which they find demeaning to both buyers and sellers. "I give lots of thought to pricing my booth, and I'm not going to give away my merchandise at fire sale or flea market prices even if it takes me hours to pack up unsold items after a show," is a common refrain.

Good dealers relate well to their customers because they're usually cut from the same cloth. "Most dealers are collectors who over-collected and now have to sell to support their habit," says Irene Stella, manager of more than 20 shows annually in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, including a Labor Day street fair Sept. 6 in Rutherford, N.J., that features more than 100 dealers. (For information call [201] 384-0010.)

"Dr. Nostalgia"

"I've made my avocation my vocation," says Dr. Bob Gardner, a retired psychiatrist from Lynchburg, Va., who, with his wife, Leah Belle, deals in vintage postcards, old advertising items, tins, ephemera and antique jewelry, under the trade name "Dr. Nostalgia." The Gardners, who dress for shows in medical garb, say they now try curing "diseases of collectors, antiquarians and memorabiliacs" with suitable purchases. They'll be among the dealers at the Baltimore show, which runs Friday through next Sunday.

Oriental works of arts specialist Marvin Baer, of the Ivory Tower in Ridgefield, N.J., a retired garment industry executive, recalls his transformation from collector to dealer: "I wanted to buy as much as I possibly could, but I couldn't keep it all, so eventually I started dealing."

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