The television antiques trade

October 21, 2009

In his ‘Personal View’ for this week’s Antiques Trade Gazette, Alastair Ashford dredged up the debate that has rumbled on in trade circles for many years over the ever-expanding catalogue of TV programmes to do with antiques and collectables. In short: are such programmes a ‘good thing’ or not for the antiques industry?

Producer’s and scheduler’s appetites for such programmes (presumably quite cheap and easy to make) certainly show no sign of waning. At every one of the vaguely sizeable fairs I have attended over the past few months I have been buffeted by sound and cameramen following the blue or red teams as they scour stands for the ever-popular ‘Bargain Hunt’.

One of the latest manifestations is ‘Trust Me – I’m a Dealer’, featuring the unthreatening – not to say simpering – Paul Martin. The basic premise is that Martin is given a sum of money from the precious savings pot of an ‘ordinary’ member of the public with the hope that he will make them a profit by trading in antiques (mostly furniture).

I myself rather enjoy the programme, identifying with some of the issues confronted by an antiques dealer in the course of his daily work. And at a very basic level, it does give the public an idea of what a dealer has to do to make end’s meat: i.e. usually work hard and often travel far to find things you’ve got a chance of selling for a profit (the “easy” bit), then find a potential buyer who is actually likely stump up (harder) and give you a worthwhile profit (hardest bit).

Being sanitised and mendacious TV land, things go more smoothly than ever they could in reality: ultimately Mr. Martin returns to his investor at the end of the programme with a profit, and things turn out for the best in the end; granny gets her dream trip to New York. Any old antiques lag or cynical dealer (like me) will instantly wonder what has happened to the overheads and expenses incurred, and wish that in the real world the mechanics of transactions could work so apparently effortlessly, and negotiations be so swiftly and amicably concluded.

Mr. Ashford raises some interesting issues, asking whether any other industry would find it acceptable to have its modus operandi so unquestioningly exposed and exploited by the media in this way; and should there be a regulatory body of some kind established to monitor television coverage of the antiques trade?

Of course, these programmes could not be made without the connivance and assistance of notable members of the profession, and there is an interesting debate to be had as to whether the old aphorism “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is always true.

But Ashford’s chief lament is a familiar one, that such programmes encourage the audience to see antiques simply as a commodity to make money out of. I certainly come across people all the time who know, or, more disturbingly, think they know the price of everything (but sometimes the value truly of nothing). This phenomenon is undoubtedly exacerbated by the saturation TV output from fairs, auction houses, and galleries.

The truth of the matter is that anyone, without any professional qualifications, can set themselves up as an antiques dealer. And it is up to that person to convince a savvy buying public that they have the requisite knowledge, expertise, customer service and integrity to be trusted with their investment. It’s not up to television, but to those in the antiques business to, borrowing a quote from Ashford “inspire the new generation of serious collectors that the UK antiques trade so desperately needs.”

And at the end of the day, as enjoyable and rewarding as making a living from antiques can be, we all want to make money.

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