Did eBay kill Lovejoy? How e-commerce transformed the antiques industry

As Christie’s closes the doors on its South Kensington salesroom, David Jinks, Fastlane International’s Head of Consumer Research and former Editor of Model Price Guide and Coins Market Values, examines the impact of e-commerce and online auction sites on the antiques trade, and asks whether traditional antique shops can survive the collapse of the High Street.

 

Who would have predicted back in 1984 that Christie’s much-loved South Kensington salesroom would be closing in 2017? Last year Christie’s held 118 online sales, far outnumbering the 56 traditional auctions. Back in the 1990s, when I was a regular visitor to Hugo Marsh’s toy collectables division at Christie’s, this would have been unthinkable. Every corner of Christie’s South Ken buildings was a treasure trove; groaning at the seams with everything from old masters to 18th century sedan chairs.

From local antique shops to Christie’s South Ken. auction room; the impact of the internet has taken a heavy toll. Nearly every aspect of the antiques trade has been transformed since the coming of e-commerce; with auction houses only the latest to fall under the hammer.

Back in 1984 Jonathan Gash’s (real name John Grant) Lovejoy novels about a roguish antique dealer were enjoying great popularity and soon to be made into a cult TV series starring Ian McShane. Everyone was becoming an armchair ‘expert’ and the antiques industry was enjoying boom times in the UK, thanks to the fad for period-style rooms.

Who would have believed that, in the same year, a 72-year-old granny named Mrs Snowball, buying some groceries from her local Gateshead Tesco online, would sow the seeds for the complete shakeup of the thriving antique shop and auction house market scene. But Mrs Snowball’s groceries were the world’s first e-commerce sale, and the new technology would soon be shaking up the world of retail, and antiques and collectables in particular.

In the ‘80s the trade was dominated by High Street antique shops and local auctions. Clever dealers who had the right connections could command high prices. Indeed, the antiques profession was very much driven by location; with antiques on sale in fashionable and chic areas commanding considerably more money than in less wealthy areas, reflecting the number and spending power of local collectors, and tourists to the location.

Lovejoy’s success was based on his inside knowledge of the East Anglian antique market. But the exciting, if mildly murky, world of Lovejoy, Tinker and Lady Jane Feltham was soon to be transformed for ever. The arrival of the internet broke down geographical barriers; which had both a positive and a negative impact on traders. The internet increased the number of potential customers greatly, no longer were buyers limited to those who actually visited the shop or auction; but drove down many prices by increasing the easy availability of items that may have been scarce locally.

Even Lovejoy’s miraculous ‘divvy’ powers to divine hidden gems and instantly spot forgeries, were suddenly in the hands of everyone with a little time to research the market thoroughly on the internet and keep track of eBay and local auction house prices.

So what impact has the arrival of the online marketplace eBay, or sites such as invaluable.co.uk – which links to live auctions – had on the antiques industry; and overall has their arrival been a boon or a curse?

Antique dealers with large premises face the twin challenges of high business rates and rents; and changing customer tastes.

Changing antiques fashions mean they may be stuck with large amounts of stock and slow turnover thanks to the decline in demand for ‘brown’ furniture. The most recent figures from the Antique Collectors’ Club reveal Victorian and Edwardian furniture have lost more than two-thirds of their value since 2003; while Georgian and Regency period furniture is worth 30 percent less than 10 years ago. That means there is a lot of unsold stock clogging up High Street premises at a time when it has never been so expensive to maintain large stores.

It’s no coincidence that large and heavy furniture has lost value in the era of e-commerce. Smaller collectables that are easy to ship are easier to trade, and gradually antiques as investments have shifted away from bulky items towards more portable items. Currently vintage lamps and advertising are very popular; as well as ‘mantiques’ – items such as globes, vintage cricket kit, and Grand Tour style memorabilia (and I’m not referring to the rebooted Top Gear show!)

In contrast to heavy Victorian furniture, mass-produced smaller ‘50’s and ‘60’s furniture – more likely to be sold online through the likes of eBay, Etsy or even Gumtree –  than in a traditional High Street antique store, is enjoying something of a boom; due in part to the craze for sixties chic created by Madmen and other period series and movies. And there’s even a slowly growing market for 80’s products – proving nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Traditional antiques stores have been similarly impacted. Things started to come to a head following the recession of 2008. To take just one example, Stow in the Wold, once the very epitome of an antiques destination, lost 20 antique shops in the five years leading up to 2010 alone – driven out by increasing rents and sluggish sales of Georgian and Victorian dining and bedroom furniture. It’s a trend that shows little sign of slowing.

Even the era of the antiques centre, where dealers pool space and resources in a bid to reduce overheads, looks to be fading in the teeth of e-commerce.

Antique shops may have had their day; and the collectables market may have remained depressed since the 2008 depression, but make no mistake, online antiques stores are thriving. The market is growing by 3.5% currently. Key to success in this busy market is having a diverse range of customers and the ability to quickly adopt new technology.

 

The same holds true for auction houses. It’s not only Christie’s feeling the pinch. Surviving auction houses have enthusiastically embraced sites such as invaluable.co.uk, which can live stream the auction as it happens.

So, can the High Street antique store survive the collapse of town centre shopping? Those stores with a multichannel approach to sales; using their own sites, platforms such as eBay and their physical stores may yet live to become antiques themselves! Brick and mortar antiques stores will become increasingly niche. The Old Curiosity Shop of tomorrow needs to be positioned in towns that are on the tourist trail and sensibly sized. Large, high rate and rent, stores full of heavy unfashionable furniture, do not have a future.

 

The Lovejoy of today still exists, probably hunting down a legendary pair of Durrs Egg pistols online, following prices achieved on auction house web sites and keeping half an eye on eBay. And probably spamming rival dealers! The way to Lady Jane Felsham’s heart is embracing the e-commerce revolution, maintaining an online site, have an eBay strategy and keeping a flexible approach to changing fashions.

 

 

 

About the author

David Jinks MILT is the Head of Consumer Research at Fastlane, He was previously Publisher of Logistics & Transport Focus and has been Editor of numerous collecting titles such as Model Price Guide, Model Collector, Coins Market Values and Area 51: Sci Fi Collecting.

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