One evening at a dinner for my son’s 5th grade class, I was sitting across from another mom. I mentioned that as an antique dealer, Monday was my favorite day of the week (that’s the dealer’s day of rest). She looked puzzled and said, “Oh . . . I didn’t know you had a shop.” I’m sure I turned bright red. This mom had picked her daughter up at my home many times. She’d navigated around the boxes, chairs and half-painted furniture and ducked the chandeliers hanging from every available ceiling spot. In a panic, I asked, “Did you think we were just a bunch of slobs?!?” She quietly answered, “Well I did notice that you have lots of stuff.”
That’s reality to many antique dealers. Your house is really never done since every week you might find a giant cupboard that will work “much better” than the giant cupboard you just bought and filled last week. Your husband is always complaining about moving furniture and even the cats and dogs are confused by the ever-changing landscape. You constantly ask friends to switch car pool days because your mini van is too full to accommodate more than the driver. Having a few friends over to dinner doesn’t just mean cooking, it often means finding the dining room table!
So, if you’re considering a career change, keep the following in mind:
You get to keep the best for yourself: That’s true, except first, you have to sell things in order to afford to buy more. You must be willing to load some of your favorite pieces into a smiling customer’s car. Besides, most antique dealers have enough already. The kids can’t always walk in the house. You run out of room for things and with the parade of items in and out there’s never a surface that’s free. Boxes of “possibilities” overwhelm. And if you have big dogs and can’t suffer some significant losses, forget it. Wagging tails can destroy more fine glassware than an earthquake.
Buying antiques to sell is loads of fun. Sure, but keeping a shop filled is hard work. Since eBay and other online auction sites have enticed many more people into the business, it’s harder to find things to sell. No sleep, long drives and never getting a weekend off take their toll. Physically, we’re wrecks. Each of us is battered and bruised from lifting and hauling. The places you go to search for stuff are places you’d never imagine you’d enter. Mouse droppings containing the deadly Hantavirus may lurk in every garage. I once went to an estate sale where they were handing out respirator masks to anyone brave enough to forage through the basement. I once spent a week in February stumbling around in a rat-infested pitch black house with no heat or electricity, snow pouring down through holes in the roof and giant, and rusty nails sticking out of the walls. The pickings were great!
It’s glamorous handling all those old beauties: Just about everything we touch is covered with decades of grime, grease, dust and cobwebs. Most pieces of furniture need a few nails, screws, glue, paint or new knobs, but sometimes that expensive table will crumble to pieces when you tighten the clamp. Paint remover will occasionally reveal the deep and unremovable scars of cigarette burns. Scrubbing, hauling, hammering and mixing gallons of ammonia have replaced my need for the gym. All my clothes are covered with paint. I’m outside so much that my husband calls “Deep Woods Off” my summer perfume.
It’s a more relaxing life--after all there’s no messy commute, no office downtown and no boss to tell you what to do. You can set your own schedule! In my informal surveys I’ve found that the average antique dealer sleeps about five hours a night. Rising before 4:00 a.m. to be first in line at the estate sales or head out to a country auction means that sleep isn’t high on the list. Sometimes I’ll sit in front of a house from two until four a.m., hoping that this is the bonanza sale. Occasionally it’s worth it–more often I’m bleary-eyed and empty-handed. We load more miles on the odometer and spend more time in the car than any commuter. No confining 9 to 5 for us: it’s seven days and seven nights a week of hunting, hauling, painting, washing and waiting. Sure, no boss comes looking for that late report, but who needs a boss to make you jump? After all, the classified ads and auction schedules rule your life better than any staff meeting or deadline could.
So why do we do it? The customers are wonderful, interesting people. The other dealers are fascinating. And you sure do learn a lot. Ask any antique dealer what he or she considers the best part of this business. You’re likely to get a great story about how a simple piece of pottery with an unfamiliar name led them on an historical odyssey that included trips to the library, calls and visits to other dealers, hours of Internet research and an illuminating lesson on the economics of a particular period or culture. A trumpet that I bought at a yard sale for $5 taught me more about the African-American jazz movement in 1920s Chicago than any book (I still don’t know much about the trumpet though!). A letter, signature, monogram or even a dinner plate can transport you back to glittering Continental parties or make you an expert on political and social scandals at the turn of the century.
In the end, even though we’re sweaty, filthy, exhausted and suffering from bad backs or broken ribs, there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. There’s the thrill of the hunt, the unearthing of some treasure from the bottom of a box at auction. It’s wonderful to see a customer find something they’ve wanted for years. You get to meet interesting people and see really fascinating (albeit, sometimes dangerous) places.
For those of us who do our own restoration, there’s even more. Sometimes the harsh paint remover and denatured alcohol will uncover a magnificent cherry wood, mellowed with age, that can be waxed and buffed to a glowing patina. Ammonia, vinegar and rust remover can reveal the dazzling rainbow of 100-year-old chandelier crystals. Buckets of primer and white paint can turn grandma’s old mahogany sideboard into a showpiece.
It’s hard work and it’s never reliable. You can’t bank on producing a product even with hours of effort. But it’s never lonely and it’s never boring. Other dealers and customers have become great friends and even better sources. Each object you acquire can become a truly inspiring history lesson. And that incredible oil painting on my living room wall? I snagged it at a yard sale and discovered that it’s a 19th century impressionist maritime painting of my childhood vacation spot. I couldn’t have touched it in an art gallery.