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Fair Business

Witney antiques dealer David Harvey discusses what makes an antiques fair successful
Now we see price obsessed programmes like ‘Bargain Hunt’ and ‘Real Deal’ where there is little regard to the intrinsic history or background of an item

Have you visited the annual Blenheim Palace Antiques Fair in April? This fabulous event was started just three years ago by our Cotswolds Antique Dealers Association and is one where I am delighted to exhibit. It’s a good place for anyone looking for collector’s pieces or high quality antiques for their home. It is one of a small handful where Harvey’s continue to show in these changing times.

Recently I was asked what makes such a fair successful and that made me pause for thought. The answer, of course, depends on whether you are a fair organiser, dealer/exhibitor or visitor. In a simple way an organiser may consider their event a success if they have a certain number of visitors. Then again, another organiser might take the view that having every stand taken by a quality dealer is a better sign of success. From an exhibitor’s standpoint, it is not the numbers of people coming through the door so much as it is the number of pieces sold and new contacts made.

Free entry or not?

From the visitor’s standpoint, it must be whether they enjoy looking around, are interested by what they see and even find an elusive item for their collection. However much the entry charge was, is the event good value? Having exhibited at fairs for the past 40+ years I have watched how this has changed. These measures of success would certainly have applied in the 1970s and 80s but much has changed.  In the battle to keep prestige fairs busy with the ‘right kind of people’ exhibitors were often given unlimited invitations to send out to clients for free entry. Others offered free coupons in magazines so the numbers attending remained stable but gradually most people stopped paying to come in. At least, when you had to pay in folding money to go into a fair, you didn’t just enter to get out of the rain! And there is a school of thought that generally people do not appreciate things they are given for free!

During the 80s and 90s, fairs proliferated and it seemed that every weekend in every town there was some kind of antiques fair or market. The willingness for people to buy antiques was almost as relentless as the increase in TV programmes whose makers saw fairs and markets as a source of great entertainment driven by a belief that it is all about money. When once the BBC featured the venerable ‘Going For a Song’ with dear, gentle Arthur Negus imparting pearls of wisdom about objects as he examined them languorously on a Sunday afternoon, now we see price obsessed programmes like ‘Bargain Hunt’ and ‘Real Deal’ where there is little regard to the intrinsic history or background of an item.

Loss making TV shows

To see competing teams spend £300 of a TV company’s money buying items that have in all probability come through an auction sale to then be taken back to another auctioneer to try and make a profit would seem extreme folly. Yet they still try, and what bad luck it is for the team who made a total loss of £185 on an investment of £300 – and that’s before allowing for time, mileage, transport costs and auctioneer’s fees and VAT! 

Of course, the term ‘Antiques Fair’ covers a huge range of different locations, from a village hall to the elite heights of the now defunct Grosvenor House Fair. They all have common strands, but the love of having a jolly good rummage through a load of “stuff” is never far from the collector’s heart. Suited and booted sales staff at a high class event might decry those visitors who insist on touching pieces, leaving finger marks on furniture, glass and porcelain but I for one love visiting markets and fairs where the exhibitors are jeans clad and encourage me to pick things up and examine them. I have often found the knowledge at this level to be the equal of any dealer elsewhere and yes, I have on occasion bought items at an antiques market.

Lifestyle choices

Today fairs have also shrunk in size and frequency. At its height, the Olympia Fair with some 400 exhibitors competed with the elite Grosvenor House fair to be top dog, but when I visited West London recently I was amazed to see this year’s Olympia Fair has shrunk so dramatically whilst Grosvenor House has been reborn as the spectacular Masterpiece lifestyle event.

Maybe it will prove to be a good thing as collectors return to a traditional pattern of buying by returning to knowledgeable dealers in their shops, getting to know them and appreciate how to look at the objects they have around them.

- David Harvey