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Diary of a London dealer: Alistair Sampson "Yes, trade is dreadful at the moment"

Leading specialist in early English decorative arts expects a slow improvement in trade

London

On his 40th birthday in 1969, Alistair Sampson gave up his career as a barrister and became a full-time antiques dealer. A leading specialist in fine oak furniture, early English textiles, treen, early glass and ceramics, he describes the current recession hitting the British trade as the worst he has experienced. He is mounting a major exhibition in New York this month. Apprehensive as to how it will turn out, he explains that it is the cleverest and richest dealers who will survive the recession and in bad times the trade cannot afford to sit back.

The Art Newspaper: Just how bad is business at the moment?

Alistair Sampson: Dreadful. Passing trade has almost entirely dried up; we go for days with no one walking into the shop. By the time we are through it I think it will have been worse than 1991-92, although on the bright side, remember we did come out of that into a tremendous boom period.

TAN: Why are the British antique dealers suffering so badly?

AS: Sixty per cent of our client base is American, and if you look in the sales book, business stopped dead on 9/11. Terrorism, coupled with the stock market crash, means Americans are not coming to Britain or spending. The October New York Fair, which accounts for over 60% of our annual turnover, was cancelled in 2001. In addition to clients not buying anything, decorators are not landing any big accounts at the moment.

TAN: What can you do to improve things?

AS: We were bailed out last year because we had a big exhibition in a private New York gallery in January, where we took more than we would have done at the cancelled October fair. I think because the fair had been cancelled people were thrilled to see us. I call it the “pent-up dam” effect. Clients also enjoyed the more leisurely atmosphere of the gallery and being able to wander in and take their time with only one or two other people around. This year we only did two-fifths of our normal turnover at the October Fair, and Grosvenor House was right down. We are doing another exhibition in New York this month and we are exhibiting at the New York Ceramics Fair at the same time. It is a big risk and we are very apprehensive but you cannot just sit still and do nothing. We have also launched a new and much improved website to attract business, and if you can afford it this is a very good time to advertise, as none of your competitors are. You want to try and wake up the dormant buyer such as the person who walked onto my stand at the October fair and said, “Since shares are no good, let’s try antiques.”

TAN: So is this a very good time to be buying?

AS: Everybody’s fully stocked and everybody’s got no money. We get runners coming in desperate to sell things and most of the dealers have their shutters up saying, “We are not buying.” We're finding it very difficult to refuse some amazing bargains which are cropping up, but you cannot afford to buy if you have no turnover. If you can buy now and keep things without going out of business then you know they will be gold bricks. We bought one of the finest examples of felt work at Olympia recently for £850; we were prepared to go to £3,000, thinking that was still a modest price.

TAN: So is this something you will now put away for better times?

AS: On the contrary. It is being cleaned, to be rushed to America for the show this month. It is better for us to make a small profit now than wait for a much larger one later on–turnover is crucial. In good times we save things for our two big fairs, New York and Grosvenor House, so as to have an amazing stand, but now if we buy something wonderful it is on sale the next day.

TAN: Are you not better off dropping your prices, rather than selling nothing?

AS: If dealers start offering things for conspicuously less than they are worth, the public will lose confidence and think the bottom must be falling out of the market. If you are running with expenses of £500/600,000 a year, you have to try and maintain some level of profit on the sales you do achieve.

TAN: Is the recession affecting all levels of the market?

AS: Rare things are not getting any easier to find, so demand is holding up better at the top end, both with dealers and auctioneers. You are still getting some good auction prices for really fine things.

TAN: Is it very frustrating that the contemporary art market is still roaring away with record sales in November in New York? How can you broaden your appeal to younger people?

AS: You can’t change fashion. Even in recessionary times, the very rich are still very rich and they want to acquire icons and impress everybody with them, and while the contemporary market is still so buoyant people are relaxed about buying. Most of our clients are between 40 and 60. They may manage large companies who have just made major redundancies. They are buying things to furnish their home, not investing, and they don’t feel they should be seen to be spending large sums.

TAN: Do you think that because taste has swung so much towards more contemporary and minimalist interiors and the decorators are now pushing this look, this has also affected the antiques market?

AS: I don’t think it is that relevant. I think most people have to reach a certain age and maturity before they buy antiques. They have to be over the Ferrari, penthouse and mistress phase. Perhaps they now own a period home in the country and they want a more elegant approach to life.

TAN: Is there nothing you can do to encourage younger people to buy antiques? Antiques look wonderful mixed with contemporary things; don’t you think organisations like the BADA should be doing more to broaden the market?

AS: I’m not sure there is much you can do to influence younger buyers. The younger clients tend to be those who have grown up with antiques, but it is really an area people come to later on.

TAN: Do you think we are going to see a lot of people going out of business?

AS: I hope not, but in the last recession some of the most senior firms went down: for example, Ackermans, Sparks and Bluetts. It will be the richest and the cleverest who stay in business. You have to clutch at every straw, even little things like leaving the shop lights on all night,

TAN: Do you think we have just seen the beginning of bad times?

AS: No, I think from now on things will go gently uphill; the stock market has bottomed out and America seems to be riding the recession. If the economic figures look more cheerful the Americans will start spending again. The unknown element is the war with Iraq. If American corpses start to come back from Iraq then I think a great melancholia will come over America and the trade will stop dead.

Alistair Sampson Antiques, Chelsea Editions (which recreates antique textiles) and antique textile dealer Cora Ginsburg will once again come together from 18 to 26 January to hold a selling exhibition of country furniture, ceramics, treen, naïve paintings, early needlework and textiles. Chelsea Editions’ showroom is at 232 East 59th Street, The Fine Arts Building, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10022. Opening hours: every day 10.00 - 5.30pm.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Yes, trade is dreadful at the moment'