A Question of Display

Mark HillAntiques & Collectables Expert ~ Author & Publisher Mark Hill

Sitting in my new boutique (well, small shop, really) in London’s Grays Antiques Centre the other day, my eyes focused out of a daydream and on to the two glass cabinets that display my stock. A riot of colours danced before my eyes, and shapes roughly resembling boiled sweets arranged on shelves came in to sharp focus to reveal the mastery of the designers who dreamed the fabulous forms up. “How marvellous!”, I thought, as my mind drifted to the fascinating stories and personalities behind them.

Then it struck me. Do people display the pieces they love and collect like this any more? I can’t remember the last time I came across someone who had a ‘cabinet’ for displaying their collection. Shelves, often yes, but not cabinets. Much like the poor dining table, ‘granny’s china cabinet’ is now largely unused, unwanted and unfashionable. A growing number of people I have sold to recently have expressed their excitement at getting the piece home and displaying it on their teak sideboard, dining table, side table, or even a pedestal. Some have then gone on to explain how good their new acquisition will look against a wall, next to a lamp, under a picture, or grouped with two other pieces they already own. Serried ranks of objects have been replaced with carefully curated micro-collections displayed on, and enhanced by, suitably matching (or contrasting) furniture.

So if that’s how many of the objects being sold end up being displayed, isn’t that how we as dealers should display the goods when we put them out for sale? Having visited a number of fairs around Europe, I’ve always noticed a particular buzz around stands made up of vignettes that one might find in a real home. A chair, a lamp and a side table with three objects on top – all grouped to great effect. Should we make it easier for people – especially a younger generation not used to ‘buying antiques’ – to understand how the objects we sell can enhance their homes by placing them for sale in as ‘domestic’ a setting as possible? It’s what many auction houses are doing with their ‘At Home’ style auctions, and the retail industry on the high street has been doing it for years. In fact, a certain Scandinavian superstore positively forces you to see how all their wares look when arranged temptingly (?!) together in a room set.


That poses an immediate problem for many of us dealers. On a personal front, my stand is quite small. If I were to rip out the cabinets and replace them with furniture to create my domestic design vignettes, I’d have trouble sensibly fitting in more than a sideboard and a small table. I’m sitting on the only chair I have space for. Plus, in order for it to look as good as it could and as good as I’d want it to, I’d only have space to display a small fraction of the stock that I have out for sale now. Having as much on display as possible, tastefully arranged of course, means someone is more likely to find something amongst it all that they like, doesn’t it? I do have two tall hollow white pedestals which allow individual pieces, or small groups of three or so, to be displayed – but that’s as close as it gets and who really has such pieces of display furniture at home?

photo 1

On another front, if you’re in a temporary selling environment like a non-stand-fitted fair, you may only have the car or van space for a pasting table or two along with your stock. You want to maximize your income at such events and giving precious space over to things that aren’t for sale will put that at risk. But it seems that, unless you’re the proverbial ‘bargain basement’, how many people will actually want to shop in future on stands comprised of pasting tables groaning with stock where you can’t see the wood for the trees? And what if you deal in ceramics or silver? Does that mean you have to buy bits of suitably period furniture too? Should my next door neighbour who sells 18th & 19th century European porcelain go out and buy a bow-fronted commode, a fireplace and a rococo mirror?

Stand-fitted fairs are somewhat different, and the higher end you go, the better it looks. Some look like they have come straight from the pages of a posh interiors magazine! But I shudder to think about how much the square metres of empty space add to the price of the objects that are on display…

One thing I have learnt is that not having locked glass cabinets, or even cabinets with doors on, makes a difference. When I stood at a good quality fair, my stand was filled with glass cabinets. When I replaced all but one with a shelving unit, sales went up. People felt more comfortable when things they liked weren’t locked up. It took a leap of faith and, initially, I cringed every time someone picked something up, but people do know they are expensive objects and they have been careful. Nobody has broken anything so far (fingers crossed I’m not tempting fate!) and I positively invite people to pick things up now. I know that’s not practical for many dealers, particularly those selling delicate or small and easily, ahem, portable pieces such as jewellery. It can also cause problems with suitable lighting, which cabinets typically have built-in.

Visiting a widely respected, very senior and highly experienced member of the industry last week added further fuel to the fire. We both agreed that the market has changed –and we all know that. People don’t buy like they used to. People don’t collect like they used to. And, as the most public-facing part of the antiques world, we dealers need to change to reflect that. But that’s much easier said than done. I know this blog asks more questions than it provides answers, but in a time of change and constant flux, asking questions and creating discussion can force answers to develop. What do you think?


3 thoughts on “A Question of Display

  1. As an antique silver dealer and retailer we also keep our beloved antique items in glass cabinets. I do agree with you that having the antiques presented in a more accessible way would possibly increase customer in store enquiries, encourage people to touch and also could increase sales. I think the fear is thieves, safety and damage to stock and if its all worth the risk. I would be interested to hear other peoples thoughts on how they showcase their goods …

  2. You are indeed correct Mark, the Minimalism of today’s lifestyle is difficult to interpret and promote from a dealers point of view. The costs to display as you suggest, are prohibitive & impractical.
    My approach which thank heavens seems to work, is to provide a “lighting shop” for all to see at a fair & to give the impression of many pieces almost jumbled together,
    ( but carefully positioned in reality) because, with a relatively small pitch I can display loads of stock by going up on a gantry frame above the floor area, which is in effect free ! I have the benefit of a table top and all the space above it. The impression then becomes very much as one would see in any retail lighting shop on the high street, the difference being it is period lighting from the 1920’s & 1930’s and not the modern reproduction offerings elsewhere.
    Remember everyone, Vintage & Antiques are GREEN !! Little carbon footprint with our offerings……….

  3. I think you are completely right Mark. My shop was jam-packed and people tell me that they love it that way, but I don’t think it values the objects on display and customers also get bamboozled by the sheer choice. I now set scenes eg.lounge, kitchen departments, and sales are better. I do feel that people seem to need suggestions these days and to be shown what/how their interiors can look.

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