Antiques dealers struggle as market shifts to high end

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2013 - 10:06 AM

While affluent buyers pay top dollar, more ordinary items languish on store shelves.

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Deb Falk, owner of Antiques on Main in Hastings, is dealing with changing tastes. At least five antique stores have closed in Hastings during the last decade.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The moment he saw the $7,000 dog made of black walnut, Lonny Piche knew he could sell it for a profit.

The animal was nearly waist high, a Black Forest carving from 1890s Germany. It was midstride on an exquisite pedestal of rocks and plants, carried a barrel on a rope around its neck and pointed its nose forward.

Piche shot a picture with his phone. He texted it to a customer in Wisconsin and sold the dog within 20 minutes — for $7,500.

It’s been a tough slog for most antique dealers over the past decade, as shifting tastes, eBay, thrift stores and the deep recession have cut into profits and emptied shops of customers. But upscale dealers are doing fine.

Find the right buyer, and you can trade a wooden dog for a 2004 Toyota Camry.

“The high end’s always been good, and it’s still good,” said Lincoln Sander, executive director of the Antique Dealers Association of America and an antiques consultant in Newtown, Conn. “The middle market is hurting.”

Dealers who are thriving, like Piche, the owner of J&E Antiques in St. Paul, are gravitating toward furniture and other antiques that cost thousands of dollars, selling them to wealthy customers and other dealers.

For other antique shops — those full of collectibles, midmarket furniture and the occasional $1,000 piece — the outlook is cloudy.

The Minnesota Antique Dealers Association doesn’t track the number of shops in the state, but “lots of them have closed,” said director Carol Eppel.

Eppel, whose Stillwater shop specializes in American Arts and Crafts furniture, said business is improving but the market still punishes all but the best antiques.

“The really, really, really good stuff is selling,” she said.

The latest casualty is This Love of Mine, an antique and vintage shop in Stillwater, whose last day will be Sept. 25, according to owner Steve Reeser.

A long winter, rainy weekends in the early part of the summer and construction in town all contributed to what he calls a “perfect storm” that has forced him out of the trade. He and his wife will sell the shop they’ve been running for about two years and move to his hometown, Seattle.

“Everybody in antiques, we’re all really confused now,” Reeser said. “What is it people want?”

Items under $100 can be sold, and so can items over $1,000, he said, but everything in between sits in the store. Successful shops in Stillwater have begun catering to upscale buyers.

It’s no secret that businesses that serve the well-off tend to do better in a slow economy — high-end credit cards, brand-name jewelry, resorts and golf courses. Fine antiques fit the bill.

“The higher-end stuff is more desirable,” Reeser said.

Deb Falk, who has owned Antiques on Main in Hastings for 15 years, has a shop with several vendor booths and only the occasional item that costs more than $1,000. She’s selling about a quarter of what she sold 10 years ago. She and other store owners point to 9/11 as the beginning of the decline. No one’s sure exactly why.

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