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.
“I was just in Georgia a few weeks ago, and they said the same thing,” Falk said. “I think we’re all having trouble.”
At least five antique shops have closed in Hastings in the past 10 years, Falk said.
Recently at Antiques on Main, an older gentleman shuffled through the door, carrying two washboards and a box of Beanie Babies.
“My wife told me I have to get rid of these, or she’s going to get rid of me,” the man told Falk’s husband, Bill, who helps at the shop.
Falk smiled vaguely and gave the man $10 for the washboards and $2 for the Beanie Babies, then set them on the ground behind the counter as the man walked out.
Thrift stores are taking business away from antique shops, Deb Falk said, and she doesn’t deal in the $5,000 to $10,000 items that Piche can sell with a text message.
“The rich people, I don’t think they’d even come to Hastings,” she said. “I don’t think we have anything that would interest them.”
Reliable antique buyers from the 1990s are getting older and trying to clean house, while young professionals have become notorious in the business for their indifference to antiques. Meanwhile, eBay has cut the value of countless antiques that were thought rare before the Internet came along and proved they aren’t.
Young buyers might want an accent piece or two, but they’re certainly not buying many figurines, sets of fine China or decorative plates. “Glassware is gone,” Falk said, and most silver is priced at the melt value.
There are exceptions. Pyrex is hot right now, according to Paul Post, publisher of the Old Times, an antique trade newspaper in Sauk Centre.
There’s some feeling in the industry that people in their 20s are starting to spend more time antiquing. But the smart money is on catering to the rich. “The people who buy at the real high end are that top 1 percent crowd that you read about in the financial press,” said Sander, the consultant in Connecticut. “They’re buying the good stuff.”
This has been a transition for Piche, the second-generation antique dealer in St. Paul. He has learned to place more emphasis on upscale customers and the Internet, and to do most of his business over the phone.
He still has a pile of solid, unremarkable tables that go for less than $1,000. But they’re not selling, and he has to keep cutting prices.
“The market collapsed for that kind of stuff,” Piche said.
So most of the time, Piche is on the road, looking for furniture that he can sell to specific customers for several thousand dollars, like the Black Forest dog he picked up at an outdoor flea market in Massachusetts.
He snaps up R.J. Horner oak buffets and tables, sets of chairs that go for $600 apiece, benches and tables with intricate carving from the 19th century. He’s found new customers in Illinois, Texas and California.
It used to be that when he brought a truckload of furniture back from an out-of-state road trip, dealers from around the Upper Midwest would meet the truck and buy antiques on the spot.
Now he sells most of it over the phone before he rolls back into St. Paul.
“When the economy gets bad, you’ve got to attack it somehow,” Piche said. “You can’t just keep doing what you’re doing.”