An antiques dealer buys and sells antiques. These may include art, furniture, jewelry,
books, rugs, clothing, or any item that has survived the ravages of time. While some dealers
earn specific titles and specialize in one type of relic, many are generalists who examine
pieces of any type with historic, aesthetic, and financial value. “It is difficult to describe the
life of an antiques dealer,” wrote one of our respondents, “because it involves so many things.
An antiques dealer must know the pieces they sell, the clients they sell to, [and how to] manage
their offices [and] their finances.” It is difficult to become and remain an antiques dealer.
Few professions require participants to exhibit such a
diverse range of skills. The profession provides high
levels of satisfaction at all levels for those people who
are interested in history, business, psychology, and aesthetic concerns. The joys of being surrounded
daily with items of financial and historical value seem to buoy many people through
the long hours, the paucity of compensation, and the difficulty of achieving independence
from established dealers. Many respondents had nothing but high praise for their coworkers.
One referred to them as “a good resource, both intellectually and emotionally.”
Antiques dealers invest substantial capital in inventory. The high level of investment
means a high degree of risk and great pressure on the dealer to assess carefully the value of
items before they are purchased and to sell items purchased aggressively. The pressure for
value on both ends can translate into pressure for those working in the industry; those who
are unaware of this “results-based” operation of many antiques houses are surprised at the
importance of the bottom line in the business. The job of an antiques dealer requires a person
to trust her own understanding of a piece’s value and put herself on the line every time
she makes a decision. It is natural that betting on your own skills would create worry. People
mentioned that if you make a mistake in overpaying for a piece, you can often “sell your way
out of it.” Successful dealers rarely try to take advantage of long-term customers, however.
Those relationships are based on trust.
A variety of undergraduate degrees lend themselves to this career path, but no specific
major is required. Art history majors enjoy the interaction with beautiful works; business students
appreciate the investment and dealing aspects of the profession; history majors love the
continuous education the job allows. Becoming an antiques dealer requires spending long
hours inspecting pieces, visiting other antiques dealers, reviewing documentation, and
researching histories. Most aspiring antiques dealers begin as interns at auction houses or
alongside established professionals and learn as assistants, take care of correspondence, make
research trips to the library, and schedule appointments. Attention to detail serves the prospective
antiques dealer well, as deciding the value of a piece (the most difficult aspect of being a
dealer) can depend on a slight detail. Graduate work is less important than practical experience,
and specialization can begin either midway through or late in a dealer’s career.
Antiques dealers work with restorers, financiers, and auctioneers regularly, and when
they leave the profession of antique dealing (as many do), they enter these three fields more
than any others. Some become professional valuation specialists, working with auction houses
and other antiques dealers as appraisers. A small number of former antiques dealers
become teachers and lecturers in graduate fine arts programs.