The internet is changing the face of the antiques trade. We talk to Will Fisher, a traditional antique dealer learning the ropes in a virtual world Real deal: Will Fisher and his wife, Charlotte, use methods old and new to track down bargains. The antiques dealer is a beloved British stereotype: three wheelers, slightly shabby outfits, a vaguely louche air. But over the past decade the internet has hit the industry like a tornado – with positive and negative consequences for antique buyers and antique dealers. More and more of us are getting into antiques, specially antique fireplaces.
A recent survey by the UK Fakes and Forgeries report estimated that 40 per cent of Britons have spent an average of £140 on antiques in the past year – a market worth £2 billion. Of this, 10 15 per cent is sold online, a figure growing by the day. Will Fisher, who co founded Jamb with his wife, Charlotte Freemantle, is a top London antique dealer. He is the first to admit that he belongs to an older era. “I’m old school,” he says. “I didn’t get into this business to sit in front of a computer. I prefer it being hands on. People become antiques dealers because – well, partly because they’re totally unemployable – but because they have a passion for it. I have always loved the search. Sitting in the car on the way to see something, finding that object.” Thanks to the internet, what was once a close knit cabal of antique dealers and keen buyers has become a chaotic free for all. Pieces for sale can pop up anywhere in the world, at any moment, and buyers are just as unpredictable. “It’s like the Wild West,” says Will.
“You used to be able to judge an object on who was bidding. You could tell a lot without seeing the object. You knew which dealers had what knowledge, whether they were inclined to overpay or underpay. “Now it is a casino that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are sales in Australia, South Africa and America. The old centres, in Bermondsey or Islington, don’t exist any more. Dealers clump together online instead.” The new world brings risks, as well as opportunities, he adds. “It’s in an antique dealer’s nature to be excited. Your brain always wants to tell you that something’s fabulous. But the internet is not without peril.” He tells a cautionary tale. “A friend of mine and another dealer found an antique furniture (i.e. a table) for sale in South Africa. They became obsessed with the item. It was listed as not being from the 18th century, but they thought they knew more than the seller, and felt it was definitely 18th century. “The sale began. The estimate was around £2,000 - £3,000. The bidding went straight to £10,000 and kept going. The bravado went on and on, and eventually they bought it at more than £120,000. What they had not realised was that the other bidder was an antique dealer thinking exactly the same as them. The article arrived and it was worthless.”
Will has plenty of his own mistakes. “I have a chamber of horrors, gradually turning into compost,” he explains. “Now I never buy anything unless I have seen it, or someone I trust has seen it. It is a bit like online dating. If you tried hard, you could probably make even me look good in a picture online. But when you met the real thing, you would think that I had been at best mildly disingenuous and at worst an outright liar. The same goes with antiques, specially antique fireplaces.” Not everyone feels this way. For some niche antique dealers, the internet has been a great boon. If you collect, say, lightbulbs or sewing machines, you can reach potential customers all over the world. “With certain models of repetitive items it is easier to buy online, because you know pretty much what it is. If you know the issue and the manufacturer, you know what you’re getting.”
In England you are only around the corner from your nearest shop, whereas in the US you might be two hours’ flight away. But online listings are getting better all the time. If you have a specific idea of what you are looking for, auction sites such as eBay can be cheap and easy. Most dealers, however, emphasise the risks of using the general sites. For those, like Will, who prefer to see the object in front of them before they hand over their money, the internet makes it easy to find car boot sales or house sales nearby where you might pick up a bargain in the flesh. If you think you own something valuable, it has never been easier to find an expert to appraise it.
Will is confident that it is the way forward for antiques. “There will come a time when you can exactly represent something in the virtual world, and then you’ll be able to appreciate them properly. But it’s not there yet. Still, I have no sense of remorse for the old ways. You have to adapt.” As long as there are buyers prepared to pay for the perfect antique fireplace, antique dealers like Will Fisher will keep finding new ways to sell old things.
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