Why Selling Vintage Is Like Gambling

I recently had a conversation with Deanna Dahlsad of Den of Antiquity, a woman with decades of experience in dealing in antiques and vintage, about how her business is just another form of gambling. I thought it was interesting and wanted to share it. 

Why do you say that being an antiques dealer is like gambling?

Because it is lol 

Instead of putting your chips down on red 32, or putting bills into a slot machine, you put your money down on an item and hope for a higher return. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But that’s how you learn.

Surely it is more strategic than that!

Yes, but it’s not quite like poker, with rules and a relatively limited number of options. It’s a bit more random… More about betting on your instincts and what you know – or at least believe you know – about trends and people’s interests – like when you bet on sports, the presidential election, or celebrity baby names. You believe you know something about the market or your customers that leads you to have confidence in buying an item, a collection, or an entire estate at a specific price so that you can resell it at a profit.

What sorts of factors are you looking at when determining whether or not to place that bet?

It rather depends upon your customers, your market, your venue…

For example, if you’re dealing more with true antiques and collectibles, you have to know what you’re looking for – no knock-offs, reproductions, etc. And condition is everything. 

If you’re primarily selling to home decorators or vintage fashion lovers, condition matters, yes; but it’s more about trends and the look of the items. Many of these customers are fine with the imperfections of age as it is largely what provides the unique look. Your knowledge base here in terms of decades, designers, makers, periods of style, etc. has to mesh with what’s on trend now. And you also have to know your market. If you are selling online, you have a wider audience base, including reaching places like the coasts where trends are exploding. If you are selling in a brick-and-mortar or at local markets, you need to know what trends are and aren’t happening where you are. For example, where I live in Fargo-Moorhead, we are not exactly trendy. It may take years for some trends to hit here, even if we all share the same Internet! And there are some looks, such as farmhouse style, which will remain popular in a large part of our area forever. Also, specific markets will attract certain demographics, so learning what that crowd wants is an important part of your calculation.

Resellers or flippers may deal in clothing, games, media, etc. which is not necessarily vintage, but they must know their items and buyers. Some dealers specialize in finding pieces for artists, makers, restorers, etc. There may be lower retail prices, but usually those pieces are less expensive investments. There are as many types of sellers as there are categories of items to sell. 

Often it’s the bigger ticket items, the biggest scores, that take longer to move – no matter how hot they are. So part of the calculation always includes how long items will sit around.

You’ve told me that storage is just one of the other “chips” you have to factor in… 

Yes, as an antiques dealer or vintage seller, you invest more than just the chips you put down on the items; you invest time and other costs. For any given “score,” you have the costs of obtaining the item (price paid, plus shipping or transportation costs); time hunting for and claiming those items; time and money spent on cleaning, fixing, and storing; and then there are the costs of selling – be it seller fees online, rent and/or commission in a shop, or booth fees at a market. Items sold online also have transportation and packaging costs. Items sold offline also accumulate costs such as price tags, display item costs, and more transportation fees. These aren’t fees and costs that many buyers consider, but they exist and wise sellers quickly learn to account for them as they can really eat up your profits!

However, when all is said and done, being an antiques dealer, vendor of vintage, reseller, whatever you want to call this business, can be as addictive as gambling. The rush of a big purse, the goals of becoming a high roller, and looking for the next thrill is the same.

Many of us prefer to think of how we are rehoming items, saving them from landfills, delighting people with our finds, but underneath it all, we are gamblers plain and simple.

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