You’ve seen it hundreds of times at antiques or art shows, in art galleries too—the red sold tag stuck in the corner of a painting, half visible inside a chest drawer, or stuffed into a crevice of a weathervane. More subtle, and some might argue classier, is the red dot. The hope of many antiques dealers is that the good old days return. For those at shows it means that red dots are visible and multiplying like tribbles in Star Trek. But have you ever thought about what happens, good and not so good sometimes, when that sold sign appears? What is the psychology of the sold sign? How does it affect the antique, the dealer, and the collector? Come with me to explore the world of the red dot. The tour is free. Hop aboard.
Marketers and people in sales and retail have used colors for a long, long time. The color red grabs your attention. Red evokes energy and passion. Everyone can see a little red dot, and everyone knows what it means. Red in our society also means stop. Stop and look; stop and admire. Do you want something just like me? Do you wish you owned me?
The red sold tag or dot in a dealer’s booth validates the eye, taste, and pricing of the dealer. It communicates that the items are worth looking at. Several red dots in dealers’ booths indicate they are probably offering competitive prices and are doing enough business that they are willing to bargain. It also communicates that people are buying. Furthermore, if you see something you like, you had better strongly consider buying it, or other collectors might get their little red dot on the piece.
Apparently in the art world the red dot that means sold has a long history. It has been used in galleries for decades, perhaps beginning in the 1950s. Alas, I could not find more detail on this aspect of art history. And, something I have never seen, a yellow dot in the art world communicates that the piece is on hold for 24 hours.
The red tag or dot is usually somewhat inconspicuous nonetheless. It allows you to view the piece that sold. I had a dealer tell me that some collectors become angry if an item is not clearly marked sold, but a big red tag can be tacky. The little red dot is a way to show it is sold without being too “in your face” that you missed out. And if a dealer has someone working the booth with him and it is busy, it also tells the dealer that the item has sold. The dealer may not have dealt with the collector who purchased it nor written up the item description and receipt.
Experienced collectors consider dots a measure of how hot the market is and how well a particular show is doing. If you have walked an entire show and several pieces of painted tin had red dots (a few years ago definitely), then you would know these are selling well.
So you attend the prestigious antiques show of your choice (you may now fill in the name) located in (you may now fill in the locale). And being a fanatic, even though you probably will not be able to afford most of what is offered, you wait in line for hours and are near the front. You walk in and you see a dealer’s booth, which ten minutes after the show’s opening has several red dots. Well, it could be that one or two very well-to-do collectors adored the dealer’s offerings and fell in love with multiple pieces within minutes of looking at them. Or it could be that the dealer let collectors know what he or she was bringing. These collectors said “I’ll take it” days or weeks before the show dates, and as soon as the show opened, the dealer marked them sold. It’s not fair, and perhaps breaking the rules of the promoter and show. Ideally it’s a rare occurrence. It could also be that another dealer at the show bought some pieces during setup and they have yet to be moved.
If the red dot is on a piece you have been lusting after for some time, your reaction is probably going to be disappointment, depression, anger, and a heart-to-heart talk with the antiques god or goddess of your choice. But if you monitor your own behavior, you will observe that you pause when you see items that have sold. I find I do so even when looking at online auctions, such as the ones the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America (ADA) has. The red sold sticker has some power to it. After years, I play a game with sold items. If I had unlimited funds, would I have purchased it myself? Can I understand why someone purchased it at all, and what do they collect? Would I have purchased the piece years ago if it is something I used to collect? What must the home interior look like of the person who bought it? Often I simply conclude that antiques collectors are as diverse as snowflakes. In more fatigued or cynical moments I might add that there’s no accounting for taste. How catty.
Red dots also help me empathize with the dealer(s). If there are few or no red dots and the booth does not look rearranged (that is, items have sold and pieces have been moved around to their best appearance), I sometimes feel sorry for the dealer, and at times I worry for the industry. At prestigious shows when many dealers barely or do not cover costs, I worry about the future of what I have enjoyed so much. As an aside to an aside, despite the lamentations of there being few young collectors, when I look at the number of auctions with American antiques, and look at the percentage of items sold, even if the prices are below what they used to be, all that stuff is going somewhere, isn’t it! But I digress.
Not all items that sell at an antiques show have the red sold tag or dot. I know one dealer who has at least one customer who insists that the items be removed from view and put away (thankfully they are smalls) once he has purchased them. The dealer has never felt comfortable enough to inquire as to why. Does the collector fear someone else will purchase it and pay more or that it will be stolen? Other collectors want what they have purchased in their possession immediately. They take it with them, perhaps to touch, hug, love, and cherish, or to immediately toss it in their vehicle, or perhaps to bring to the shipper posthaste. Many collectors love to show friends at shows what they have purchased.
And once in a while, a collector who purchased something, perhaps seeing another item at a show that he or she loves more, perhaps because there is buyer’s remorse, returns to the dealer and asks to un-buy the piece. Will you take the red dot off of it? I am so very sorry, I feel so bad, but I have decided it is not for me.
If You Buy a Piece and It Carries a Red Dot
Let us assume for the sake of discussion you are an educated, mature, level-headed collector who buys what you love and one whose eye has long outstripped your budget. The collection you own, be it widgets or high country antiques, is a nice one; you like it. You have not just begun collecting. You find something at a show and purchase it, leaving it in the dealer’s booth with the red dot for all to view, and you are waiting for your detailed receipt, or writing out your check, and the red dot tells other collectors the piece you bought is a good one. How do you respond?
I can tell you how I responded somewhat recently. I purchased a folk art painting, which I thought really popped. And it made me feel good that other collectors looked at it and liked it, that it probably could have sold a couple more times early in the show. And for the life of me I struggle to explain my own response. I really liked it; the painting talked to me. I did not need validation from others, but it felt good nonetheless. Go figure. The painting is now home and on the wall. No one has said they want to buy it from me. I still love it. We collectors are complicated or very typical, whatever the case may be.
While it has never happened to me, and I wonder how I would respond, there are occasions when someone sees an item with a sold tag and asks the dealer if the person who bought it would be willing to sell it, admittedly at a profit. One lesson is that it never hurts to ask the dealer that question. How much more would it take for me or other collectors to sell something they liked enough to buy? I guess if the item is common it might be easier to sell. But let’s say it’s something hard to find in that condition with that surface in those dimensions. Someone else would have to love it a great deal, I guess, to make it worthwhile. I’d love to hear what dealers have seen regarding the red dot as a profit enhancer for collectors.
The goal in the antiques world is a win-win. A red sold tag or dot confirms that the dealer’s eye was good, that the risks the dealer took in purchasing the piece have been validated. There were collectors or perhaps a collector who valued the piece enough to purchase it. Dealer and collector end up with a good feeling. The red sold tag or dot is not only income for the dealer and a piece added to a collector’s collection; it symbolizes success for both. Were they playing football, both would add a sticker (in this case of an antique) on the side of their helmets. It is the elementary school gold star—job well done!
So there you have it—the psychology, power, and nuances of that red sold tag or dot. May that red dot in the future be on an antique you have searched for and coveted for some time.
Baron Perlman has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Michigan State University. Perlman taught psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh for over 30 years and did clinical work in a variety of settings. He is now retired.
Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest