We spend a lot of time on the road, and there are only so many rounds of the “alphabet game” one can stand—or only so many columns one can hear hashed out (if you asked the kids)—so we have become huge fans of podcasts. Podcasts might seem daunting and newfangled, but to be honest, we’re not really sure why someone had to come up with such an intimidating name for what is basically a radio show that you can listen to on your phone, tablet, or computer whenever you want. Whatever your interest, we feel confident in saying that there is a podcast for you.
We tend to work our way through various National Public Radio programs that we were not in the car at the right time for, and the podcast called Hidden Brain is usually very kid-friendly. In the past few months there was a replay of an interesting discussion from last year about the evolution of religion, “Creating God,” from July 16, 2018 (www.npr.org/2018/07/16/628792048/creating-god). In this episode Azim Shariff, a social psychologist, asserts that early religions, those formed when people lived in smaller tribe-based groups, were less about morality and behavior, because those were monitored by the group where everyone was known to one another, and more about just explaining the world around them. (Think, for instance, of the ancient Greek culture, where not only is the behavior of the gods not exemplary and good behavior as we would think of it is not even aimed for, but instead the actions of the gods tend to explain phenomena of the natural world, severe storms, sudden deaths, etc.) Later, Shariff asserts, as people moved from smaller groups where individuals were known to one another, perhaps even family members, to ancient villages and towns it became necessary for religion to play a role in enforcing right and wrong and encoding morality. People, he argues, needed some “supernatural enforcer” to remind them that they were being watched and would be punished, even if they were not caught in their crimes. Religion became a means of signifying trust to strangers you interacted with, meaning that when you were trading with someone in a large city that you perhaps did not really know at all, there needed to be some shorthand way for him to let you know that you could trust him. If he was an adherent to a particular religion, especially if you were both practitioners of the same religion, then that was a sort of secret handshake way of letting you know that you could trust each other, that mutual trust was warranted.
Isn’t that, we wondered, kind of how all groups evolve to some extent? Except the antiques business. We have managed to resist having much in the way of an “epic force” thus far, but we found that idea of religion as a signifier of trust very interesting. (We are just talking about the idea, not about the validity of various faiths. Azim Shariff seems to be saying that he must be doing something right because he heard from both atheists and religious observers who were angry with him. He should consider writing a column….) How do we in the modern world signal to each other that we are worthy of trust? We are all told from childhood that appearances can be deceiving and not to judge a book by its cover, etc., so that’s out. (Not to mention that some of us are awfully nice people and yet distinctly not in the least particular about our appearance. If you can’t wear ripped jeans, a ratty concert T-shirt, and dirty sneakers everywhere, what is the actual point of self-employment? Asking for a friend.) Many of us don’t even operate brick-and-mortar places of business that are open to customers, so you can’t go by that. And of course, it’s hard to get very direct referrals, because while someone else can vouch that a seller knows all about Pennsylvania blanket chests, that’s not necessarily reassuring if you’re buying a Vermont dressing table or a Virginia stoneware crock.
One of the things that is so fascinating about the antiques business is that we operate, especially relative to the rest of the world, in what is truly a very antiquated business model. There is a lot of cash passing around, and there is a lot of “Take it and pay me later,” or “Here’s my money and I’ll come get it soon,” and that’s all before you even consider how much of the material that we deal with is poorly defined or downright subjective. None of our inventory has bar codes or UPC labels or restocking numbers. And now, with the advent of the Internet, we regularly send money to people we have never met before in exchange for objects we have never seen in person, and it works out far more often than not! We give our items to auctioneers who transport them around, mix them all up with other people’s things, and mail us an accurately calculated check a month or so later. And yet we all manage to stay afloat in this leaky little vessel of micro-commerce with astonishingly few incidents. It’s really quite remarkable.
It is especially remarkable when you consider how few means we have of signifying trust. There are few professional organizations, many of them have inconsistent membership criteria, and honestly, while those of us in the business might often be familiar with those organizations, their requirements, and what membership implies, the average antiques buyer probably has very little knowledge or gives very little weight to what appraiser, auctioneer, or dealer credentials mean. If you pay by credit card you are often afforded some protection and can dispute charges successfully, perhaps. But ultimately, many of us know each other through a network of friends. We have effectively managed to implement a tribal system across miles and miles of distance by making ourselves part of the same small group of acquaintances. We can hardly think of any other business that operates this way, at least to such a degree.
Is this why new folks often take some time before they wade in? It is such a different method of commerce after all, and we are somewhat cliquish in that our network depends heavily on people being a known quantity to some extent. While being a friend of a particular friend might be all you need to be trusted, not being known to anyone can also be a drawback. And then there are the factions…when they are friends with that person…. That is probably a downside of the tribal model, that the framework of connections can be hard to enter. And of course, it is not as if people can check Consumer Reports or even rely on traditional consumer protection systems such as the Better Business Bureau. Someone might not even be listed unless a complaint has been filed, and some of us are barely businesses in the modern legal sense.
Perhaps this clannish, free-form structure is part of the longtime divide between the trade and museums and/or academia that is finally beginning to soften. Academics have rules and standards. There is a procedure for advancement and success. Hollie worked for a time in an academic dean’s office, so while she can safely say he was not a “supernatural enforcer,” he could levy fines and feed people into a pipeline to some path of justice. The antiques trade probably looks like the Wild West from a world with that much order, maybe even positively Neolithic. More than one antiques person lending to an institution has been shocked and frustrated by what can, through the lens of this discussion anyway, be read as a lack of trust. What do you mean I can’t just stop by Tuesday afternoon? You need how many forms? My van has A/C, and that’s more than sufficient climate control for everything I sold last year! I can just ship it to you…but you won’t accept a shipment of something with glass in it? I’m trying to give you something! All the questioning and forms and requirements can easily make it appear as if you are not trusted to do a job that you do adequately, professionally, and successfully every single day.
We were told years ago that all an auctioneer has is his reputation. This is true of dealers too, and this tribal-level structure is why. Service is in many ways the only signifier we have, so abusing it or neglecting it is always a mistake. One of the most popular questions (well, popular with the people who ask it apparently) is what is hot in the marketplace right now. We normally make some polite little joke about how if we knew that we’d be millionaires or chat about well-listed artists, surface, color, etc. But what’s hot right now—what people are looking for—is service. If you want to make money in this business, if you want to find an angle for yourself, figure out how to give good, consistent, respectful, helpful, honest, hardworking service and you will go far. Everything else falls into place because with that you’re signifying that you’re worthy of trust, which is as it should be when you’re asking for someone to have faith not in some larger system but simply in you.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached by e-mail at <[email protected]> or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the September 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest