When we hear the term ‘antiques dealer’, the image that commonly springs to mind might be that of a gentleman siting at the back of a dusty shop. In truth, antiques dealers are a far more eclectic lot and, thanks to an exciting new breed of tech-savvy youngsters who are using the internet to build up their knowledge and access new clients around the world, the trade is changing.
The three dealers we’ve profiled here are all inspirational newcomers to the industry and they’re living proof that, with a lot of hard work, determination and shrewd use of technology, it’s possible to build up a thriving antiques business despite financial, geographical or personal hurdles. Matt Dixon trades from rural Yorkshire and started out buying a rug for just £20. Mathew Holder has grown a successful London business from a small £500 loan, while Lily Johnston impressively balances antiques dealing with being a mother and a student in Sussex.
One thing they all have in common is their clever use of social media as a selling tool. For many young dealers, it’s their main source of income. In fact, some say that as much as three-quarters of their sales now come via Instagram. Once a simple online platform where people would share inspirational photos of their immaculate home, holidays abroad and fashion sense, Instagram has evolved in the past few years into a frenzied marketplace where serious buyers and sellers do business.
Matt Dixon, 23, York
‘I’ve always been creative. I studied History, Photography and Design at school and watched a lot of Bargain Hunt. When I was nine or 10, I started going to car boot sales and flea markets. At 18, I bought a vintage rug for £20 then sold it on for £200.
‘To get started I had to beg and borrow. Once you get going it gets easier because, as long as you buy the right stuff, you have money to buy more stock. The main hurdle has been getting respect. I find well-established dealers or designers don’t warm to young people in the same way they do to people who have been in the trade for longer. Granted, older dealers have more experience. But young dealers can bring interesting ideas and unusual pieces to the market. If you sell good stuff at good prices people soon learn that you can be trusted. They get to know you and age becomes irrelevant.
‘It’s fascinating to delve into the history of antiques – that’s a big part of the appeal for me. I buy a lot of armchairs and religious artworks down in the south of France. I’m always learning – that’s what keeps me hooked. There’s no easy way of getting the stock and there’s no easy way of selling the stock, so I’m always attached to my phone but I enjoy my job, so I don’t feel it’s work.
‘I’m not afraid to be different. I’ve got a thing for antique lay figures, which are old wooden artist’s mannequins. I’ve had some small ones but I’d like to find a larger one – they can be worth over £10,000.
‘Social media has been a huge help in getting my business going. Without it I wouldn’t be where I am now. You can do fairs, but they’re quite expensive, and getting a shop is impossible at the beginning, so social media has been really important. Around 75 per cent of my sales come through Instagram and I sell mostly to commercial customers. Interior designers use it as a quick way of finding pieces for clients. There are very few things in the world that are free and can generate money.’
‘I stumbled into the antiques trade. I did Photography at college and was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. In 2011, my dad lent me £500 and I started buying on Portobello Road and selling online. I showed at Olympia, then took a stand at Portobello in October 2011. I moved to London from Essex in November that year. I owe a lot to the Portobello community. I’m surrounded by knowledgeable, caring people.
‘When I first started I had to get the train everywhere. I was going through two suitcases a month because the wheels would buckle and break. I’d have sweat pouring of me – a rucksack on my back, a suitcase in one hand and a bag in the other. I once bought 50 perfume bottles at auction and they were spilling out everywhere on the journey home. It was a good way to learn how not to do business.
‘I get to go on buying trips all over Europe. I go to museums, see beautiful architecture and learn about the surroundings from which the objects I deal in originate. At one fair I walked 38km in two days. Shoes don’t last me six months and my average bedtime is 1am. I daren’t work out my hourly rate.
‘I recently found a 15th-century English processional cross that is almost identical to the one found at the Battle of Bosworth Field. There are only two on the market and I have one.
‘When you’re young it can be harder to build up trust. Being a member of LAPADA and BADA helps. I think one advantage of being a young dealer is that I’ve got the energy to run around and I’m adaptable.
‘Instagram is my main source of income and I owe three-quarters of my business and my knowledge to the internet. I’ve found lots of American clients via Instagram, so that means no VAT when I export. At the start, if I saw something at a market I’d never seen before I would look it up on my phone. I could become an expert in 20 seconds flat and find its worth.
‘Some older dealers like to regale you with stories of old when business was great. I like to focus on the positives. It’s never been so hard to buy a house, but this business has allowed me to save up and buy one.’
‘My mum, Jack, has been a dealer for the past decade so I grew up around antiques. She used to renovate houses, which I found fascinating. I like interiors and I love shopping, so my interest grew from there. When I was younger I enjoyed going on buying trips as her sidekick then, from the age of 17, I started working with her full time.
‘Dealing works for me because it’s so flexible. I’m studying Law and I have a little boy, so I need a job that fits in around my other commitments. I’d like to carry on dealing after university but, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll have a degree to fall back on.
‘Our look is very decorative. I buy with my eye. If I don’t like something, I just don’t buy it, even if there’s likely to be a good profit in it. I think because I’m young and a woman people sometimes underestimate me a bit when I’m buying, but that often works in my favour. I suppose I’m not a typical dealer.
‘I’m always driving a van! We mostly buy in France. We’re planning a trip to Sweden soon, too. We also buy at Kempton and Ardingly. My mum and I are really close. I tend to do more of the social media and the website, but we often buy together. We mostly agree on what to buy – on the whole we have the same taste.
‘Social media is really important for us. We don’t have a Facebook page because we found it didn’t work for us, but we do a lot on Instagram. Sometimes I post something on there and within 10 minutes it’s sold.
‘We sold two huge Irish stone heads to Shepperton Studios and they were used in the film The Mummy with Tom Cruise. We do a lot of heavy stone pieces. I’ve definitely got fitter since I started working with my mum – we always tend to buy things that are big and unmanageable!
‘Being a member of Antiques Young Guns (antiquesyoungguns.co.uk) has been really good for me and has broadened my horizons. I’m seeing more young dealers appearing on the scene each year. It’s nice to keep the trade going through generations.’