The following is an interview of Walt Kolenda conducted by Elizabeth Kichorowsky on May 21st – 2016 regarding:
The Future of Auctions & Antiques
How long have you been in this business, and what were your original reasons for getting into it?
I got in the business in the late 1970’s and I originally got into because I started selling books and records to make a little bit of extra cash and I realized I could repeat because the shops that I sold to in Providence, Rhode Island expressed that they were always interested in buying good books and records. Then I ran out of books and records one week and brought some antiques to an antique shop in Cranston, RI where the shop owner took me under her wing and showed me the kind of things that would sell, glassware and whatnot. The next thing I knew I was in the business and looking for those things all the time. I quickly figured out that this would be an easy way to make extra income and that I could even make a living off of it.
What are some of the things about the business that you loved when you were first getting into it?
It always changes! It never gets boring. Every day is a treasure hunt and I never know what I’m going to find. It’s also a great way to help people out. A lot of the time they are overwhelmed and they don’t know where to turn. A lot of people are downsizing nowadays. And I realize I’ve become a downsizing expert, it’s something that I’ve been helping people to do since I got in the business.
It’s interesting that the things that you enjoy about the business have stayed the same even though the business itself has changed so much over time. I wanted to ask is what some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the past four decades have been?
That’s a great question. A lot of things have changed and a lot of things have stayed the same. There’s always been plenty of work in this business. I’ve always been employed. It’s recession proof. There are always people looking for a bargain. There are always people willing to buy and always people willing to sell. When the economy is bad there are plenty of people looking to sell their stuff, and when it’s good there are lots of people looking to buy.
There have been two major avenues of change in the business, one is that different things are always going in and out of vogue. That’s where being a generalist has really saved my butt. Victorian furniture and old colonial antiques are either very slow or dead. The rhyme goes “If it’s brown it’s down.” The younger people just aren’t buying that stuff. Classic antiques and collectibles have come down quite a bit.
But whenever there’s anything that goes down in value there’s always something that goes up in value. So right now gold and jewelry are really good. Local history and ephemera, vintage and antique photography are all very hot right now. Mid-century modern, funky Herman Miller and Scandinavian design furniture is all in vogue right now. Big pieces of furniture are out because the younger generations are talking about buying their first house, then their second house and moving two or three times in their lifetime. They’re also more interested in experiences than in objects which I think is awesome. So they’re looking for small stands and tables, things they can take with them or sell easily if they decide to move on. I could mention a million other trends and fads…
The other big area of change is technology. In the last fifteen years the technology itself has changed the business so much. It’s been a great equalizer. And a lot of the old school antique dealers kind of hate it because they feel that the knowledge they worked hard to gain and accumulate throughout their careers is less valuable. And they’ll go to an estate sale and things are priced very high because the home owner found the item on google and decided that they know what it’s worth. However, that’s not really true. The reason I still get a lot of appraisal work even though google exists is that I can tell what the piece really is, whether it’s a reproduction, the quality of the item and whether it’s trending up or down. All of these things google can’t really tell you. All the inside information you have as someone with experience really is necessary if you want to dig deep.
Where the technology is helpful especially to dealers is with new sites which work as organizational tools like Barnebys.com. They started in Scandinavia in 2011 and allow people to search auction houses. Now they’re in the UK and the US, they’re an international company. Let’s say you collect mid-century modern furniture and you have a particular Herman Miller chair you want to find. You search for it and you’ll come up with a list of all the auction companies they’re affiliated with (a massive amount right now) and it will tell you when the auction is and where the auction is. So they are not an auction house but they’re an amazing auction organizer.
One of the other things that’s very useful is their “prices realized” section where you can go to find out what that piece of Roseville sold for. Anybody can use this information but as someone with experience you can really dive deep.
Those are the two biggest changes I’ve seen in the business. The trends and what people are looking to buy and sell is always going to be changing. And a huge change that seems to be unique to our time is the advances in technology and how business is conducted through those particular channels.
I was wondering if you have any general advice for people who are starting out right now in this trade?
The best advice I can give to someone just starting out is to get yourself to some general auctions, not necessarily top of the line where art is being sold for hundreds of thousands, I’m talking about a place where item lots are going for anywhere from twenty-five to a thousand dollars a lot. See what people are buying. Try not to buy too much for the first few sales, just focus on what other people are excited about, see who’s buying what. You’ll begin to notice what is a hot seller by watching the people. When you see an item go up and hands are up all over the place that will tell you something.
After the auction is over, talk to some of the people who bought the things you are interested and ask them some questions. Find out if they buy those things all the time, ask if they would be interested in buying those items from you in the future. Find out why they bought this and not that, and I think you’ll find that most people in this business are like me and they can’t shut up! Generally people are very grateful to be in this business but we’re not seeing enough young people com into the business. So get yourself to an auction and see what’s going on, get those business cards and see what other people are doing.
Another piece of advice is rather than go out and buy one piece for a hundred and try to get two hundred for it I’d rather buy a lot for a hundred and break up those pieces and divide my investment and sell them. It’s better to spread out the investment.
It’s not the fastest ways to get rich quick but another tip is that of the best ways to invest in the business is to go the yard sales on a Sunday afternoon and offer buy whatever they have left. Most people think there isn’t anything left but junk, but a lot of the times people over price things and don’t wind up selling them, so a lot of the time you can load up your van and get a lot of things for short money.
That sounds like great advice! My last question is whether you have any predictions for the future of the trade?
Yes! Things will change! Things will always change. So be ready for that, don’t get glued to the idea that one thing will never sell and this other thing will always sell. Get rid of the idea that things are always fixed because things will always change. But a rule of thumb is that things become salable when the generation that had them as children become old enough to have gainful employment. In those genres you want to look for things that were popular and trendy.
Now you look at something like Beanie Babies and the manufacturers completely mass produced them and so whether those will come back is anyone’s guess. Look for things that were beloved, for your generation it my be like My Little Pony, but look for the things that were built to last. In general gold and jewelry always survives the trend markets but you have to buy them right. The saying goes that something bought well is half sold.
A lot also depends on the construction of things, things that are well made and have quality construction will always be salable in the future.