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American

I have followed with fascination the lengthy discussion about the role/ potential of auction houses in antiques shows or fairs (just one of many variant words between the UK and USA to describe the same thing). What the discussion made me keenly aware of is the huge dichotomy between how shows are managed.

In the UK it is apparent from the discussion that from hotel shows to outdoor mega-markets to the leading quality shows, management exists to make money for the managers and possibly also for the dealers.

And there are the hybrid shows sponsored by various dealer organizations, hoping to spotlight their members and cover the costs of mounting a major event.

I do not know enough to comment extensively on the UK experience, but I do know a great deal about what happens on this side of the Atlantic. (And I do know that dealers should keep auction houses as far from shows/ fairs as possible, unless they are showing and pricing their goods and competing identically to what dealers must do: permanently guaranteeing their goods, fully describing all condition issues, not using tricky terms such as "style" without fully clarifying the term every time it is used, dating the object clearly and accurately, clearly marking the price, etc.).

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Our shows here fall into two categories: charity shows and commercial shows. Historically the charity shows, designed to raise vast sums of money to support worthy causes, have been the prestige shows. Commercial shows have been designed to bring vast crowds to an event, make a tidy profit from dealer rents and ticket sales, and lend no prestige to the name of participant dealers. While charity shows are vetted for quality as well as a balance of offerings, commercial shows have been essentially open to any dealer with a good check to pay the rent.

In the last ten years a tilt has developed that adds some luster to the commercial events. Splendidly elegant presentations of the dealers with enormous funds expended on advertising the event have caught the imagination of collectors world wide. Which in a long way around brings me to the problems--and some potential solutions-- currently facing charity shows in America.

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In the last ten years approximately 25% of the fine charity shows scattered across the US have disappeared, victims of aging committees, underwriters hit by a disastrous economy, a trend to art deco and mid- century too long banned by charity shows, too few volunteers with business experience (too few volunteers period), charities without a broad appeal to their community (private school shows, once a staple of the American scene, are deceased!) and a deep failure to grasp the "deal" that exists between charity shows and dealers to create a success for all involved.

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Because charity shows operate by committee, often have a short institutional memory, spend too little money on advertising and promotion, spend too much money on fluff, develop all sorts of petty jealousies among the volunteers, these shows are fumbling and seeing a decline in the net for their charity. The majority of charity shows do invest in a professional manager with the job of: advising them on successful advertising and promotion, securing a well balanced roster of dealers (usually with committee input), ramrodding the entire set- up of the show, supervising the move in and out, dealing with dealer explosions, dealing with committee spats. The downside of hiring a manager is the shows often blame the messenger (manager) for the problems besetting their show rather than carefully examining their own internal failures.

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Over the years I have watched shows destroy themselves believing that every year they must make more money than the year before--the single greatest problem that strikes show after show. Once a show reaches a certain level of success signified by a substantial net to the charity that could not be raised in any other fashion AND a stable group of dealers that due to their financial success wish to return year after year, then maintenance should be the goal.These are the twin pillars of a successful charity show--all else is fluff, although some quite useful.

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Opening night parties (the major source of the charity's profit) often become themed events which leads to extravagant decorating bills and silly year after year committee competition to see who can throw the fanciest event. Yet seldom if ever does the theme attract one single extra patron! If antiques and fine art for sale before the general public has a chance is the "theme", most shows will thrive. Because this goes to the heart of the "deal" between charity shows and dealers. Charity Shows have less money to promote but bring an enthusiastic group of supporters of the charity who understand that they have a DUAL ROLE in attending: support the charity generously AND buy art and antiques so that the event can thrive year after year. Every committee that fails to understand this unwritten deal dooms its show to eventual failure. The liveliest flamenco dancers, the wildest Irish fiddlers and jiggers, the deepest purple party colors (name your color theme), the largest "silent auction"--no theme will do anything but create a mild to severe distraction from the important business at hand, the buying of antiques and fine art by the patrons at the party.

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Another failure of charity events follows the above--making the fluff of decoration and entertainment more important than good food and great booze! Opening night parties float on a happy sea of fine passed hors d'oeuvres and fine wines and champagne with full bars of the best liquors. Spend money on these aspects and a success is guaranteed--no one will remember or care what the theme was, just that they had a fabulous time and bought wonderful things. Seated dinners are another needless expense and huge distraction, drawing patrons from the floor for long periods during the evening. Far better is the show with a flood of passed foods, small scattered stations of beautifully presented appetizers, cheese and fruit tables, various finger foods of substance, and delightful desserts.

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Daily lectures have become de rigueur for charity shows and these I am fully in favor of--as long as they precede the opening of the show each morning. Again too many shows sprinkle the day with these events rather than hiring speakers who will wind up their audience with enthusiasm to pour onto the floor and buy antiques at the opening hour. This means that for all except shows with a heavy antique garden ornament contingent, the lectures must feature learning opportunities about antiques and fine art blended with important designers chosen for their fame in using antiques and fine art to great effect, whether in a blend with contemporary style or given to a purity of style. Floral arrangers and party mavens who never use antiques in their events are useless. Garden designers who use only reproduction ornamentation are useless. Interior designers with major reproduction lines to tout are more than useless. And anyone representing an auction house, no matter how they pretend to be there as experts to educate, are the most useless of all. In fact they are an abomination, as their goal is to gently draw away the clientele from dealers to buy from their houses and sell through their houses. It’s like throwing a party for cat burglars and being surprised when the jewelry is missing at the end of the party! Little wonder the auction houses kindly offer to provide "expert" lectures at no cost to the charity.

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A few more quick no no's before a few words about some effective ideas I have observed popping up in the charity shows. Every committee person must solemnly undertake their duties in a businesslike fashion. Multiple times over the years when attendance has suddenly dropped at shows, the dealers (committees NEVER ferret out these issues) have discovered that the person in charge of advertising decided to not place ads, feeling it would be better for that money to go to their charity! (See above, volunteers with no business experience.) And where did that budget money come from? The dealers rent provided those funds! The same applies to deciding to do PR work alone instead of hiring the professionals detailed in the event budget. Charity Shows must have volunteers who understand the central key to business success--to make money, spend money. It is not too harsh to say that a committee that fails to spend its advertising budget has stolen those funds from the dealers.

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With the economy steadily on the upswing, with show attendance increasing dramatically, with prices for antiques having declined to a level once again competitive with fine reproductions, with many younger dealers appearing at shows (either second generation or good new blood), with younger couples and families once again flocking to shows, I have seen many committees moving to reinvigorate their events and their committees.

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Many shows with once artificial date lines have moved to a far more sensible approach: every piece must be of the time period it represents whether Queen Anne or Mid-Century Modern. For shows that allow Second Period items, the date must be clearly listed and the clear description show the item to be a representation of an earlier period, even if 150 years old ( Second Empire in Neo-Classical Taste may look like Louis XVI, but a clear c. 1870 date will dispel any confusion on the buyer's part). Interestingly it is the auction houses that have created a lexicon deliberately designed to deceive their clientele, a lexicon which made many show committees very unsure of how to guarantee their clients an authentic purchase. Because dealers generally believe that the well educated client is a repeat client, I find dealers go to great lengths to assure that their potential clients understand clearly the age and origin of every piece. This means that every show can offer the full range of the decorative arts to their attendees, a great draw for younger collectors as well as older clients interested in a stylish mix of periods in their personal environments.

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A very successful event to bring young volunteers into the fold has been creating Young Collector Booths, New Collector Booths, or various otherclever names for booths entirely manned by young volunteers in their 20's and 30's who recruit every show dealer to bring items to be sold in "their" booth. They generally ask that items be "affordable" to "young" collectors, sometimes setting a maximum price per item ($400 for instance) and specifying that each item must meet the vetting rules of the show. 100% of the proceeds go back to the dealers--the whole point is to have fun, have obviously affordable items, have an entry role for young committee members, and for the workers to take delight in selling! (I also find they take enormous delight in running by dealer's booths to let them know how successful they are being!) The booth is designed entirely by the young volunteers. This year at the Jacksonville Children's Hospital Show (which once again raised a NET of $750,000.00 for the charity), the newly added Young Collectors Booth added a selection of carefully chosen antique furniture that a successful young couple might delight in buying, such as a $2,400 Lap Desk on Stand, a pleasant $3,500.00 Regency Center Table, etc. They designed it as A Gentleman's Library and filled bookcases with accessories, leather bound books, brass and copper, tobacco jars, decanters on tables, and more--all accessories under $300.00 per item. They sold out over and over and were constantly scouring the floor to replenish their stock--to the absolute delight of all the dealers!

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Another successful draw to attract a younger clientele has been adopted at many shows (or re-adopted because it was popular 20 years ago): having another evening event, often with a short educational chat or a tour of the show to learn more about each dealer's stock, with lots of tasty casual food, beer, wines and cocktails. Once heralded as "Young Collector Nights" they have been renamed: New Collector's Night, Cool Antiques and Hot Cocktails, Hot Design Trends on the Antiques Show Floor--An Evening with...(a well known designer), etc. These events have become huge draws for many charity shows--and another major revenue stream.

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Finally an idea of note. This year the Birmingham, Alabama Botanical Gardens Show (Antiques in the Garden) took a wild idea in order to save a clearly dying show. They sold half the booths to antiques and fine art dealers, half to well known design firms. Each design firm was assigned a theme from a City Apartment Retreat to a Beach House, from a Hall of Mirrors (all antique mirrors) to a Canopy of Lights (all chandeliers and lamps), from A Garden Party to A Wedding to Remember (think flowers in heirloom containers and tables set only with antiques). Opening Night Attendance doubled and show attendance quadrupled. Despite much grousing by dealers that they were not the center of advertising and PR attention, they were not griping Sunday evening when they left with lighter loads and bags of money! The idea of Design with Antiques caught the imagination of every publication in the entire region and netted the Show pages and pages of free press, lengthy interviews on radio and television, and the buyers came--first to see and then, enthralled, to buy.

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I would love to hear what others would offer as advice to Charity Show Committees and I would hope that one of us might compile a list of do's and don't's to pass on to Show Committees and Show Managers based on all of the thoughts you may have about these issues. I believe that such a list well presented would be well received, as I have found in 38 years of having both a shop and show business simultaneously that all committees want their shows to succeed, but may be adrift as to what they should do to improve their results and build a strong rapport with their dealers.

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