BBC Antiques Roadshow specialist Marc Allum on stress, passion and bean counters. Just another ordinary day in the world of antiques!
What is it about stress that is so addictive? Most of the people I know - who work in the art and antiques business - are stressed-out. The funny thing is, they don’t really complain about it. If anything, stress is worn like a badge of honour. The ‘how full is your diary, how many miles have you driven this week’ is an all too common conversation. The auction world is particularly bad, a constant cycle of procuring items for sale, cataloguing, dealing with clients and auctioning the goods - often on a massive scale - only to find that as soon as you’ve finished and totted-up the biggest grossing auction you’ve ever had, there’s the sudden realisation that you have to start all over again! It’s a treadmill, and some don’t last the course. Despite this and the all too common assumption that it’s a young person’s game, I know plenty of ‘oldies’ that find the buzz of the business so compelling that they can never quite give it up. They thrive on stress.
Personally, I’m lucky enough to dip into several different facets of the profession and consider it a vocation fuelled by an addictive passion rather than a desire to satisfy the shareholders. However, it’s often a case of finding a balance between the two. The problem with passion is that it’s an emotion that many would argue has no place in the hard-headed heartless world of business, let alone any scientific basis, yet many aspects of the art and auction world require it in truck loads, both from the people who source it and the characters who buy it. It’s a trade that’s very much built on nostalgia and passion. Of course, many aspects of the business are predictable. The mundane
for the average auction house – generally forms the bedrock of their operation but is always punctuated by the optimistic glint of slightly-protruding precious gems waiting to be discovered in the stratified layers of everyday accumulation. We call it ‘the thrill of the chase’. Basic laws of supply and demand can set prices in stone yet there are just too many different layers and variables to make it a thoroughly logical profession. Unfortunately, the company bean-counters don’t always understand this!
So how does one judge value on a day to day basis? Setting aside economic pressures, Asian Tigers and fashion, the strange idiosyncrasies that make an object valuable can be quite enigmatic. Just because you’ve never seen one before doesn’t make it a priceless object, yet the curve of a foot, the addition of an engraved date, a strange association; all these can make an antique more valuable than you might imagine – or conversely – totally unsaleable. So, every day, the thought that something just that little bit special might surface, which to the satisfaction of the owner, an auctioneer or a dealer might cause a historical or financial stir, is the drug that fuels the addiction. Some people are dispassionate but I find this a hard concept to understand in a business that to me, is all about passion. Antiques are not merely a product but entities waiting to be well-placed, appreciated and cherished. Antiques are not a job; they are an all-consuming lifestyle.