Survival By Consolidation

July 1st, 2015 by admin

One thing you can say about the dealer network, it is incredibly fragmented, to the point of total specialization and independent operation. While I like to think Newel is the antithesis of that domain, there are no Christie’s or Sotheby’s among them, except perhaps in specific, isolated fields. They did it by consolidating numerous specialty departments across a broad range of decorative and fine arts, along with jewelry and real estate. Their model is flawed by deception, fraud, and all the other manipulative techniques they employ but they got it all under one roof and they sold it to the public.

I like to think that the decorative and fine arts industry always had a pure form of economic functionality, with lots of buyers and sellers. A free and open market, as Adam Smith describes, creates a natural level of pricing, but that’s not how the real world work. Listening to Bloomberg radio in my car, it sounds like a broken record that consolidation is taking place in every industry. Oil producers and banks have been doing it for years, and your neighborhood store is now a franchise of a 7-Eleven or Wawa (I’m originally from the Philadelphia area). There really isn’t any industry that has not experienced some form of merging, alliance, or relationship that has permitted a few to dominate.

Why didn’t the decorative and fine arts evolve through consolidation like most industries have experienced. Chocolate companies, automobile manufacturer, and certainly technology companies all have a genesis of starting small and learned to growing. Sometimes it is internally done, but once a business reaches a critical size, they must move forward to protect their future and learn to control their industry. Whether a monopoly, duopoly, or several companies, having political clout becomes a necessary option. We know that has been the critical reason for the success of the felons, Sotheby’s and Christie’s; their boards can’t have enough of those types. But all they have done is take a lesson from any successful company who employ lobbyists and influence.

So why has my industry been the only one that operates by the (flawed) auction method and not by a free open market? After all Exxon can’t make oil sell for $100 a gallon when the market has it at $55, but they still dominate. The free market does work when micro-chips are considered a commodity and priced that way. The big difference is that in theory, the auction business doesn’t have ownership of the inventory. Now you irrevocable bidders may disagree, but that’s another story of fraud and deception in the auction business. Every other industry strives for efficiencies of scale. In my industry, it would a, should a, could a, but it never happened.

The dealer model presently does not have any significant impact on pricing at the auction level. The flow of inventory is too slow to use the auction format as a resupply source, as was the case decades ago. The decimation of the secondary market is reflected in the dearth of dealers who use to participate to support it. Only efficiencies created by economies of scale will dealers of any consequence survive and even thrive.

This week, we are taking over another established dealer and again are expanding our inventory’s scope. We see the hand writing on the wall with the idea that larger is better and only the strongest can endure changes in the market. The last 15 years has seen a seminal alteration in dealer survivability; we’ve survived by getting bigger and the opportunities to grow are becoming more apparent.

Experience The Collection @ Newel

June 26th, 2015 by admin

At Newel, we work in a most unique environment and perhaps we even take it for granted. For sure, there is nothing like it in the world and the opportunities to share it make it more intriguing. We know our merchandise that is The Collection covers a broad swath of styles, periods, and mediums. We want to offer extraordinary possibilities for the public to enjoy the experience of whom and what we are. We don’t pretend to be a museum, art fairs are so predictable, and we certainly don’t endorse the auction format as it presently operates. But first we need to invite you to our show, and hope you enjoy the experience!

The meat and potatoes of Newel is the inventory, and there is no place on earth that can compare to our Long Island City Collection location of decorative and fine arts. Here is where it starts. The massive floor to ceiling quantity is quite staggering, even for me after all these years. On one floor, the sheer quantity is only forgotten when your eye catches sight of an incredible something! While it is still a work in progress, as we moved into the space less than a year ago, it shows the visitor that there is more here than any discerning eye can capture. This location environment is what Newel came from and can never give up. We’ve make it all possible with technology and sweat. But as we prepare for the ideas and energy of a 4th generation, we need to understand the changes in our business environment.

We are a bifurcated company, having our start as a prop house for Broadway and now catering to the proposition of selling these items. The selling and renting decorative and fine art pieces are like comparing apples and oranges. Yes, we make money from both ventures, but they are entirely different ways of operating. While the Long Island City Collection works great for our rental operations, selling in that space can be daunting and doesn’t allow a real opportunity to show the pieces as they should or could be. Being in a visual business, the need to properly display an item is critical to better enhance its salability and appreciation. Mediums like a staged set for a movie or one’s own living room require a personal meaning and interpretation. Why not in a Curated Collection? Our newest venture is to take the concept of our 1st floor showroom from our East 53rd Street location and create a dedicated space to show the variety and depth of what we offer, with the clarity of presentation. The Curated Collection will always be a work in progress that has to be seen and enjoyed on any occasion. Newel will never run out of surprises!

With these two exciting locations, the third place that offers the greatest audience to Experience The Collection, is online and other multi-media options. We have the bones for that too, having an incomparable database for deployment. With technology moving at light speed, and a completely new and savvy audience of people under 35, the potential to attract and interact with this now and every growing market of consumers could never be opportune. Bringing The Virtual Collection to more people through new age interaction offered by social media as well as having an established online presence make our inventory more accessible and more exposed in its various uses. The Virtual Collection completes and complements how we tell our story and why to Experience The Collection @ Newel is so special and compelling.

A New Path for Newel

April 24th, 2015 by admin

With a foundation that was totally different than any other decorative arts dealer, Newel is about to experience a new and auspicious future. The present state of the industry is dicey at best, but as my grandfather who founded Newel would say, success is when “opportunity meets preparation.” Newel is now officially unshackled from its location at 425 East 53rd Street for the first time since 1969. It was a phenomenal run for four generations of the family (it all started on 2nd Ave. and 47th Street in 1939) but now is the time for a new chapter. A massive Long Island City warehouse and new showroom on East 61st Street will pivot us in a different direction.

The location of our building in New York City, a commercially zoned warehouse in a highly residential neighborhood, was difficult to attract clients to visit. It didn’t hurt the rental business, however selling has become a very difficult proposition in the world of decorative arts. If you think it is cheap now, think oil glut. Fine arts, they are the rage. How does it look; edgy? Its better if it goes on the wall, where mirrors, consoles, and wall sconces use to roam. Chairs, tables, and accessories now require a minimalism in a deference to the presentation of art.

If the present trend is any indication, taste is “less”. It’s less because the present state of exposure to the decorative arts has never been more marginalized. The Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly relegate it to a side show; what more do you have to understand? We need to educate the world what we do, what we sell, and why it is so much fun. Rich or poor, the knowledge and appreciation of quality and design is priceless. We love it at Newel and we desperately want to share it with anyone who cares to partake. We need to be a serious advocate for the decorative arts because so few are.

At Newel, we seem to have our hands in many areas where the decorative and fine arts live harmoniously. Selling to interior designers who have the temperament to deal with clients that seem to know more than they do, is a daunting position for everyone. Having a set decorator put together a room for a TV show in a matter of hours is even more impressive. While watching a motion picture production, the set is so seamless to the action; it’s brilliant! Why not for your home, apartment, or office? It can and should change as easily as you want it too, (if you can afford it).

Newel is all about change and being part of how residential and visual design should evolve. We understand the past and appreciate the foundation and evolution of cultures and the value they placed in creating decorative and functional objects. We have an obligation to show our items anywhere that they will be noticed and create a sense of “wow”. It’s not really that hard when there are so many who have never had any appreciation of what it is. For Newel and the decorative arts industry to flourish, we need to be not only educators, but be more approachable to a new, young generation that has no idea we exist.

Let Me Entertain You!

February 8th, 2015 by admin

The theater runs through Newel; we started as a service to Broadway, and it runs through our veins. For us, it is about “The Show”; where in the decorative arts do you want to go? But part of the fun is that we can now better entertain you, with our own unpredictable displays, in Newel’s new warehouse in Long Island City (LIC).

There is no denying my passion for the visual image and how decorative arts are so critical to enhance a stage. The stage is anyone’s opportunity to show how you live your daily life, anytime and anywhere. What is now possible are more dramatic and unexpected presentations at different locations in the warehouse; it can make our new showroom look boring!

Part of the fun for me is to actually move the stuff and play around with the space available. It could be a vitrine or it could be a corner wall or intersection of aisles. You never know where the next location needs some attention and “creativity”. However you can go so far. With the products at hand you have to be judicious in selecting complementing pieces. But in real life or imaginary, no two interiors are decorated the same in every detail, unless you are the theater stage theater or a TV production.

In a strange way it really doesn’t matter how you show the goods, there is so much of it available to anyone with an “eye” for style or quality. However, the price is another matter and it is always negotiable for the independent buyer (except when dealing with auctioneers like the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly and their disturbing buyer’s premiums.) While money can buy happiness, it doesn’t necessarily include the visual sense of style and a discernment for a special piece.

Newel is now planning the next chapter in our long and distinguished 76 years associated in the entertainment and the fine and decorative arts industries. We are pulling up stakes from our traditional location since 1977 (our original location was on 47th Street and Second Avenue) to having an additional new showroom location at 306 61st Street. It is just over the bridge from the new “warehouse” and allows us more flexibility. There is still a reluctance to making the LIC trip, but a lot of new residences have been build there and it seems so accessible. Certainly the abundance of museums and major TV and motion picture production facilities is a positive factor.

New York has a long history of being considered an entertainment and art world hub. I love the decorative arts and antiques and as we use them for display or physically stuffed in our warehouse, they were somewhere else before ending up with Newel and possibly being rented out to a TV show or movie. Every item has a story and most of the time it’s a secret!

Our business has years of experience in dealing with sets for “The Godfather”, “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, or Bergdorf Goodman window display; the list goes on and on. We have sold to the White House and interior designers with incredible understanding of decorating for important clients. We have pretty high expectations for people who rent or buy our inventory. But to me, nothing is more exciting than our incredible diversification which offer so many surprises. So,

Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile

Let me do a few tricks
Some old and then some new tricks
I’m very versatile

And if you’re real good
I’ll make you feel good
I want your spirits too climb

So let me entertain you
And we’ll have a real good time, yes sir
We’ll have a real good time (1)

(1) From the 1959 Broadway show, Gypsy; music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

A New Year for the Decorative Arts

January 8th, 2015 by admin

It’s nice that we get to turn the page of time with a New Year. For the world of antiques and decorative arts the passage of time holds no limitation. When you are an object from the 20th, 18th, 16th Century, or 2000 BC, it’s all about the item’s style, craftsmanship, and being representative of the period that it was made. While great fine art was created for the canvas, I’m a decorative art’s guy. Looking around my warehouse today made me think that my world of furniture and object d’art required a long overdue check-up.

Going through aisle after aisle of all kinds and forms of the decorative arts made me realize that many great styles and designs are so out of fashion and taste. Great Victorian hall tables and dramatic French 18th Century armoires, English hutches, Biedermeier and American whatever. BUT, then there are those items that knock you over; and there are more of those items out there than ever before. The availability of such great quality and forms of all periods for me as dealer, has never been so fabulous (well, maybe not since my grandfather was devouring Europe’s Post War liquidation in the 1950-60’s).

As a dealer, I have learned to have a long term perspective, and as the last 15 years will attest, many of my trade have headed for the exits or simply couldn’t maintain their operations in an ever changing marketplace. The Internet for sure has shaped the industry in an unimaginable manner, but the effects of the change in style and fashion has had a more devastating consequence on what presents a good investment. Like in any investment portfolio, a good diversification can even out the ups and downs. That being our practice, today, I saw a lot of ups.

Going into 2015 is a lot different than 2000 for the decorative arts, and it may be totally different in 2030. While I am not a betting man by nature, I try to place my wagers on what I think I know and understand. Real estate, stock picking, interest rate direction are not my fields expertise and for me offer not better odds than rolling dice. My challenge is fine an item that I can buy and sell to someone else, and maybe even rent to a TV show or movie to cover overhead. It also doesn’t have to be Mid-century modern.

Stylish, tasteful, and quality pieces have always been made since mankind developed the ability and skills to create items of form and function. An Egyptian style chair has been replicated in different designs for centuries. The timeliness of Neo-classic forms is ever present in all periods just as creative adaptations are part of artistic interpretation. It all comes down to the eye and appreciation by the person who might covet the work. Walking around our warehouse today excited me as to what is available to any potential customer. The incredible diversification of antiques and the decorative arts offer unparalleled possibilities; to a discerning mind of a new generation of consumers it might offer savvy buyers’ great opportunities.

The Decorative Arts Today, Free of the Duopoly

December 4th, 2014 by admin

It is nice to be in a business that the Sotheby’s/Christie’s Duopoly does not particularly care about and even discourages having to deal in it. Their thoughts on the decorative arts as it relates to antique furniture and accessories has clearly been exhibited by their lack of catalog sales, failure to promote the sector, onerous 2% surcharge for low-balling estimates to sell on behalf of a seller, and a profit taking 25% buyer’s premium on the price level of these goods. In an effort to go retail they have successfully destroyed the secondary dealer market in this segment of the industry, which had given a floor to pricing. What have they to gain now that they seemed to have a weak or limited market for their goods?

I don’t really want to give them some advice as to how they can be my direct dealer competitor with Private Treaty contracts, but then again, they seem to be focused on making the internet do all the heavy lifting in this area. Sotheby’s is going after the eBay market to resolve their decorative arts conundrum, and Christie’s believes it can develop its own methods of online high end consumer purchasers. Good luck gentlemen; go your own ways but you’ll always keep your eye on the fine arts big money.

With the 800 pound gorillas essentially out of this market, it makes the industry a bit more competitive and free of practices and methods that now offer more market based decisions for dealers, the rest of the auctioneers, as well as buyers and sellers. In other words, when you do not have the manipulation of both buyers and sellers, free competition for goods and their ultimate pricing becomes more realistic. It sounds almost like the old days (sans buyer’s premium). And as far as the buyer’s premium is concerned, since when have dealers had to add that kind of cost of operations to justify such an enormous revenue production.

The dynamics of the decorative arts market seem to be shifting constantly. From new trends in fashion, style, and sophistication, these items offer unique diversity and functionality that lends itself to personalize taste. Perhaps the high end is not as compelling in this part of the industry, but the gamut running from chocolate molds to Chinese Chippendale cover a lot of areas of collecting and price points. Maybe it’s just too much for the big two, but what opportunities must exist. Ebay, 1stdibs, and other online marketplaces seem to thrive in the decorative arts world, with a functioning and strong secondary dealer market making it all possible.

So let me be the first to recognize that I appreciate not having to compete in a marketplace that has fundamental flaws created by 2 controlling interests. Things appear to be quite efficient in how pricing and demand are now functioning. With both duopoly firms now in the throes of looking for a new executive leader to develop even greater profitability for ownership, the pressure to revisit the decorative arts areas might come back on their radar. Unfortunately for them, that train left.

Christie’s, My New Best Friend

October 10th, 2014 by admin

Just as business started to improve, one my two old nemeses, Christie’s, threw a softball to every decorative arts dealer who wants to claim the “middle market.” I don’t think it is really a big secret that the duopoly abhors the process and logistics of selling the vast quantities of decorative arts out there, all for the taking. Their problem is they don’t know how to make this segment of the industry profitable, short of giving inventory away or strangling consignors (they do it quite nicely to the buyer already).

First, I have to explain what Christie’s is doing, as reported in this week’s Antiques Trade Gazette. Their new 2% fee comes as an added expense for those consignors lucky enough to get them to sell their merchandise. If during an auction sale, a consigned item hits or beats the high estimate, Christie’s (and they are the experts) will tack on an additional 2% commission “to incentivize and reward high performance that exceeds consignors’ expectations.” Only in this industry can such unconscionable actions be a generally accepted way of doing business. The duopoly reinvent ways to fleece a buyer or seller, even as secret reserves and other deceptive practices still openly function.

Enough with my ramblings about the felons, the exciting thing about this move away from the middle market is that the middle market has the most potential for development as the biggest market in the industry. No one can deny that there exists a tremendous glut of quality, middle market inventory that is suffering from the market dominance of Mid-20th Century decorative arts and modern design. Today, the efficiency needed to managing a large inventory is not so easy, for either an auctioneer or dealer. It requires storage, damages, and movement in and out, which are structural operating necessities.

The fact that Christie’s is sending this message puts additional pressure on other auctioneers to impose the additional fee, or at least think about it. However, Christie’s in the end knows that the 2% fee is chump change in the grand scheme of their operations. The message is clear, we want you to go somewhere else or you will pay dearly. Of course it will be buried in the fine print; but will each item that it affects be disclosed to the buyer? Probably not. However, shouldn’t the buyer be rewarded by not having to pay the additional fee on the buyer’s premium? I guess there are limits as to how much that should be, although I am always in favor of raising the buyer’s premium, as fast and as high as you can.

For me it has always been about the middle market, and searching both the top and the bottom of the strata. The industry needs this market to not only survive but also to have spectacular growth. This is also where creative market forces of efficient database technology and economies of scale, can disrupt the norm. We at Newel are approaching our operation with that concept in mind. Moving to a new facility twice as big as our present building will offer untold possibilities.

Of course Newel will still be known (historically) as a “prop house,” but the opportunities in the decorative arts market are getting pretty intriguing. Dealer competition is negligible, and auctioneers will never have the luxury of a strong secondary market that the dealers once offered. We have always been lucky and fortunate to have a highly successful rental division; it has made the transition in this industry’s last 15 years possible for us. The rumbling of the middle market are starting to sound like an echo, getting louder. We believe in the future of the middle market and that the best is yet to come.

BADA for the 21st Century, Prospects for a Future?

July 30th, 2014 by admin

Michael Cohen, the new chairman of BADA has written a ringing challenge in the “Back Page” of the Antiques Trade Gazette in an attempt to revitalize that organization’s standing and relevance to the trade and the greater public. Certainly anyone trying to fill his new shoes would feel the urge to offer some (dare I say any) action that might help awaken the industry to a progressive and not resistant path. As the consummate “outsider” who’s only membership in the trade is as a 1stdibs dealer, I want to offer my thoughts on the prospects for his success.

First and foremost, Mr. Cohen understands that membership growth is paramount. With the last decade taking a devastating toll on dealer survival, and especially those with a “brown wood” stock, surely that one gesture should open some eyes of those still calcified by their own shortsightedness. If BADA can’t embrace 20th and 21st Century design, then their relevance will certainly over time be relegated to the trash heap of an inapt organization. As a case in point, think of how many new and exciting dealers with outstanding inventories have appeared in the last decade, stocking 20th Century or prior periods; very, very few.

If they cannot or do not find a way to cajole more members of any period and style, BADA’s demise will be a forgone conclusion. Those dealers that BADA has ignored or shunned for various reasons are now not dependent on the services of that organization. As a case in point, I can never remember any customer inquiring if my firm was a member of any US dealer organization. I never saw it as an advantage. It is my stock and personal reputation that is on the line, every day, with every client.

But having a strong voice that looks after industry threatening legislation is perhaps the most important responsibility and aspect of what BADA or any professional organization should foster. Whether it is legislation that hobbles dealers like the new English Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which exempts auctioneers but not dealers with restrictions and disclosure of financial arrangements prior to an auction, there is a need for a strong advocate. In the US, Mr. Cohen correctly points to the “ill-thought out legislation on antique ivory” as a case in point. These are not just local issues but have broad industry ramifications that need BADA and other associations around the world to have a coordinated agenda.

Finally, I have to disagree with Mr. Cohen’s idea of the value added by issuing Certificates of BADA provenance. If you have BADA on your invoice what more of a provenance is necessary; is BADA going to create a data base of all sales associated with its members? This seems to be an unnecessary task for its members and one that is self-serving and really does not offer anything more than what is already available.

I wish Mr. Cohen much success (although I am not expecting a solicitation for BADA membership). I have been critical of BADA and American dealer organizations for their insular membership and limited vision. However, I fervently hope that all of our survival and future growth will come from our industry being more open, approachable, and acceptable to the public.

Sotheby’s Contagion Now Spreading to Ebay

July 17th, 2014 by admin

On July 14th the front page of the New York Times ran a major article concerning the new relationship being created by Sotheby’s with the original internet auction giant eBay. With all the fanfare of the Sotheby’s PR machinery, breaking the news of this questionable combination was orchestrated to quiet their critics and leapfrog their “competition.” Well Christie’s, their duopoly partner/competitor, is probably not too concerned given that this new partnership is full of many hurdles and issues that perhaps may yet come back to haunt them.

It’s interesting how the New York Times article puts such a spin on the synergies and possibilities of eBay’s worldwide market gaining access to Sotheby’s “imprimatur of authenticity.” There is a big problem however, they both operate in directly opposite manners, with one (guess who) charging and exorbitant buyer’s premium and the other just a listing fee. It appears that eBay will be getting a listing fee from Sotheby’s, but will the buyer’s premium now be the generally accepted method for the eBay masses, and can we now rate Sotheby’s as a Power Seller? Of course the details of the arrangement remain confidential according the article, probably because they have to reconcile that gap and many others.

Another interesting comment made by eBay was that they perceive Sotheby’s as an “anchor tenant” in their virtual shopping mall, but since when does Saks Fifth Avenue have a marquee place in the same location as a Kmart? Ebay tried to go upscale by purchasing the auction firm Butterfield & Butterfield and it failed not because it was a bad idea but because they could not make the migration to an upscale market. Same was the case when Sotheby’s made prior deals with eBay and Amazon. When they attempted to create their own marketplace and approached my firm to be part of it, I told David Redden, then running that operation, that it would never succeed. We somehow forget that secret reserves, and an outrageous 25% buyer’s premium on items sold under $100,000 (naturally identical for both of the duopoly participants) has severely impacted the market for these items and the jury is out as to how much lower on the food chain this practice will be tolerated.

Unfortunately for Sotheby’s, this gesture to the mass market will only dilute their cache and give Christie’s a better marketing position. According to the article, Christie’s will be expanding its online presence by going it alone, using consultants from other high end retailers to bolster their image, not dilute it. However, both of their sights are on the younger online shopper who now does not want or need to visit a gallery or showroom. Also, this younger generation might not tolerate the deceptions and frauds perpetrated by their business methods. Explaining these practices to a generation that craves the openness and disclosure that the internet offers could have the opposite effect. It has turned me off of being a participant in their rigged practices and might just do the same to the middle/mass market; so let their present affluent customer base enjoy being hoodwinked.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/14/arts/design/with-ebay-partnership-sothebys-extends-potential-reach-by-145-million.html

Humira, The Arthritis Drug For Antiques

July 13th, 2014 by admin

While watching the news on TV it seems that most of the commercials cater to drug oriented products, be it erectile dysfunction, diabetes, stomach ailments, and cholesterol issues. One that caught my eye was for an arthritis relief drug called Humira. Not that I have arthritic issues (although I do have a bum knee), the Hurmira commercial features a young lady searching through an antiques shop as a nod to her physical ability to enjoy a task that the drug would ameliorate. Why antiques, and she appeared to be under 45 years of age.

Perception is not necessarily reality and not anyone who wants to live and collect antiques has to be rich and elderly. What I found so stunning in the commercial is that the showcasing of “antiquing” was a subliminal connection to perhaps biking down a country road or playing with your grandchildren. There is both a physical and cerebral activity involved. Ever watch the TV show “American Pickers”; you have to go through floors, up steps, over tables, and just plain move the stuff around in search of something that connects. In the Humira commercial the featured actress touches a brass clothes valet that has a certain charm and functionality which catches her attention. It is what all antiques and decorative art should do, to be able to make a personal and pleasurable connection for what it is and how it can be useful and enjoyable.

The public image of antiques has a way to go before it gains a cache like fast cars and the newest handheld technology. Just getting noticed is a start and not having a condescending attitude about our items is even more important. The upscale show phenomenon has little reason or the ability to expand its public persona just as the elitism of Sotheby’s and Christie’s is portrayed by their abuse and manipulation of both buyers and sellers.

The only salvation for the growth in the market for antiques is to be a more generally accepted commodity. Acceptance has to come with a recognition by the general public that, like an effective drug, you want it because you believe it will offer a positive benefit. Antiques should implicitly offer a remedy for value, functionality, taste, and style. What we need is the benefit of an industry organization that can get the message out to our potential customers. Unfortunately we don’t have an AppVie, Inc (the developer of Humira) or a Bristol Myers who have the deep pockets to promote our industry and the products we sell.