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Antiques fairs and the rise of vintage fair culture

BySarah Henderson

Oct 10, 2015

The desire to own antiques seems to be as popular as ever in Britain. There continues to be a proliferation of television shows based on Antiques; from the enduring Antiques Roadshow and peripatetic Antiques Road Trip to daytime staples such as Bargain Hunt and Flog It! The popularity of these shows ties into a culture which has an unbroken link to its long history and reveres it.
The desire to own antiques has many facets: a sense of tradition, admiration of workmanship, value and possessing objects. Yet the appeal also lies in the idea of owning an object which has a unique history, rather than one which has been churned off a mass production line and showcased in living rooms across the world. Owning objects from the past is a common occurrence in many societies and cultures. Public markets to buy and sell goods have also existed since time immemorial, from the Ancient Greek agora to medieval city markets. The antiques fair is simply a place where the buying and selling of objects of a certain age can occur.
Edinburgh itself has regular fairs within the borders of the city. The Edinburgh Antiques & Collectors Fair, held at the Royal Highland Centre, is described on its website as the ‘premier event for Antiques and Collectables’ in Scotland. The Meadowbank Stadium Antique & Collectors Fair offers another option for buyers. Both fairs offer hundreds of stalls, dealers and ordinary members of the public a chance to buy and sell antiques. These fairs are supplemented by over ten antique shops and centres open for business in the city.
But what differentiates an antiques fair from the car boot or bric-a-brac sale? When does an antiques fair morph into a more exclusive event for specialised wealthy collectors and dealers in ‘objet d’art’? There is probably a spectrum. No doubt collectables of significant value can be found at a car boot sale. Miraculously lucky finds often highlighted on television keep alive desires to strike gold. But this idea lends itself to the fancy that the cracked bowl bought for fifty pence is actually some long lost vase worth tens of thousands. It usually is just a chipped bowl.
Whereas a single selling table at an antiques fair can cost over one hundred pounds, a space at a car boot sale usually costs somewhere between ten or twenty. The sellers have to pay VAT on the stall rent; yet they can sidestep expensive auction commission and the inflexibility of running a shop. Furthermore, car boot and junk sales often have an anything goes attitude, often attracting younger buyers. The antiques and collector’s fairs try to stick to older more valuable objects, which can put off those with less disposable income. Even defining ‘antique’ creates debate within auction houses over certain old objects; at car boot sales this definition is somewhat redundant due to objects being frequently less valuable. The question ‘what is an antique?’ lends itself to interpretation, with modern ‘collectibles’ available at many fairs.
Provincial antiques fairs can conjure up certain stereotypes: older figures and dealers, who have been on the fair circuits for many years; a slightly twee and staid atmosphere. In contrast, the rise of internet shopping, where people can host their own shops on websites, is a cause of concern for those who hold onto the ideal of provincial fairs. On sites such as eBay and Etsy, people can sell antiques and collectibles from the comfort of their own home, without having to travel and rent physical space. Antique fairs are not necessarily stagnating, but they are seemingly better contrasted with the more recent coming of ‘vintage’ shops and fairs.
Vintage has an even more nebulous meaning than antiques. Objects don’t necessarily have to be old, instead having a certain element of hearkening back to a different age. Vintage clothing and objects find popularity with a wider segment of society for this reason. Young people may not necessarily be able to afford the true original antiques. But the vintage fair offers access to the style and temperament of the past. Vintage’s effect on wider culture, in particularly fashion, can be demonstrated in the media. Vogue UK offered a vintage shopping guide online in August 2015 and GQ magazine, a guide to London’s best vintage menswear shops, in May 2012. Charity shops have cashed in on the trend, marketing second hand goods with the vintage moniker.
For those wanting to explore the vintage scene, it’s not hard to find vintage items in Edinburgh. W. Armstrong & Son, a vintage retailer, has three locations in Edinburgh. Their website describes them as having ‘metamorphosed into a cornucopia of vintage and retro delights.’ Vintage fairs in Edinburgh include Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair, located in the Assembly Rooms on George Street. It claims to be ‘shopped by the likes of Florence & the Machine, Pixie Lott and Chloe Sevigny, Judy’s remain the UK’s largest vintage marketplace, featured in Vogue, Elle & Stylist.’
This blending of popular media, celebrity and high street is what separates the current vintage trend from the world of antiques dealing. Yet the rise of vintage does not necessarily come at the detriment of antiques. A 2011 Wall Street Journal article described a ‘vintage craze’ enlivening antiques fairs in the Bay area of Northern California. Therefore interest in vintage could feed into a wider interest in society for older styles, reinforcing interest in items from the past.
In the rocky economic climate of recent years, works of art and antiques have been seen as a safer and more appreciable asset for many wealthy people, driven by traditional markets in the West as well as new Chinese and Asian consumers. The extremely wealthy not only buy antiques at auction house institutions, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Dedicated fairs have sprung up. Fine Art Asia, held in Hong Kong, combines a fair alongside fine art auctions. They describe themselves as attracting a sophisticated audience of major dealers, collectors, curators, connoisseurs and art lovers from all over the world. Similarly, Freize Masters fairs in London offer the chance to ‘See and buy art from over 130 of the world’s leading galleries’.
These fairs offer a blend of viewing and buying. Unlike those that sell cheaper and less unique objects, many come to these high end fairs to see museum quality objects not necessarily to even buy. They offer luxury consumerism alongside a chance for members of the public to view the art and antiques on offer. This viewing aspect is more akin to galleries than the provincial antiques fair.
Hence, Antique and collectible fairs come in many varieties and are an integral part of a system that sells goods, ranging from the humble car boot sale to more highly regarded antiques shows displaying extreme wealth. The vintage movement is a boon for antique sellers if it brings new interest and blood to the market. With increased globalisation and connectivity, the wide range of antiques, vintage fairs, buyers and sellers is strongly likely to continue to increase.

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