Doctors have the American Medical Association; lawyers are represented by the American Bar Association, car dealers, teachers, religions, and even countries have organized representation to promote their best interests to the public and government. Art and antiques dealers, one can categorically say, do not have any form of an umbrella organization that can advocate for its interests.
The many organizations that do attempt to be representatives of the industry are narrow in focus and small in membership. Whether it is the Art and Antiques Dealer’s League of America (AADLA), Antiques Dealers’ Association of American (ADA), National Antiques & Art Dealers Association of American (NAADAA), or the various state and local associations, they all have limited membership, finances, and interests. Individually they are just groups that attempt to create their own exclusivity of membership and can’t look at industry issues, be it a simple standard form of invoice or other business documents that have dealer and customer interests in mind; how about the larger purpose of the public’s image of dealers?
It is clear to me how dealers in general have gone in decline at the expense of the auctioneers’ success, with their strong public representation. The Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly is no match for any of these dealer organizations. Their achievements to further their goals and agenda can be attributed to the skillful use of public relations, legal, and political connections. Clearly, the watershed incident of dealer submission to these auctioneers happened in the late 1970s, when they imposed the buyer’s premium and dealers (both English and American) blinked in their fight to prohibit it. The dealer “organizations” back then had no bite or bark. Peter Spira, Sotheby’s chief financial officer at that time gives a good account of that period in his book “Ladders and Snakes”
This industry does have thousands, dare I say potentially millions of potential members if you were to also include collectors, who also have an interest in what we do. But it is the dealers who, if united under one inclusive organization, could create a financially strong and robust force to fashion standards for industry conduct and an agenda for public awareness. Today, the scope of being a “dealer” is wide and varied; the dealer in multi-million dollar art, the eBay power dealer, the small antiques shop owner, or the dealer who only exhibits at shows wants nothing more than to increase his sales and burnish his image as a businessman. We are all united in this industry by being resellers of items that have added value from our knowledge and experience. It’s no different for the individual lawyer who hangs out his shingle or the several hundred plus member law firm; the American Bar Association has their back.
The concept of a united and focused art, antiques and design dealer umbrella organization can and will produce results; doing nothing will continue this uninterrupted trend of more difficulty and undue stress to survive in an already challenging economic environment. Dealers must first understand that they do have the power to protect and expand their interests, but only as a united force, and with professional advocates. Individual dealers and small volunteer organizations can’t raise public and political awareness. There is strength in numbers and the time is now.