The Architecture of the Trade – The Export Trade

Further to the blog posts on the architecture of the antique trade we’ve been doing some work on the development (and decline) of the trade in importing and exporting antique furniture (often called ‘shipping goods’).  The ‘wholesale’ import and export trade in antiques has a long history – one could, if one adopted certain classificatory frameworks, suggest that such activities began to emerge in the opening decades of the 19th century – there were certainly dealers shipping ‘containers’ of antiques and curiosities between the Continent and Britain just after the Napoleonic Wars, and those import-export activities continued into the early 20th century as part of the transatlantic (UK-USA) trade – the now relatively well-known photograph of Duveen’s ‘storeroom’  is a testament to those practices.


Duveen’s storeroom, c.1920

But at far as the present project is concerned this particular segment of the trade appears to have taken on a particular form in the decade after World War II.  By the 1960s a specific form of ‘import-export dealer’ emerged – often known as ‘a shipper’- and a certain kind of classification of antique objects, called ‘shipping goods’, also developed as a specific category of antiques.  These ‘trade only’ import and export dealerships often seem to have chosen specific locations and occupied specific building types – they were/are often located on the edge of cities or towns, near major driving routes, sometimes on ‘industrial’ estates; or often could be seen to be occupying redundant barns on farmsteads. They are still a familiar sight today of course.

Alongside the emergence of the ‘shipping dealer’ there developed a whole range of shipping firms, such as Fenton & Co., Gander and White, and Michael Davis – which in the 1970s had offices in London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Melbourne and Johannesburg – indicative of the main trading locations for shipping antiques at the time – now I think China may be top of the list!

Evidence from sources in the 1950s-1970s highlights that the import-export trade can provide fascinating evidence for a number of conceptual notions central to the ‘antique trade’ – one is the shifting definition of ‘antiques’ themselves. In the 1970s for example, in terms of import duties that have been payable on such kinds of objects, certain countries defined antiques as being over 100 years old; such objects would be exempt from any import duty. Some countries had different classifications – in the USA in the 1970s, for example, an ‘antique’ was, according to tax law at least, an object made ‘prior to 1830’ (the notional date of the development of the ‘machine age’). At the same time in the UK, the Board of Trade definition of an ‘antique’ was an object that was over 75 years old.  The age of an ‘antique’ has been constantly in flux of course, but it’s interesting that even if one takes something as ‘solid’ as tax law, one will still see variations in the classifying principles!…

Further evidence from some short articles on ‘Exporting Antiques’ in the Antiques Yearbook (1950) and a summary of export figures published in Antique Finder magazine (1976) there seems to have been an expansion of the export trade between the 1960s and the 1970s.  In 1962 the UK export figures were c.£5 million, rising to £68.5 million in 1975; Import figures from the UK illustrate a similar pattern (in 1962 the UK imported £4 million of antiques, and in 1975 the figures was £33.8 million).  The countries the UK exported antiques to also provide a fascinating picture of the global markets in the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s some figures for 1976:

USA £13.4 million

(West) Germany £7.1 million

Japan £2.2 million

Canada £1.3 million

Netherlands £4.4 million

Australia £3.1 million

Belgium £4.0 million

France £4.3 million

Kuwait/Dubai/Abu Dhabi £0.01 million

I imagine the figures today would be relatively familiar in terms of countries….with more activity in the Middle East; and the absence of China (so important today) in the 1976 figures is very significant of course.

What is also of interest in the market conditions for antiques in the 1970s was the economic crisis of the early-to-mid 1970s (the oil crisis) – the commentary from the Antique Finder suggested that the top of the market (the top 5%) had ‘felt the pinch in 1975’ but that the rest of the trade (95%) had ‘continued to move forward’ – the 1974/75 depression in world industrial prosperity had impacted most on higher wealth purchasing power. In today’s economy, the economic depression of 2007-08, seems to have had limited effect on the top 5% of wealthy collectors.



2 Comments to “The Architecture of the Trade – The Export Trade”

  1. This Architecture of the Trade seems to be very interesting. Thanks for putting this up. I wonder what kind of items or products were first exported.

    • Good question!…I think it is a whole range of objects, with multiple catalysts for interests…’old’ things, with the extra cache of being from a country with a ‘past’…anyway, the short answer is, it’s complicated!

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