The changing geography of the antique trade 1976-2000

Further to our summer competition on the top ten locations for antique shops in Britain in 1976, we thought it would be useful draw from the research into the antique shops of 1976 and do a comparison with the year 2000 – we do this in order to highlight again the academic objectives of the research project and draw further attention to some of the significant changes in the ecology of the antique trade over that period.

As many of you you already know, the British antique trade underwent a significant transformation around the time of the millennium – this was also one of the catalysts for the development of this particular research project – and a large number of antique dealers withdrew from the market or changed their patterns of activity during the last 15 years or so. The catalysts for this transformation are wide ranging and complex, driven as there were by rapid developments in technology, shifts in social behaviour, as well as changes in notions such as ‘expertise’ and the knowledge of objects of value – ‘expertise’ has been both decentered and recalibrated in the last 20 or so years.  Moreover, one of the key drivers for the rapid change in ‘taste’ in the last 20 years also appears to have been a more abstract shift towards the contemporary – the extraordinary rise in the market for contemporary art is just one of a number of symptoms of this shift. In the market for ‘antiques’ we have seen a significant decline in the interest for things such as antique furniture, alongside the increased interest in modern/contemporary and designer furniture and objects. This shift in value systems is of course a consequence of extremely complex social, cultural and political phenomena, and there is no space here to even begin to address the frameworks for these rapid changes – suffice to say that the antique trade has changed significantly over the last 15-20 years – and part of the objectives of the current research project is to investigate this shift.

Anyway, one of the pieces of evidence of the recent changes in the cultural geography of the trade is the shifting patterns and concentrations of antique shops in Britain – and you thought that our summer competition was just a piece of frivolous whimsy! And so we thought a comparison between 1976 and 2000 would be an interesting thing to do; and here are some of the results….they make very interesting reading (we are doing more analysis of this data of course!)

1976-2000 Antique locations – the TOP TEN as they were in the competition:

Brighton (96 dealers in 1976; 46 dealers in 2000) – down 48%

Bournemouth (61 dealers in 1976; 22 dealers in 2000) – down 64%

Bath (51 dealers in 1976; 54 dealers in 2000) – up 6%

Bristol (50 dealers in 1976; 24 dealers in 2000) – down 52%

Manchester (37 dealers in 1976; 21 dealers in 2000) – down 43%

Nottingham (36 dealers in 1976; 13 dealers in 2000) – down 64%

Chester (36 dealers in 1976; 22 dealers in 2000) – down 39%

Harrogate (35 dealers in 1976; 25 dealers in 2000) – down 29%

Sheffield (32 dealers in 1976; 16 dealers in 2000) – down 50%

Birmingham (32 dealers in 1976; 21 dealers in 2000) – down 34%

York (30 dealers in 1976; 10 dealers in 2000) – down 67%

Leeds (30 dealers in 1976; 9 dealers in 2000) – down 70%

Glasgow (30 dealers in 1976; 20 dealers in 2000) – down 33%

Oxford (29 dealers in 1976; 7 dealers in 2000) – down 76%

Windsor (29 dealers in 1976; 19 dealers in 2000) – down 34%

And London – (1233 dealers in 1976; 766 dealers in 2000) – down 38%

The figures themselves are somewhat of a blunt instrument, but they do point towards a significant change in the geography of the antique trade over that period. And beneath these figures are some further significant shifts and changes – an increase in ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ objects can already be detected in the data for example.

As you can see, all of the top ten locations, apart from Bath, decreased significantly over the last 24 years of the 20th century.  The small increase in the number of dealers in Bath is mirrored in the increase in activity in locations such as Stow-on-the-Wold (1976 -11 dealers; 2000 – 30 dealers) and in other well-known antique centres such as Tetbury (10 dealers in 1976; 26 dealers in 2000), Cheltenham (21 dealers in 1976; 36 dealers in 2000) and Lewes (8 dealers in 1976; 21 dealers in 2000). But these relatively small increases in activity do not mask the rapid decline in the number of antique shops more generally – and this is a trend we are looking into further.

FYI – one of the most intriguing statistics for the concentrations of dealers was at the County level -now of course there are various explanations for the concentrations of antique dealers in a county area – not least of which would be the size of the county itself (and, as we know, county boundaries are always changing too, so comparisons are not always like-for-like).  But guess which county had the most antique dealers in 1976?…, it’s not Surrey (198), or Kent (228), or East Sussex (helped by Brighton, which had overall 215)….

Guessed yet?

It was Lancashire!…Yes, Lancashire…who’d have thought it (not me anyway!) – it had 240 dealers in 1976.

Now how many do you think it had in 2000?….


I detect a North-South shift here….and this is very intriguing indeed – the social/cultural demography of the antique trade could be a fascinating barometer of the wider social demography of Britain?


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