On a rainy Thursday evening earlier this month, a crowd of approximately 50 people gathered inside Mrs. Huizenga's, a vintage store in Toronto, for an auction of furniture and other knick-knacks. A bartender named Justice, who had a bushy brown beard, was selling glasses of wine, local craft-brewed beers and 50-cent sour keys candy to the roomful of mostly twenty and thirtysomethings.
As the auction was about to begin, David Amer, the store's co-owner, explained the ground rules. The items up for bidding would have to be taken home that night, for starters. Amer also explained that there were several dealers there that night who, like him, would likely bid on items. And that any item he bid on he would be looking to sell for five times what he paid for it, and the other dealers would be buying with a similar markup in mind.
"Your money is worth an awful lot more than theirs is," Amer said to the group. "Dealers don't like it when I say that."
As recently as a decade ago, most of the competition people in the antiques and vintage business faced came from other dealers and a relatively small group of private buyers. But today, widespread interest in antiques, vintage furniture and other collectibles has been spurred, thanks to shows such as American Pickers (and its Canadian spinoff) and Mad Men, the show that launched a million retro-obsessed Gen-X and Yers in search of mid-century-modern furniture. The game of buying and selling antiques and vintage pieces is harder than ever for dealers. With such hot interest, the good stuff is drying up. Are we approaching peak antique?
"It's not different than cod fishing," says Scott Cozens, co-host of Canadian Pickers. "You used to be able to throw your net in the ocean and fill it. Now you can't do that. You have to do a lot more work to get the same number of fish."
Thanks to Twitter and the many websites trumpeting auctions, how and where to source items is hardly a trade secret.
Cozens's fellow host, Sheldon Smithens, says, "For the traditional dealer it's really hard to stay up with the game."
Of course, what qualifies as an antique is a matter of fierce debate. Amer intentionally avoids the term, preferring vintage and stylish, if only to avoid unnecessary arguments, because both antique (often pieces more than 100 years old are considered antiques) and vintage pieces are in extraordinarily high demand.
Classic pieces can command huge sums. In 2010, at an auction of work by famed American designers Charles and Ray Eames, a storage unit from 1952 sold for $16,575. A lounge chair and ottoman from 1956, one of the most stylish pieces in the Eames collection, fetched $7,500. Reproductions of the lounge chair are easily found online for as little as $1,000.
Michael Rogozinsky, president of Empire Auctions, which operates auctions in Montreal and Toronto, says that two decades ago, "dealers were buying the stuff at auctions for nothing." But, thanks in large part to the Internet, "people have become a little wiser. You can only keep a secret for so long. The dealers are not able to get such great steals at auctions any more."
It is simply a matter of "awareness," Rogozinsky says. "Private people are more aware of where dealers are buying their stuff."
Of course, there are so many more avenues to buy and sell items today than there were two decades ago.
Many people choose to sell antique and vintage pieces on Craigslist, and many others are scouring the site and others like it for finds, making it harder for brick-and-mortar store owners, says Dana Coburn, co-owner of Vancouver store Metropolitan Home, which specializes in mid-century-modern furniture.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there were usually three "excellent" farm auctions every Saturday in Ontario, says Paul Mercer, owner of Smash, a Toronto store that sells salvaged and reclaimed furniture. "They just almost don't happen any more."
Private buyers, or "weekend warriors," looking to flip items they buy at garage sales by reselling them online have made it harder for dealers, who more than ever have to rely on knowing customer interest and market trends, says Cozens.
"Those people have affected the market drastically, but knowledge is always key. And I find that most people out there are still lazy," he says. "If you're taking the time to understand what the market is, what the market wants, what has changed, what hasn't changed, you'll always be ahead of the curve."
And dealers still have the advantage of scale at many auctions, especially industrial-type sales where large batches of equipment are on the block, Mercer says.
"At a lot of those sales, you have to buy huge quantities," he says. At one such sale, Mercer bought approximately 300 wooden factory carts. "It's not really for the public to just wander in. What's anyone else going to do with 300 carts? Even for me it was almost ridiculous."
Mrs. Huizenga's hosted its first monthly auction this year. The events typically attract more than 100 people, and interest has been so high the store now hosts auctions twice a month.
"It's treasure-hunting," Amer says of the auction's appeal. The atmosphere, which features a professional auctioneer talking at motor-mouth speed and frequently cracking jokes, also accounts for the large crowds. At the first auction this month, the auctioneer yelled, "Twenty-five, twenty-five, TWENTY-FIVE!" so fast and loud a young woman in the front row doubled over laughing.
There are usually 200 lots at each auction. Earlier this month, a bar stool from the 1950s sold for $19, while a set of wooden school chairs went for $50. A pair of vintage crokinole boards was scored for $50, and a pair of wicker stools scooped up for $10.
The average price point is creeping up, but it is still below $40, Amer says.
The lots, like the items the store carries, come from people who will drive trucks in from the Ontario-Quebec border filled with proper antiques, junk collectors from Toronto and about a dozen other sources, Amer says.
But that is as specific as he will get as to where he gets his goods.
"That is absolutely a trade secret," Amer says. "I just tell people when they ask me in the store, 'Where do you get your stuff?' I just say, 'Heaven.'"