Written by RMI’s MD, Ken Kemp.


Some of you who know me will be aware that my hobby is buying and selling antiques, particularly if they’re a bit different and/or are of Asian origin. Once or twice a month, I can be found at a local antiques fair with my display of interesting artefacts to tempt the many specialist collectors as well as people who, quite simply, like to have attractive, fascinating objects in their homes.

I’ve been doing this off and on for a number of years now – it’s certainly not an extra income stream for me, more a self-financing hobby which I enjoy – and I am getting better at it. I used to sell all sorts of items and had quite a few successes along the way as well as a number of failures. Most of the failures were due to lack of knowledge but as long as you learn from your mistakes, as in all walks of life, that’s fine.

However, as I say, I’m getting better and, therefore, more successful at what I do – both in terms of buying as well as selling. The reason for this is specialism and with that comes knowledge. It’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve started to specialise in the Asian market (although not entirely, by the way, as I don’t want to keep absolutely all my eggs in the same basket). The move from being a generalist is gradually working, and I have customers who come looking for me now to see what new stock I have to tickle their fancy.

I accumulate that valuable knowledge (I’m certainly no expert, yet) in a number of ways. Of course, I research online whether that’s via Google or by registering with specialist auction sites. I also ask for advice from others (both buyers and sellers) at the fairs who do have some expertise in their field. Often it’s a case of weighing up different opinions and then making a judgement on value, quality or even origin based on a range of inputs. Eventually you learn to trust the judgement of some people more than others, too.

I’m selling items more effectively now than I was a couple of years ago. For example, I’ve recently acquired a rather fine bronze figurine depicting a fierce Chinese warrior on horseback. Previously, I would have pitched it primarily on the basis of the quality of the detail. Now, I can say that the warrior is the great Chinese hero, General Guan Gong Yu who was deified some time after his execution in 220CE. He was renowned and revered for his fighting abilities but also respected as an epitome of righteousness and loyalty. He is usually portrayed as having a red face.  I could go on, but you get the picture; research and the knowledge that comes with it, enables me to bring the object to life, making it more desirable and perceived as more valuable.

Which brings me to another topic in the buying and selling process – the negotiation. It’s all part of the fun, as well as quite important if you want to ensure that you come out ahead in most transactions. If you’re buying to resell, then clearly you want to buy as low as possible with a view to selling at a decent margin. Exhibiting at an antiques fair doesn’t come cheap, believe me, and it’s really not a good feeling at the end of what can be quite a tiring day, if you haven’t even covered your costs. Buying at auctions is one way to buy when, really, market forces mostly dictate the end result.

However, buying face to face is completely different and you really get to know (and recognise) all sorts of people types during this process. There are people that I buy from whom I’ve grown to trust so, with them, it’s typically just a case of asking for their best price and, if that’s not quite good enough, politely asking if they’ve got any more room to manoeuvre. The point is that they know that I’m a regular, and, if I’m happy and successfully sell what I’ve bought from them, I’ll be back for more next time.

Trust and loyalty are key and it works the same way when selling. I’ve got regulars who are trade and they know that, if I can, I’ll offer them a rate which should still enable them to make a profit, too. My margins with them may be lower but repeat business – and cashflow – is valuable. I also have loyal customers who are buying for themselves, or as a gift for someone else and I try to ensure that they get a fair deal, too. I know that many of them will go home and do their own online research and, if they’re not subsequently happy with what they have found out (is it repro or original, is it damaged?) they’ll be back to let me know about it next time…

Even if they don’t always buy from me, I like to find out what they are looking for. I ask “Is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?” I’ll then make a note and keep my eyes out for something similar to purchase and bring with me to the next fair they’re attending. If it’s not quite right for them, it’s not a problem, as they’ll appreciate that I tried and will remember me for the future.

Some people do try it on a bit and ask for cheeky prices – TV shows like ‘Bargain Hunt’ and ‘Antiques Road Trip’ have a lot to answer for… Speaking of which, I was recently ‘doing my thing’ at a weekend antiques fair at a local racecourse where we had the pleasure of the Bargain Hunt crew filming for both days. They were all extremely pleasant and despite the odd disruption in the aisles caused by retake after retake after retake, we all had a good laugh at times and I actually had my most successful fair ever. I even sold a £150 Chinese censer that I had been carting from one fair to another for over two years – mind you, it didn’t do any harm to mention that it had been noted by one of the celebs the previous day and had been filmed in close-up as a result! It probably still ended up on the cutting room floor, though!

If you’ve had the patience to read this far, you may be wondering what all this has to do with the world of recruitment. Don’t worry, I’m getting there..

At the beginning of a fair, all the traders arrive (very) early in the morning to set our stalls up. Some of the displays are fantastic, I must say, and others can be not much more than a 6ft table with a cloth thrown over it and the objects for sale randomly displayed on it. Where would your expectations be as a potential customer in terms of pricing and quality? Exactly.

So, are there lessons that can be learned from my ruminations about buying and selling antiques?

Don’t be frightened to make mistakes.

Knowledge is key. Research your market, become an expert and share this valuable knowledge with others. Become an authority in your sector – a CONSULTANT. Be the ‘go to’ person for clients, colleagues and candidates

If you are currently a generalist, become a specialist before LinkedIn and in-house recruiters make that decision for you.

The more you know, the more successful you will be and the more value can be attributed to your services

K, L, T – Know, Like, Trust.

Negotiation only happens when someone is buying. Be flexible and creative if needed. Be willing to walk.

Go the extra mile to generate customer loyalty and, once you have set a precedent, keep your standards high.

First impressions count, and I’m not just talking about you. What is your office like – what image do you present to your visitors? What must a candidate think, if the interview room has dirty coffee cups left over from the previous meeting? Etc. You know what I’m saying.

BTW, I hope that you enjoyed the picture of Guan Gong Yu.