For members of the antiques trade in England, June 15 is set to be a momentous occasion. After three months of lockdown, galleries, shops and centres can reopen, barring a second spike in coronavirus infections and government backtracking.
It is a moment to be optimistic for dealers, centre managers and fair organisers alike, though many remain cautious. The phrase ‘the new normal’ might be widely reviled, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that daily business this summer will have a different look.
As they prepare, dealers and organisers are taking steps to ensure safety for all involved and are crucially calling on public common sense to make the reopening a success.
Any gallery-goer will be familiar with the process of ringing a bell for entrance to some shops, and for many dealers, this controlled access will be crucial for keeping numbers manageable.
“We’re lucky that we have quite a big space so we feel we can open and be confident that customers will feel safe,” says Madeleine Perridge of antiquities specialist Kallos Gallery in Mayfair, London. It is among those with reopening planned for the 15th.
“Being in an enclosed space feels different than it did before. We’re encouraging people to make an appointment and are running reduced hours so staff can get in and out safely. It’s a balance between getting back and making people feel safe.”
Nearby dealership John Martin Gallery is taking matters a step further, using ticketing website Eventbrite so that individuals can book half-hour timed slots to visit the gallery. It is hosting an exhibition of Scottish artist Leon Morrocco from June 25 which is a joint show with Portland Gallery.
Jamie Rountree of Rountree Tryon Gallery had planned to launch a show in London last week before moving it to his Petworth space. Now he has postponed the exhibition to run only in Petworth.
The Sussex gallery is currently open by appointment for collections or viewing specific items, but both locations will open to the public on the 15th. “Our priority is the safety of visitors and we will be adhering to social-distancing guidelines within the gallery. The number of visitors at any one time will be capped at four, with hand sanitiser readily available and surfaces regularly cleaned as usual,” Rountree said.
Furniture dealer David Harvey of WR Harvey Antiques has similar plans, from hand sanitiser to potentially limiting visitor numbers in his Oxfordshire premises. However, as he points out, there is much to be considered beyond the movement of visitors around the shop.
For example, “if you sell something and you don’t take contactless or credit card, the customer will need to pay with a cheque, and you’ll need to cash that cheque by going to the bank. It’s not just what you do within your own shop, it’s what your neighbours do too.”
Like many dealers, Harvey is positive about the prospect of getting back to business. “I’m absolutely looking forward to it and I’ve got clients who have already said that they’re going to come.”
Contributing to his optimism is the strength of online sales over the break, a theme for many traders. Customers have, by necessity, been online shopping – in some cases for the first time ever – and it has made a positive difference.
Dealers such as London jewellery specialist Sandra Cronan are adapting to the changed circumstances, now focusing on website sales. Jewellery offers a specific set of challenges, as shopping for it invariably means touching and trying on. The gallery will now be “by appointment only, which will allow viewings to be staggered and for each piece of jewellery to be thoroughly cleaned between viewings. Gloves and hand sanitiser will be made available.”
At Antiques Centre York owner and MD James Waggott says that sales from the website have risen by two-and-a-half to three times per month year-on-year since lockdown started. With retail now reopening for the first time in months, he predicts an enthusiastic return to shopping from some customers.
He is ready to meet them when they come. It is for the buyers, as much as the government, that he is implementing as many safety regulations as possible. “Our duty is to be best in class in terms of our centre and meet every expectation of our customers. I believe that doing everything you can is what they will look for,” Waggott adds.
Strategies for opening include instructions for visitors to keep at least a ‘cabinet’s length’ apart (effectively 2m), one-way systems and capping numbers. The staff will also be provided with face masks specially designed for the centre.
Meanwhile, Jim Gallie, manager of Battlesbridge Antiques Centre in Wickford, has bought tape, visors, plastic screening and signage for his centre and staff, and is encouraging dealers who run adjoining units to use the same precautions. He points out that one of the most important elements to a successful reopening is visitors “using their common sense”.
In Stamford, A&B Antiques & Interiors completed a full assessment and will reduce the number of people allowed in the shop to help ensure that shoppers and staff socially distance. It added that “all touch points will be sanitised regularly, and the card reader is sanitised after each use. We have a brand-new shop layout creating lots more space for customers to safely browse.”
For fairs and markets, high footfall and jostling crowds have historically indicated a good day out and a successful event. However, regulations will mean that one of the key steps to reopening is keeping visitor numbers under control.
Antiques and vintage dealers at west London’s Portobello Road market are among the outdoor events making a cautious return to business this month.
Nicholas Kasic, markets manager at Kensington & Chelsea council with a focus on Portobello and Golborne Road markets, said that the council is offering a rent-free period for council traders until the end of June (it has around 50 tenants who are antiques and vintage traders). For those self-isolating, shielding or still not ready to work, the rent-free period will extend until September and “individual situations will be reviewed”.
He added: “We are trying to support traders so they can return to work and support those who are vulnerable and staying home.”
Kasic is developing social-distancing guidance along with posters and social media messaging to advise customers of what to expect. “A large number of traders are holding back as they are not sure if it is worth coming back yet. The antiques dealers have two types of customers – traders and tourists – and at the moment the tourists and visitors are not really coming.”
He said the arcade owners on the road are also reviewing how they will operate. Portobello Group, owner of a number of arcades along the street, is expected to begin trading on June 20.
Other fairs with extensive outdoor areas are also preparing to reopen. Sunbury Antiques Market’s next Kempton Park fair is set to open on June 30, while IACF plans its next event, Runway Monday at Newark, for June 29 (see ATG No 2445).