"It's 'double-up day' on Bargain Hunt!" whoops Tim Wonnacott boyishly, hopping around like a classics professor on speed, eyes wider than one of Louis Wain's maddest cats, bowtie flapping wildly like the arms of one of those Worthing birdmen who periodically throw themselves from the end of the pier onto the wet, grey slab that is the English Channel. I wish I shared Tim's evident delight. But whenever he makes this dread announcement at the top of the show, my spirits, far from soaring, mirror the trajectory of every South Coast Icarus and plummet to the very depths.
'Double-up day' means that instead of being given £300 to buy three objects to sell on at auction the Bargain Hunt teams are given a munificent £600. It should be double the fun; it really isn't. Every time their pockets groan, so do I, because, almost invariably, they come to grief and crash horribly. Some cynics will suggest that they rarely make a profit even on a normal £300 day, but that's not true. Individual lots quite often get beyond their purchase price and, overall, I should think that teams end up in the black about 50% of the time (we'll ignore the fact that they don't factor the buyer's premium and VAT into the equation for the moment). When they have more money to spend, that figure drops alarmingly and they only come good (I would estimate) 15% to 20% of the time.
Another fine mess
Quite why they fare so badly when given more money than usual has, hitherto, been a mystery; indeed, it is one that has taxed some of the finest minds ever to prop up a corner of the pub bar while talking complete bollocks in a very loud voice. In terms of insoluble problems, untying the Gordian Knot, unravelling the enigma of Russia's pre-war foreign policy and accounting for the apparent popularity of Jamie Oliver simply haven't been in it. The riddle of the Bargain Hunt £600 may be compared to trying to do a Sudoku in Base 8 while blind drunk and locked in a darkened airing cupboard. But now, after much research, a small sherry and an afternoon nap, I think I can reveal the answer - or answers. I will admit that what follows may not rise to Moneyball-like levels of statistical subtlety; and despite his recent articles covering such important subjects as the economics of home-made tomato ketchup and the efficacy of spray-on hair, I think it unlikely that Malcolm Gladwell will want to devote more than a couple of chapters to the topic in his next best-selling book - three at the absolute outside.
Still, there are some interesting inferences that can be drawn from the mystery of the fatal 'double-up day', and what follows may prove instructive to more people than the Red and Blue teams off the telly.
Essentially, the disparity between success with £300 and failure with £600 all comes down to knowledge, pricing and turnover, three trading variables that we have examined before.
In February 2012, we featured an article entitled 'Heartaches by the Number' that attempted to explain why it is so difficult to buy well at very small antiques fairs. We noted that such places usually feature part-time dealers or retired folk turning a hobby into a day out, where nobody urgently needs to make money to put bread on the table and so nobody worries about turnover. And when you aren't concerned about turnover, you can make your pieces as expensive as you like since they don't have to be priced to sell. We suggested that, while bargains are to be found at the big antiques fairs like Newark, Swinderby and Detling, church halls with a handful of stalls will usually provide you with nothing but big price tickets and old folk looking for a chat.
So assuming that there are bargains to be found at the big fairs (and there are) we need to drill down a little further and look at the difference between the general trader and the specialist dealer, both of whom will be found there.
General traders (often to be found outside in the cold rather than inside in the warm) have to turn their stock over quickly - they won't eat if they don't. They can't afford to let the stuff sit idle for any length of time and it starts to scare them if it hangs around for too long.
To many people 'cash is king' but to the general dealer 'cash flow is king' and most like to move their treasures on quickly. That means that whatever they are selling won't have been researched much, if at all, because there simply isn't time. Keep it on the books for three months while you go to the British Museum in the hope of making £200 profit, or sell it tomorrow for a guaranteed £20? Most general dealers will have it in the van and thence to the pasting table before you can say Faberg‚.
And if most of the general trader's stock hasn't been researched by him, the chances are that it won't have been researched by anybody. He has to sell his wares cheaply to keep his cash flow moving and that means that he must have bought it cheaply too, from boot fairs, mixed lots in general sales and house clearances. What comes out of the cardboard box is very often as much a mystery to the general trader as it is to the punters who examine his stock.
If he has a little knowledge of silver, he may not know anything about the rare Nantgarw sugar bowl that contained the six teaspoons, three napkin rings and pair of sugar nips when he bought the lot for £22 at the general Monday sale. Even though it is worth ten times the combined value of the metal ware it contained, he may put it on for a tenner. Or perhaps car mascots are his thing but not the rare road maps that came with them, so he can sell them cheap since they aren't 'what he does'.
Bargain Hunt teams - or you and me - can find good buys and make money from the general trader because there will be times when we know more than he does, when he's got something that doesn't sit well with the rest of his stock or when he just has to move it on quickly to pay for the MoT or free up cash for the three Doulton pots he really craves from the stall next door. None of that is likely to apply when dealing with a specialist dealer.
As the name implies, specialist dealers are so called because they only tend to deal in one type of object. And because they have a limited field - often their passion - they get to know it exceptionally well. The general trader may sell two dozen different types of object and can't know about them all; the specialist dealer only sells one and he can, if he chooses, learn everything there is to know about it. That means that bargains (while not impossible) are necessarily rare.
Specialist dealers don't generally buy job lots at auction. They will buy good single lots knowing that their mark-up will give them a healthy profit. They will always buy wholesale and sell retail and, unless they accidentally buy a real lemon, they won't sell at a loss. If what they are selling has a 'book price', as many multiples do, they will know it, as will the people you might hope to sell it on to.
When the Bargain Hunt teams have just £300 to spend, they tend to buy several small, inexpensive and unresearched items from the general dealer; when they have £600 to spend, they will often go 'upmarket' and buy from the specialist, who knows what he's got and prices it accordingly. That goes a long way to explaining why they so often fail and why, if you want good buys that will turn a profit, you should avoid their example.
Follow their lead and for all the good it will do you, you might just as well throw yourself off the end of a pier.