Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - MARCH 2018

Succession planning for collectors and dealers

Some of the most famous businesses in the production of items that today are considered vintage to antique were done in by a failure in adequate succession planning. Succession preparation requires active and ongoing grooming of younger generations for company leadership while older generations are still healthy enough to mentor that growth.

This Lalique crystal toad was gaveled down at an online Matthew Wroda auction on Jan. 6, 2018 for $180 (a bargain price as the model, still being produced, retails for several hundred more than that!). A family-owned business founded in France in1885, Lalique has an enthusiastic fan base today. But absent a concerted effort to cultivate that interest among younger people now, will there be future collectors with that same passion?

This, of course, is easier said than done. If you're a business owner in your 50s or 60s, healthy and fulfilled in your work, it's mighty hard to start teaching someone else how to do your job, even if it's another family member. But if you want your business to survive and thrive, that's exactly what you need to do. Current leadership has to give younger family members (or other successors) skin in the game, and this has to begin when the younger family members are in their 20s and 30s, not when you're on your last leg and they're already in their 40s.

Succession planning isn't just a challenge for family-owned businesses, though. This challenge affects a broad range of organizations and social activities, not just in terms of leadership, but also as regards membership. I work part-time for an organization devoted to the sport of snowmobiling, and one of the challenges the organization faces is the aging of its members. As an aging American myself, I've been heartened, on one hand, to witness the number of people in their 70s and (yes!) 80s who are still actively snowmobiling. But it's clear the organization needs a lot more members in their 20s and 30s to keep the organization and the activity vibrant. And it will need a serious plan for recruiting, retaining, and grooming these younger members.

A version of the succession issue also affects collectors. Aging collector clubs have been struggling for years with the question of "What comes after our generation of club membership." Aging collectors wonder what they'll do with their collections when they discover younger members of their family aren't interested.

Still, judging from the collector clubs to which I belong or have belonged, we are much better at identifying the problem than we are at making and implementing practical plans to deal with it. Younger collectors are not going to find us by accident; we have to foster new members by identifying those with potential interest and then actively and continuously grooming them to serve as the successor generations to those running the clubs today.

This, though, is a harder sell for collector club members than it is for family businesses, where blood and kinship ties provide their own incentive. Most members of collector clubs are members because of what the club can do for them, not what they can do for the club. Those who are ready to serve as an investment in the future of collecting are in a minority, especially when many current club members are already in their 70s or older with limited energies. We should have tackled this problem years ago, and the window of opportunity for doing so is getting narrower with each passing year.

The antiques and collectibles trade has a big stake in the success of this collector succession issue because, while the trade's buyer constituencies include other dealers, home designers, and casual and impulse buyers, collectors account for a significant share of the trade's consumer base. Yes, there have always been collectors. But there have never been so many recreational distractions, and collecting has never had more competition for eyeballs, than in this electronic age when people spend more time glued to various digital screens than they do interacting with the physical world.

For dealers, there's a double challenge: cultivating relationships not only with younger consumers but also with younger dealers. I'd be willing to bet that few of us know any dealers at all in their 20s and 30s. We'd best be about figuring out how to get there from here.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at