Vintage Clothing and the Pricing Mystery

by Ellen Flanz, Bozeman Mont on April 5, 2011

Vintage Clothing and Pricing Transparency

vintage clothing pricing transparency

one-of-a-kind 1960s Rossignol Woodstock ski pants

In the growing market of vintage clothing, where the most highly sought items can command prices in the five- and six-figures, it’s not unexpected that the sellers and buyers of such pieces increasingly view them as works of art. As with fine art, vintage clothing and textiles can experience significant appreciation in value over the years. That development appears to be sending a healthy number of vintage clothing dealers down a road that ultimately led to a more vigilant oversight of the fine art market.

In 1971, New York City enacted the Truth-In-Pricing Law to regulate both the categories of retail merchants required to publicly post prices of merchandise for sale and the manner in which those prices must be displayed. With no small amount of fanfare, seventeen years later the City conducted a sweep of art galleries to force compliance within an industry long known particularly for overlooking this requirement. On the first of its two-day sweep, eight of the randomly visited galleries, including Galerie St. Etienne, were cited for having no price list, while others were issued warnings for failing to have prices conspicuously available.

2009 brought the addition of a fashion category to 1stdibs.com, the online retail venue of antiques and fine jewelry merchants (full disclosure: this author is a vintage fashion dealer on 1stdibs). Acting as a conduit, 1stdibs plays the role of virtual matchmaker between buyers and sellers, but only plays a part in sales transactions when requested (and paid for) by the buyer. Ostensibly begun to provide an online retail option for sellers who lacked such a presence (Paris flea market vendors), it has now expanded well past that initial raison d’être to showcase “the most beautiful things on earth”. Sellers have the option to post a price, field offers from buyers, or have buyers contact them by email or phone to learn the price.

Of the vintage clothing sellers, more than half offer items for which the interested buyer must contact the seller to discover the price. The rationale for such non-disclosure is not readily apparent in some cases. A number of dealers with brick-and-mortar businesses do not post prices within their 1stdibs storefronts for items that are otherwise public. Of the sellers contacted for information on their pricing policies and how a potential buyer can find out the prices, none were available or willing to comment at this writing.

vintage clothing pricing transparency

vintage pricing - caveat emptor

The pricing shroud confounds one 1stdibs fashion dealer. Ricky Serbin, a member of the invitation-only Council of Fashion Designers of America, asks, “What’s the big mystery?” Serbin’s offerings have stated prices, a practice he intends to continue. In addition to his offerings on 1stdibs, Serbin sells through eBay, where his clientele has included the Metropolitan Museum of Art – an institution that has shed an earlier unwillingness to acknowledge acquisitions made on eBay and online.

“Disclosed pricing breaks down the most important initial barrier between a buyer and a seller,” according to Lewis Baer, the managing principal of Newell LLC, the New York City antiques store begun by his grandfather in 1939. Baer is a vocal proponent for change in the antiques market, consistently advocating for the rights of the consumer in the face of growing collusion by what he terms the “duopoly” of Sotheby’s/Christie’s – both houses having been convicted in 2001 for price fixing of sellers’ fees. The list of stranglehold techniques he attributes to the pair, including an ever-increasing buyers’ premium, circumvent the regulations which violations of landed them in the legal bind. Many of the actions Baer would like to see ended are made within the context of private sales by the auction houses of items in which the houses frequently have an ownership interest.

Can buyers assess the market if the market is being hidden, and can a public kept in the dark be counted on as potential clients? The deference to buyers’ anonymity and privacy – one seller’s explanation for not posting prices on 1stdibs – is a long tradition in the arts and antiques trades. Yet prices commanded, whether at auction, or in recent years anticipated by galleries, are publicly available. Making the leap from honoring buyers’ requests to remain unidentified necessitating the hiding of prices in public venues, or insisting that the buyers identify themselves in order for the sellers to reveal their purchase price, seems a risky jump.

The potential customer of vintage clothing may ultimately determine the tenability of non-disclosure of sale prices on merchandise introduced through a public venue. Should this dubious trend become the status quo, the mysterious motivations behind hidden pricing may yet become more transparent to the buyer of vintage clothing – a buyer who will find that not all sellers wish them to remain in the dark.

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