Cognitive Dissonance: When Losing Money is a Good Thing?
inOctober 5, 2012 - 7:10am
“I had a great day,” I tell my wife. “I grossed three hundred and fifty dollars at the flea market,” adding, “lost money on everything.” Sound familiar?
I have been restoring and selling antique lighting for over thirty-five years and have accumulated a basement filled with stuff. Like many dealers, I have bits and pieces by the hundreds. All of these items hang around like bar buddies because they might find a purpose, need a repair, are missing a part, bought because it was cheap, was in with some other stuff, have no idea where it came from, removed from something larger, big mistake in the first place, went to Brimfield ten times, passed on eBay ten times, couldn’t get back what I paid. All those things we buy, never get sold, and become the albatross in the basement. The worst part is that we remember what we paid for a lot of it. A little selective amnesia would be useful but unfortunately, we remember. Therefore, when something occurs, such as losing a lease or approaching retirement, which necessitates the disposal of this material, we must face the dissident music of our acquisitiveness.
I would like to retire in a few years. Yes, I know, antique dealers never really retire. We downsize and disposing of all, well most, at least half, a good portion of that accumulated dreck must occur.
As a friend told me once about my closets, “If you haven’t worn it or looked at it in ten years get rid of it.” Therefore, loaded with twenty boxes and an uncertainty that I would sell anything, I headed to the local flea market. For many years, I have been a buyer only at this flea market. Now standing on the opposite side of the table, I was prepared to accept the jeers from my fellow dealers who know me as a retailer. “Slumming” was the most common accusation. I was, however, determined, and start throwing out one and two dollar quotes like Marti Gras beads. The stuff starts to disappear. I return home having sold over three quarters of what I brought and clutching over three hundred dollars in mostly one-dollar bills.
I could remember the purchase price of some I sold and all of those I let go for half or less than half of that. Every dealer has done this and we all have different ways of putting a positive spin on the practice. We cleared some space in the basement, we recouped some capital, we don’t have to move it now, we’ll make up the loss on something else. May be we remember the impulse that brought us to purchase this loser and vow to never succumb again.
And of course, there are the bragging rights. The antiques business is the only business in which to brag about losing money carries just as much weight as to brag about making a huge profit. Famously, years ago I remember overhearing a dealer telling someone that, “You could live off my losses.”
Cognitive dissonance is the emotional conflict that comes with holding two mutually contradictory ideas at once.
Let me give you an example. That day at the flea market, I sold a bronze statue for thirty dollars. I had paid a hundred and fifty dollars for it about six years ago. When I inspected it more closely, I discovered that it was very poorly sculpted and cast, possibly a test casting from foundry. After several attempts to sell it for a profit it wound up in the basement. The feeling I got from selling that statue at a large loss was like removing a splinter. Relief with a little pain. There was also some wry satisfaction that now it was someone else’s problem. These feelings did not last long. A friend came up and asked what I got for the white metal statue. He had that look dealers get when they miss something and ask this question, disappointment mixed with hope. Hope that you will tell them you sold it for more than they could afford. I knew this conversation was going to go badly for us both. His face fell inches when I told him it was bronze and I thought he would faint when I told him I sold it for fifty dollars (fifty my original quote I’d taken thirty when offered). Desperate not to look like an idiot, I vigorously ran the piece down describing everything that was wrong with it until I looked like an idiot for having bought it. All the while, I am realizing that I could have sold it to him for a much smaller loss.
As dealers, we occasionally sell things for less than we paid. Regardless of what we tell others or ourselves, it never feels good. Every time we sell something for a loss, it is a failure. It may be a necessary failure a bit of “creative destruction” but it is an indication of some misjudgment on our parts. And that is cognitive dissonance.
Written by Chris Osborne
City Lights on Ruby Lane