A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Antiques

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

Many people believe if it’s antique it must be expensive, but that just isn’t true. For new homeowners or anyone who wants to embark on a new look without catastrophic price tags — move over Ikea. There are more creative, personal, and unique ways to build an interior on a budget; one of the great ways to do that is with antiques.

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

Why Antiques?

Typically, antiques are considered to be at least one hundred years old. Original antiques, the first of their kind and style, are often quite pricey depending on where you find them, but old reproductions dating pre-1940s may look just as good, will still have excellent craftsmanship, and can be very affordable. Vintage items are in general at least 20 years old, and collectables can be either vintage or antique.

Wooden furniture, back in the day, was constructed by hand and made to last centuries. In America after the ‘40s, most everything was machine constructed, lacked dovetail joints, and in general, ended up on the scrap heap after a couple decades at most.

Old chairs and sofas in need of reupholstering are often much cheaper to acquire and recover compared to the cost of buying brand new pieces of very poor quality at the lowest prices possible from bargain basement stores. Basic pieces are easy enough to restore yourself with a little study and a bit of DIY skill. Fabrics can be bought for low prices at markets, as opposed to purchasing from an upholsterer’s sample books.

Beyond that, there is also the consumer trending taste to consider in the antique world. Types of wood and veneer, pottery styles, makers, etc., go in and out of fashion. If you buy when it isn’t popular, you can get a great deal.

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

Where to Hunt

The first rule in antiquing on a budget is to steer clear of main street shops with posh window displays. They might have rare Georgian silver for sale, but you certainly won’t be getting a good deal on it.

The best places to sniff around are market stalls, sales, auctions, fairs, flea markets, and antique stores that tend to pile their wares from floor to ceiling where price levels will be affordable. Not all shops are what they appear to be from the outside, so, when beginning, it may take a lot of popping in and out of many doors before you find just the right places. Once you’ve located good sources, there should be plenty of opportunity to dig up many gems with appealing price tags.

The key with collecting antiques is to have patience. Shop and stall keepers may have many new pieces coming in from week to week, so it usually pays to take your time with the selection process, and pay several return visits to your favorite spots.

The internet can also be a good place to find affordable antiques — Craigslist and Ebay, for instance. However, there are many potential pitfalls involved with buying on the internet, so some precautions are necessary. If photo quality is poor, you may want to move on. Antiques should be photographed well, including many detail shots, with thorough descriptions. There are many people out there trying to sell fakes, so make sure to research the item thoroughly yourself before making a purchase. Also consider shipping costs, or gasoline prices if you plan to do the transportation yourself.

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

What to Look For

For the beginning antiquer who craves to be more knowledgeable, there are various ways to gain some experience and know-how. One route is to talk to shop keepers and ask them about the pieces of interest which you find, how to tell how old something is, and what style an item is. Most sellers are antique lovers themselves, and will be happy to chat, so long as their store or stall is not too busy.

Another route is to grab a antique primer book or two, or choose some antique categories to research on the internet. YouTube has a wealth of videos about antiques, demonstrating how to investigate an item to determine its type and value. Last year I had not a single clue about WW2 field glasses, but after a day, three videos, and about 38 item listings on Ebay, I became an expert.

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

If you find something you absolutely love, give it a good, thorough inspection:

  • Look for reasonable and practical signs of wear and long-term usage, imagine what the piece would have been used for, where hands and feet would wear it down. These types of “damage” actually add value to antiques.
  • Check for dovetailing on drawer joints of furniture and patina on the wood — a wooden drawer with no dove tail joints is not old at all and poor quality construction. In general, the farther apart and larger the dove tails are, the older the piece is.
  • Search for cracks, unattractive discoloring, stains, broken pieces, chips, sticky drawers, handles that have been replaced, and lack of sturdiness. All these are flaws and a good reason to ask about lowering a price.
  • A piece may have signs of provenance (proof of origin, history, previous ownership). In general, this will add value to an antique. Look for hallmarks on silver and pottery and labels on furniture. Occasionally an original shipping address or maker’s location will be taped on or etched in the wood on the back of a piece of furniture.
  • Consider whether the piece needs restoration, or revamping. More valuable antiques could lose value if recovered. Personally, I wouldn’t re-stain or paint over a piece of furniture dating ‘30s or older, but newer, vintage items are perfect candidates.
  • It is very important when buying old furniture to make sure the structure is sound, otherwise restoration will raise costs considerably. A piece that needs new springs versus only fabric repair may stretch a budget too far as well.

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

Before You Buy

Don’t be afraid to get the best deal possible. A high-end antique dealer would likely raise an eyebrow or two over a price inquiry, but most other sellers will expect a seasoned buyer to haggle a little. Here are a few tips on how to unabashedly ask for a discount:

  • Buy more than one item at a time. One of the easiest ways to get prices down at the register is to bulk some items together and ask for a volume discount. Sometimes a seller will not be able to budge on the price of one item, but could lower the others.
  • Be polite, but don’t always feel defeated if at first the seller seems reluctant to give way at all. It is often acceptable to play a little poker.
  • If you don’t get the price down to where you want at first, try the “I’ll have to think about it” tactic and take a further stroll around the shop, or come back later.
  • For an item that is marked at $48, and you want to pay $38, try starting your negotiation at around $28 so you have room to work up. You can never go back and do the opposite! The seller might laugh at your offer, and give a price a only a few dollars lower than the original, but coming back with another offer closer to your ideal can often work.

One of the best ways to know if prices are good is to spend some time orientating at different shops, stalls, and events. Seeing similar items in various places will help you figure out price levels and determine where the best deals are to be had. If something isn’t antique, but rather vintage, compare the prices with newly-made items like at World Market, and decide which is the better buy for you.

Collecting antiques will probably take much longer than shopping for their modern counterparts, but the hunt is half the fun. It is extremely rewarding work, knowing you built an interior with unique, quality pieces for an equal or less amount of money than buying new, cheap junk. New furniture always loses value over time; antiques either retain their value, or increase it over time.

Antiques lend a home a warm feel and atmosphere which is also full of character, history, and gives a look totally, uniquely yours. What’s not to love about that?

Happy antiquing!

Photos are courtesy of the author.

Adding Life and Character to Your Home with Antiques: A Beginner’s Guide

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