Tuesday, 13 May 2008

An object must be more than just old in order to be called an antique. It must also be distinguished by some degree of aesthetic and/or historical importance. To develop an eye for antiquing, we talked to appraisers and sellers to learn about what to look for and what to avoid.


The Basics

  • What exactly is an antique? Opinions differ from country to country. A US import tariff defines them as objects more than 100 years old at the time of entry. More than 50 countries now have similar regulations. In addition to age, other factors that make something an antique include:

    • Rarity generally adds value. Something is rare if there were few made originally, or few surviving to present day.

    • Condition obviously denotes value. Typically, more damage = lower value. However, the rarer the piece, the more acceptable the imperfections. If something broken is fixable, weigh the cost of repair against the value of an unbroken one to see if it’s worth it. Also be careful because restoration or refinishing can decrease the value in some cases.

    • The value formula is age + quality + rarity + condition. If an antique is rare and many people want it, the value goes up (basic supply and demand). Make sure you comparison shop.

    • Classification refers to country of origin and date made. Various periods of classification are typically derived from the reigning monarch of the time and place they were made. E.g. Queen Anna, Georgian, Regency, Victorian (all English), or Napoleonic (French). Sometimes the leading craftsman or designer of the period lends a name to classification (e.g. Chippendale, Heppelwhite, Sheraton).

  • Being able to spot fakes or copies is extremely important:

    • Some are acknowledged copies or reproductions, while others can be outright frauds.

    • Most copies and reproductions are recent manufactures, though some old ones can be considered antiques themselves (though still not as valuable as the original).

    • If you’re not sure something is a copy or not, look around at a few stores. If the same item appears in many places, it’s likely a copy.

    • A fake or fraud is made with the specific intent to deceive. Be wary of labels (e.g. on furniture) as they may indicate a fake.

  • There are a variety of antique items to consider:

    • Ceramics, usually subdivided into pottery and porcelain/china, mainly come from the Orient, the Continent, or England. Collectors look for ware, glaze ornamentation, form, maker, country/region of origin, and manufacture date.

    • Furniture collecting can be competitive, and also tends to have the most fakes. Much English and American furniture is similar, but they use different period names and dates.

    • Glass dishes, glasses, tumblers, decanters and bowls are the most commonly collected. Since glass is so fragile, many early pieces are extremely rare.

    • Metalwork includes brass, pewter, iron, some alloys, and silver, which is the most valued. Collectors seek fine workmanship, good design and condition, and some degree of documentation. Hallmarks tell when, where, and who made the piece. Examine silver carefully for repairs or restoration.

Where to Buy

  • The time and place you buy antiques can affect the price you pay.

    • Antique shops give you time to browse and relax. There are many specialized shops that carry on a few different types. Shops are an easy place to start learning about antiques, but don’t expect to get a deal at a shop in a high-rent district. Haggling is acceptable, however, and somewhat expected. Always ask questions because dealers can be a great source of info and have reference books on hand. Some dealers let you take things home “on approval”, and some may look for items specifically for you.

    • Antique malls are a collection of mini-shops or stands that carry a lot of items that may not necessarily be antiques, but are collectibles. These are good for browsing leisurely.

    • Antique shows are where dealers rent booths and display wares. Collectors like shows because it’s easy to see items from many dealers displayed all at the same place.

    • Auctions are exciting and overwhelming. Remember when bidding that there is usually a 10-15% auctioneer's fee on top of your purchase price. Items are usually sold “as is” so be sure to attend the viewing event before the auction since all sales are final.

    • Estate sales were once just family-run sales to liquidate furnishings and items from deceased loved ones, but now they’re often run by professionals. They are still a great place to find deals, but you have to be ready to make up your mind on the spot, and again, all sales are final.

    • Flea markets have a lot of variety and turn-over, but you have to have the patience to dig through mounds of stuff, much of which can be junky. Get there early if you want to make a great find. Try to zero in on new sellers rather than those who are there every week. New sellers are likely to have the treasures from the attic. There may also be better deals toward the end of the day, if there’s anything good left. Ask for a discount if you’re buying multiple items.

    • Yard/Garage sales are typically weekend events. Plan your route by checking the newspaper Thursday or Friday. Get up and go early for the best finds, and bring cash. If you have to arrange for transportation of a larger item like a dresser or couch, take a drawer or pillow with you so you’ll be guaranteed it won’t be resold when you return.

  • No matter where you’re shopping, keep these buying tips in mind:

    • Examine the piece thoroughly (inside, outside, upside down) before you buy.

    • Some shops can be very dark, so it doesn’t hurt to take along a flashlight.

    • When examining antiques, think quality.

    • If you want time to think or to do some extra research, ask a dealer to put it on hold for 24 hours. You may have to leave a deposit.

    • Price tags should reveal more than price. They can be real clue as to how much a dealer knows about a piece. If the description is as sparse as “old chair”, you may know as much about it as the dealer.

    • Make sure the dealer writes down a complete description of the item the on sales receipt.

    • Reputable dealers will accept returns on an item if it turns out to be something other than what it was stated to be.

    • If the dealer says there are no returns at all, be wary.

    • The ultimate tool you can take shopping is knowledge. Keep learning.

    • When looking for particular items, find out specific characteristics and traits to look for to determine quality and authenticity.

Other Considerations

  • Once you’ve started your collection, don’t forget to include these items on your house insurance. Be sure to get the pieces appraised to find out their full value.

  • Antiques are considered assets and may need to be included in prenuptial agreements or divorce settlements.


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