Ten Tips You Should Know
Refining the process of buying antiques into 10 steps is like trying to tell someone how to climb a mountain in 10 steps when you don't know if you're dealing with a local hill in clear weather or Mt. Everest during a raging storm.
Your neighbourhood flea market is a bit like your local hill while the fury of a storming Mt. Everest is something like a major auction house when a multimillion-dollar piece hits the floor and bids rise to seven figures with rapid bidding and escalating emotions.
Still, with the understanding that you can always learn something about antiques, there are effective measures you can take when purchasing pieces. Here are my 'must-apply' 10 steps on how to buy antiques:
1. Do not buy anything the first year.
What you buy at the beginning of the year would not even resemble what you purchase at the end of that year. Over the course of the year, look, ask questions and learn. Your eye will become more trained in everything from line and proportion to patina and construction. You will be a more sophisticated buyer and make a much smarter choice at the end of the first year of your education on what to or not to buy.
2. Learn why something is valuable.
While every good dealer and auction house will stand behind the things they sell, you should learn about authenticity because it can help you know what makes a piece "period" and why the object is valuable. Take the time to learn and enjoy the process. If you make smart decisions, you will make smart investments.
3. Ask questions.
Do not be intimidated. If you do not ask, you will not learn. Good dealers love to teach about pieces because then you will recognize why one object is mediocre and one is great; this helps you to understand price structures and value. Know that smart dealers recognize smart buyers. Your knowledge will help you obtain a quality piece at a fair price. And if you find something priced too good to be true, it probably is. By the time you see that object, dozens of dealers and collectors have already turned it down.
4. Go to the best dealers.
Don't worry if you can't afford a single item at the top dealer. The best antique shops will have the best examples of merchandise with the best teachers to help you understand why an object is great. If you only expose yourself to mediocre material in any medium, you will only understand mediocrity, never superior material. Always push yourself up in the market, not down.
5. Go to museums.
Go to museums and pay attention-reading the descriptions, taking the tour, and asking questions. Don't float through thinking about the laundry you forgot to wash or the grocery you were supposed to buy on your way home. Just lose yourself for a little while and take it in. You don't need to spend the day - just an hour or two every now and then will do. Your eye will see the best of the best examples. If you read the descriptions, your brain will understand why these are the best. And slowly, you will begin to distinguish a really great object from a mediocre one just from sight and exposure.
Read books, magazines, museum catalogs, auction catalogs, descriptions in shops. Read it all. Soon you will recognize who actually knows something and who just gets paid to write. Then read information only from those who know something and you, too, will begin to learn. One of the best books written about furniture is "The New Fine Points of Furniture" by Albert Sack. Sack uses photographs and text to illustrate the differences in quality, which include comparisons of good, better, best, superior and masterpiece. You will learn about line, proportion and carving even if you are not particularly interested in furniture details.
7. Decide your tactics.
You must make decisions as you embark on this endeavor. Will you collect quality antiques that will appreciate in value? Or are you going to decorate first and buy things that appear to be antique? It is fine to decorate in an "antique manner," if that is your priority. Just don't fool yourself on the availability, quality and value of the pieces you are buying.
8. Decide how to spend your money.
You either buy one really great investment-level period piece per year knowing that it will appreciate consistently or you buy several mediocre pieces knowing that over the course of several generations they will appreciate somewhat. Keep in mind you can always upgrade as your means increase. However, there is nothing wrong with buying altered or out-of-period pieces as long as you don't think you are making phenomenal investments. Do not expect the same appreciation rate for altered or out-of-period material that you expect for period, authentic material. It will never happen.
9. Get a written bill of sale.
You should get the bill of sale in writing for many reasons. It is a legal transaction, and you should have a record. Keep a written description for your records. Where, when and from whom the piece was purchased is valuable to know. Ask the dealer to offer you some sort of means to help you sell the piece. While some pieces appreciate so that a dealer can't afford to buy the piece outright from you again, a dealer can help you sell it privately or via consignment. In any form, this assistance tells you that the dealer believes in the item's integrity and value.
10. Learn to care for what you have.
Condition is one of the important factors as a piece ages. Not only do you want pieces that are unaltered, you want pieces that have been well preserved. Many sources, such as books, dealers and museums, can give you information on learning to care for your antiques. Always have artwork "museum mounted" with acid-free paper, and never use any spray substance on antique furniture. A dry cloth or lamb's wool duster is most suitable for cleaning most antiques so as to maintain their natural shine.
First published in the Masterpiece Magazine Nov-Dec issue