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Enjoying Old Age

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It seems like everything is being labeled an antique these days. Heck, the first cellular telephone is considered an antique by some.

Still, there was a period in the 1990s when it became fashionable to stock up on furniture from decades past while decorating a house. China hutches, apothecary tables, and dressers became highly sought-after items at antique stores and flea markets.

An appreciation for fine craftsmanship and unique designs won over those folks who’d lived through the mass-reproduction of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when new was in. It didn’t hurt that Antiques Roadshow had everyone rummaging through their attics looking for treasures from eras gone by. Figurines, clothing, paintings; everything was up for appraisal. To this day, people love antique furniture, knick-knacks, and works of art.

There are avid collectors and then there are the people who just look for a few items to dress up a living room or home library. Most people fall into the latter category. After all, it’s tough to know what to look for in a collectable, and it can be expensive.

There are things to look out for and things to do if you’re planning on taking a trip to an antique store in the near future.

1. Make sure you’re shopping from a reputable dealer. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it’s important to ask any dealer or store owner a few things to ensure you’re happy with your purchase. Ask them about their professional experience; if they specialize in any certain items; if they belong to any professional dealer or appraiser organizations; and, if you’ve found a piece you like, find out how the dealer came to determine it was genuine and how they set the price. And unless you have a dealer you’ve used for years, it’s not a bad idea to get a guarantee of authenticity in writing. If they’re not willing to give you a written guarantee, that doesn’t mean you should walk away...just make sure the price is reflective of that fact. After all, paying top dollar for something that the dealer claims is an antique without a guarantee is foolhardy. Most importantly, you should find out if they have a return policy for certain items.

2. Know what you’re buying. There are a lot of people who claim to sell antiques, but the FTC warns consumers that, by law, an antique is an item that is over 100 years old! Also, for an item to be considered a vintage collectable it has to be at least 50 years old. So make sure you’re not being overcharged for something that is simply a “collectable.” Be on the lookout for reproductions, too. Many designers can model new furniture in styles from past centuries and you’d be surprised how many people are mislead.

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3. Buy a price guide. If you’re looking to become a serious antiques collector, or plan on furnishing your whole house with antiques or vintage items, make sure you’re aware of any technical information out there. Many guides are specific to types of antiques and include references, short descriptions, photos, and even brief histories—information that can help you ensure you’re aware of what authentic items look like. Price guides also have average retail values for these items. Unfortunately, these guides don’t take into account region and demand. If you live in an area where antique china hutches are all the rage, expect to pay more than what’s listed in the guide.

4. It may seem like a no-brainer, but condition is relative to price. If you’re going to be purchasing a large buffet or dresser, check every nook and cranny, open every drawer, inspect every latch and joint. Look for possible patch jobs or repairs. If you notice an area that looks as though it was repaired, find out what the dealer knows. The price should reflect the condition of the piece, so if there are lots of scratches or dings on an old wooden coffee table, ask the dealer how he came to the price that’s listed.

5. Finally, there is a right way and a wrong way to haggle. You don’t want to offend the seller and risk not getting them to accept a lower offer. Most people in the antiques business suggest you first ask the dealer if their price is firm (rather than asking if they will take less money or stating what you will give them).

So, those are a few tips to consider when venturing out to a flea market or antiques mall. Just remember, buy what you like and what you’ll use—don’t look for “treasures” to flip. That can lead to disappointment and a good story for the appraisers on Antiques Roadshow.

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Article appeared in our 28-5 Issue - December 2011