Five Things Antiques Dealers Want You to Know




August is high season for antiquing in many places around the country, so we offer here a few thoughts to keep in mind as you head out to shows, markets and auctions.

1. Buy the better one

We often hear dealers and seasoned collectors advising new collectors to “buy the best that you can afford.” Our advice is similar, although focused more on wisdom to keep in mind when you have a choice between two similar pieces.

The hard reality of material life is that most of the time you do indeed get what you pay for, so the better one will cost more. As long as you can afford the higher price, accepting the brief pain of paying it will make you happier in the long run. This lesson is summed up nicely in a quotation we came across on “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

We learned this lesson a long time ago when we sold a hickory chair that was an appealing and uncommon form in weak condition for a fraction of what that style’s value sells for in good condition. Two years later we saw the customer again after the seat weaving had fallen through, and all she remembered was purchasing the chair from us rather than our warnings at the time about why the initial price was so low.

There are plenty of relatively inexpensive antiques that are well worth owning and enjoying, and antiques in age-worn condition are enthusiastically and wisely bought and sold every day. Your standards should depend on how, where, why and for what purpose you will use an antique. But if you have a curatorial instinct and have the chance to be selective within the category you’re pursuing, or to upgrade as better pieces become available, then you will ultimately be more satisfied with your collection for having chosen the better one more often than not.

2. Know the difference between expensive and overpriced

Each year we exhibit at a summer antiques show in New Hampshire during a week when there are several high-end shows running back-to-back. We often hear exclamations along the lines of “Things are so expensive!” from shoppers chatting about the various shows. I usually try to tease out whether they mean things are expensive because they are high quality, or expensive because they are overpriced.

It is natural when seeing dealers’ best wares in booth after booth to feel a bit of sticker shock. But being on your toes as a shopper means keeping in mind that an antique with a high price tag could be a fair deal, or even a great deal. Something tagged $10,000 might actually be a bargain if similar forms typically do or will sell for $20,000. So how can you judge if a price is a fair retail value? See our next piece of advice.

3. Rely on dealers to help you learn

People who are naturally cautious buyers can be reluctant to engage in discussion about a piece with the person who is selling it. Yet it does not take long to recognize the difference between an empty sales pitch and deep knowledge on the part of the seller. More often than not, antiques dealers are thrilled to answer your questions, whether about the piece itself or about its price structure. Most dealers want people to feel good about their purchase and come back for more, so it makes solid business sense to share as much knowledge as possible. We have seen customers’ interests and collections grow and become more refined the more they have tapped into our expertise over the years, and that is very satisfying for all involved.

4. Be savvy about auctions

Thousands of antiques hit the auction block every day, and the internet makes it easy to see more than is possible to absorb. The sheer volume of antiques available at auction is one of their chief advantages. Some of the disadvantages however, are that descriptions and dates are often scanty, and there are no guarantees that any of the information is accurate. And of course there is the buyer’s premium, which is now 25% at some auction houses

Some people prefer to buy at auction because they feel confident about the price they’re paying since another buyer has bid to a similar level against them. But what they might not realize is that unless an auction is advertised as “unreserved,” participants are often bidding against a reserve set by the consigner of the piece, who is sometimes a dealer or collector. Being the only person bidding against a reserve (which is executed as bids by the auctioneer) is not so different from walking into a booth at an antiques show and buying the antique at the price set by the dealer. Also, when two determined bidders go head-to-head for a piece, its price can soar well beyond what a knowledgeable dealer would have asked for it.

Finally, people thinking about selling their own antiques at auction should keep in mind that they will be paying not only a commission to the auctioneer, but also in essence, the buyer’s premium. This is because bidders will stop bidding at a percentage less than they value it, which is equal to the amount they have to pay to the auctioneer as a premium.

5. Go for the green – environmentally and monetarily

With opportunities to buy new merchandise bombarding us nearly every second of our waking hours (especially when online), it is easy to be apathetic about seizing the moment to buy an antique by thinking that you can always find something similar later. While it is true that reproductions and interesting contemporary designs (of furniture for instance) abound in the marketplace, buying old rather than new whenever possible is the best choice for forward-thinking people for two main reasons.

The first is that antiques are the ultimate low-impact recyclables – they have been recycled in the past and most likely (especially if you adhere to piece-of-advice #1) will be recycled/reused in the future. The statement that “antiques are green” is not just a feel-good marketing slogan, but an increasingly important consideration as we change modes of consumption to reduce our environmental impact.

The second is that antiques continue to have monetary value even after you use or enjoy them, which seldom can be said for new merchandise. Even if you purchase a recently manufactured high-end designer sofa, you will struggle to resell it for anywhere near the price that you paid for it. Happily, that is not so with antiques. Unless a piece gets broken or battered while you own it, you can usually recoup your investment plus or minus a bit, depending on a variety of circumstances.


Since you are reading this article, it is more than likely that you’re already a dedicated buyer of antiques. Nevertheless, we hope that these things are worth remembering as you encounter and fall in love with pieces from the past while on antiquing excursions this and every month.