Top 10 Things You Should Know About Antiquing

antique instruments
Finding just the right antiques can mean searching for months or getting lucky at a hidden flea market.
Š Mukherjee

Whether you're on a mission for something so specific it might take you years to find it, or you have that moment of shopping serendipity in an unexpected place, antiquing can be both a pursuit and a surprise. And for someone who loves antiquing, nothing is more satisfying than finding a $2 curio and a priceless piece of furniture in the same place on the same day. Of course, knowing how to ask for what you like and paying the price you want to pay can make it even better. We've narrowed down the 10 things you should know about antiquing so you can end up getting those priceless treasures you want -- every time.


10. Old School

There are some basic names for the old stuff we buy. If you're a fan of vintage items, that means you like things that are typically less than 100 years old, but identifiable by their decade or period style, like a vintage car. Collectibles, on the other hand, are sets of like items from the same period or maker -- think collectible toys. Classics are archetypes of good design from a specific era or of a specific use. A leather riding boot, for example, is a classic.

And sometimes neat items such as farming or kitchen implements of mysterious origin are not valuables or antiques, but they're just plain old and interesting nonetheless.


9. Age is Good

antique doll
For an item to be considered truly antique, it's generally at least 100 years old.

Antiques have a history of about 100 years -- they can be older or newer, but generally the century-old mark makes something an antique. Most items that have been around that long are documented or cataloged by type and carry value estimates based on condition. Markings from the maker or manufacturer, or just evidence of quality craftsmanship, can authenticate something.

Books, Web sites and local experts have knowledge of history and values. Once familiar with a period or style, spotting a fake among the authentic becomes almost second nature -- and a fun bit of sleuthing for buyers.


8. Valuable (or Value "Bull")?

While the condition of antiques impacts the values, good looking junk is still junk. If an item is valuable or authentic and well-preserved, it will show in both quality and details. Its history will be on display. If it looks great but has tags or a selling pitch including "in the style of," "influenced by" or "of the same period," it likely is a knockoff. Solid replicas are out there, but if you're looking for true antiques, ask for information about provenance.


7. Haggle Friendly

Haggling on prices is all part of the antiquing experience.

While retail stores have percentage formulas for marking up products, that isn't typical of antiques sellers. Condition and comparison against like items determine pricing in the antiques or collecting world.

Sellers have marked up prices for haggling and most expect it. Many even enjoy it as a friendly, fun way to talk about what they love. Haggling over something of value that seems overpriced to you is not a sign that you're "cheap." It's part of the antiquing experience to see how low you can get the dealer to go.


6. Flea Markets vs. Antiques Boutiques

Sometimes it pays off to shop at the more elite antiques stores; sometimes the second-hand stores are the goldmines.
Š Charlton

Spending a day, or even a long-weekend road trip, browsing popular flea markets and swap meets is often more about the experience than the "finds." That's because the most popular places frequently have some of the highest mark-ups in the business, as well as the most picked-over stock. Of course that's not to say you won't find a priceless relic at the county thrift store. But if you're looking for something particularly high-end and specific, and happen to be short on time, shopping at antiques specialists might be a better bet. Of course, researching where to go and what to spend beforehand is always worth the time.


5. Appraise the Appraiser

Good word of mouth, online presence and street level appeal draw us to great antiques shops, but the proprietor completes the antiquing experience. Even if a shop is clean and beautiful, low-quality items and pushy or condescending sellers can dampen the shopping itself. With countless stores -- some cluttered and dusty yet full of the best goods -- it isn't hard to find an enthusiastic dealer with amazing stock. What and how they sell can matter more than where they're selling. A willingness to provide detailed appraisals and original receipts (paper pedigrees of sorts) also says a lot about the deals and the dealer.

Online Antiquing

The Federal Trade Commission offers the following tips for buying antiques online:


  • Ask for detailed photos of items before buying.
  • Get a shipping method and cost quote.
  • See if you can return an item if it doesn't meet your approval upon receipt.
  • Use an escrow service, where payment is delayed until you receive and review the order.
  • Get everything in writing.

4. Le Shop Talk

Being a good listener sets a smart position for haggling. Learn the antiquing lingo -- but don't necessarily use it. Before detailing what you know about the history and condition of pieces you like, let the seller do some selling and reveal how the items made it to the floor. Knowing your stuff but letting the expert flaunt his or her knowledge makes for better bargaining, and you can talk about your love of antiques as peers after making the deal. On the other hand, if someone is trying to gouge you with high pricing, take 'em to school!


3. Artful?

Deciding how much you want to spend before heading out keeps the extravagance in control. If you find something you like, try taking another circle around and ask yourself whether you'll still be thinking about the piece in a week or two, or if you may like something else more. It's one way to weed out expensive impulse buys.

Art and design can grab us when they connect with our lifestyle and taste, but immersion in antiquing overwhelms our loves with lots of "likes." And if you simply can't let go of that prized piece you saw, go back and get it.


2. Useful?

tea cup
A set of antique china can get a lot of use, making it a smart investment.

Are you shopping for something useful or just artful when you antique? If you're shopping with the intent of using something, whether it's a tea set or a chair, see if the items are made well enough to be used everyday, or they could end up as another "beautiful-but-useless" piece in your home. Do you want more decor items and possible clutter, or utility with good looks? Not all well-designed items need to be functional, of course, but vintage and antique pieces that are well-crafted can be as practical today as when they were made.


1. Adore It?

Some of the most non-traditional pieces are the ones we love the most. Buying what you adore, even if it's of no "value," is still an investment, especially if it has a story or mystery that will grow with you and your family. Paying a high price for something that's worth it to you in beauty and longevity is definitely an investment.

And if an original of something you love is out of your budget, sometimes copies are of high quality themselves and pay homage to the original designers. Quirky and even glaring flaws can endear us to something, which is what antiquing is really about anyway.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Antiquing for the Ages: The Search for Hidden Treasures: Year in Review 2001." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 2010. (Oct. 13, 2010)
  • Federal Trade Commission. "Consumer Alert: Antiques: How to Shop Wisely." April 2008. (Oct. 21, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster. "antique." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. 1999.
  • Merriam-Webster. "vintage." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. 1999.
  • PBS. "Antiques Roadshow: Glossary." PBS Online. 2010. (Oct. 19, 2010)