Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Buying Vintage and Antique Furniture: An Antique Dealer's Guide

This is the first in a short series where we'll be showing you the pros and cons of buying vintage and antique furniture. We'll be sharing the dealer secrets of how to get the lowest price, where to buy from and, offering tips on what to avoid!  

In this first part we'll be focusing on buying directly from dealers and live antique auctions. 

1. Antique Shops

If you have no knowledge at all about antique or vintage furniture and want to invest your money in pieces that will hold their value or increase, then buying directly from a dealer is the safest bet. Antique shops will always be the most expensive option, but if the dealer is reputable, they will also be the safest. 

A dealer lives or dies on their reputation, selling pieces that are faulty or mis-described is counter productive. If you can chose a dealer who is well established. Survival says a great deal about their honesty and the quality of the pieces they sell. 

Any reputable dealer will be knowledgeable about their stock and usually specialise in a particular era or style. They should be able to tell you about the age of the piece, the materials it's made from and sometimes its provenance (that is - where it came from). 

Don't be afraid to haggle - some dealers will flatly refuse, others will be accommodating. If you are buying more than one item you can almost guarantee a discount. Make sure you ask about delivery fees as well, not all dealers run their own van and many will use costly couriers. You may find that your bill is far larger than you expected. Feel free to find your own man and a van, as long as he can fit in with the dealer and not try and collect outside of opening hours. 

One important thing to note about buying from shops is the difference between 'antique' and 'vintage'. Most people classify antique items as being over 100 years old. Traditionally an antiques shop will sell higher end pieces from the Georgian and Victorian eras. In recent years vintage has become seriously trendy and there are shops popping up all over the high street selling painted furniture. There are some great bargains to be had here, especially if you are queasy about painting pieces yourself. Just remember however, that most painted furniture is sold as a decorative item, unlike higher end pieces, they won't necessarily hold their value or in fact, have any inherent value. The trend for upcycling is really about saving unloved pieces that would otherwise go to furniture heaven. 

Be wary of sellers in these shops marking painted items as French, particularly if they are claiming it is the original paint. French vintage furniture is more desirable than its British equivalent and for that reason it has, and probably will always have, a greater inherent value. Pieces with original paint are extremely rare. Later in this series we will be showing you how to tell the difference between a real piece of french furniture and a British impostor

2. Antique Fairs

If you know your stuff antiques fairs can be a great place to pick up bargains, but beware, they are less regulated. Anyone can hire a stall and start selling antiques. As with antique shops ask lots of questions. Many reputable dealers do attend antique fairs and you should be able to tell the difference between the professional sellers and the less so. 

For vintage items, where the age and condition of the item is less important, fairs are great places. You can handle items in a way that would be frowned upon in a shop and best of all, haggling is expected, sometimes actively encouraged. 

The big draw back with fairs is that you as a consumer are not protected if you buy a faulty or mis-described piece. I recently attended an antiques fair where a stall was selling a pair of candle sconces which were labelled as being French C. 1850. They were marked at £185. I asked the dealer what her best price was. She firmly told me she couldn't move on the price and that £185 was actually cheap for what they were. She then proceeded to spin an elaborate story about how they had been found in a French chateau. As a dealer in French items I knew on sight that they weren't French. They were British piano sconces dating from no earlier than 1910 and worth about £30. You can pick them up on Ebay for even less. 

The moral is be VERY careful and don't always believe what you're told. If you have any hesitation don't buy, as you may never see that dealer at another fair again and getting your money back will be almost impossible. These dealers rely on passing trade not recommendations. Only buy pieces because you love them and want to live with them no matter what they are. 

3. Live Auctions

By far the best place to pick up antique bargains is at your local auction house. Auctioneers have a great knowledge of items and can provide dates and detailed condition reports. If you are unsure do talk to the auctioneer, live auctions are 'buyer beware' sales, if you bid on something that turns out to be broken you can't return it. Make sure you visit the auction preview and examine the item in as much detail as possible. 

Usually catalogues will include an estimate price, although bare in mind this is a guide only. If two people are determined to get one item the bidding can go sky high.  

The secret to succeeding at live auctions is to give yourself a maximum bid amount (remember the auctioneer will add a buyers premium as well, usually about 20%). Whatever you do DO NOT go above your set amount. Auctions move extremely fast and it's easy to lose track of whether you are the leading bidder. With the added adrenalin it's also very easy to get carried away and end up paying far more than you wanted to for an item. 

To get the lowest price possible steal some tips from the dealers. Usually the auctioneer will offer a starting bid. In a room full of dealers no one will take this first bid, in my experience it's a mistake private buyers always make. With no hands raised the auctioneer will go lower and lower until someone jumps in. This forces the starting price to be much lower giving you more scope to get the price you want. If the bidding starts high it will inevitably end high. 

As a dealer I would often withdraw from bidding early if I was up against a private buyer. In a regular auction room most dealers will know each other and have an idea of each others spending power. They will also have an unwritten code about not bidding on items that another dealer specialises in. When faced with private buyers the game changes as the dealer has no idea of that persons spending power. If you bid with confidence and a look of steely determination you can often deter them from staying in the game. Remember that dealers need to make a profit, they want to get items as cheaply as possible and many will set their maximum bid very low. This means that despite having less experience, you will have the upper hand. Just make sure you're bidding on the right lot! In my early days as a dealer I accidentally bought a nasty knackered bureau when I thought I was bidding on a fantastic Victorian compactum. The golden rule: pay attention, you can't turn the clock back once the hammer goes down!

NEXT TIME: The pros and cons of buying from online auction sites and how to tell the difference between a real piece of French furniture and a fake.  

The Author

Ali Stokes is the owner of the UK based online boutique Dazzle Vintage Furniture. The website specialises in selling authentic French furniture and accessories which have been imported from France.