How to shop smart for antiques

Before you rush to your local antiques shop, make sure you've checked this list

Whether you're buying antiques for investment or to furnish your home, Mark Hill shares his expert tips built up over 20 years in the antiques business. 

Antiques can be baffling. Their prices can rise and fall according to the vagaries of fashion. Certain wear can make a pot charming and tell the story of its journey, while a different set of flaws might completely devalue the very same piece. Although many of us are happy to buy what we fall for at a price that we feel is reasonable, there is, of course, much value to be had in learning to shop smart for antiques.


A few key things to consider before parting with your hard-earned money

1 Let the object speak to you

My father is a retired Formula One engineer and always taught me that in order to understand an object, you have to understand how it was made and what it was made from. A good example is the level of carving on furniture, or amount of well-painted detail on Victorian ceramics. 

2 Look at what later generations of collectors may grow up to collect

If you’re buying for the future. Remember that nostalgia is a key driver. Much as it may anger traditionalists, popular culture rules here. So a science fiction or fantasy subject will often be more of a draw than something related to cowboys or more traditional porcelains. Also bear in mind long-standing franchises in popular culture – Star Wars has attracted fans since 1977, meaning anyone from five to 55 could be a collector.

3 Look for wear in places where it should be expected 

For example, consider how a child plays with a teddy bear, or where an object may have been handled, and look for the signs of use (or love!). Be suspicious if wear isn’t consistent with use – this is increasingly important with the rise of decorative antiques and the worn French-style ‘shabby chic’ trend of the past two decades. Many look-a-like objects have been made during this period to resemble originals. Beware!

4 Check the paint

Most original or ‘first’ paint is not actually original, but it may possibly have age. If you’re unsure, always ask the dealer you’re buying from.

5 Keep an eye out for maker's or retailer's labels

If you encounter an object bearing a maker’s or retailer’s label, take a quick snap of it and keep it in a folder on your computer. Most labels were washed off by their original owners and surviving examples can prove to be vital when researching and learning.


Visiting a fair can be a great day out and, armed with these essential tips, you'll make sure it's a successful one too

6 Flick through books and search online for images

Hunt for the sort of the sort of thing you’re looking for before you leave for an antiques fair. It sounds crazy, but this will ensure you keep these ideas in the forefront of your mind, giving you lightning reactions as you browse. 

7 Always do a once-over as soon as your arrive at a fair

I pause only for something that really jumps out at me, or that I simply must have. Once I’ve completed a circuit, I turn on my heel and go backwards, taking more time on the stands that look especially interesting to me. 

8 Always ask if you want to see something

Don’t worry that you may be showing an interest that may make any subsequent bargaining trickier. It won’t. Sellers get asked to show pieces to people all the time and most of them won’t buy. 

9 Get your hands on something you're interested in

‘See’ with your fingers – run them all over the piece and listen to what the standholder has to say. Sometimes there’s a detail you’ll pick up, a personal story, or something about the original owner that may give you that special lightbulb moment.

10 Don't ignore damagd rarities, particularly if you're shopping on a budget

Some rare collectors’ items can still fetch comparatively large sums, even if they’ve been broken and repaired. A good example is Beswick’s ‘Duchess with Flowers’ Beatrix Potter figurine which was only produced for a very short time.



Make friends with your local antiques dealer, advises Mark, and it could lead to a lifetime of wonderful finds 

11 Don't treat a dealer as your enemy

Don’t downplaying an object by pointing out everything that may be wrong with it. It’s fine to say that you love something but can’t pay the price tag – see what the response is. Sometimes you’ll get a steal, other times you may pay a little over the odds. It all balances out. 

12 Build a friendly relationship

Do your best to ensure that a dealer thinks of you when they see something they know you like, and will hold something back for you. Other little favours may sprout from there. 

13 Try not to play dealers off against eachother

Antagonism won’t help you in the long run. The antiques and vintage market is surprisingly small and dealers do know each other, even if they don’t like each other. You’ll only succeed in building up a bad reputation for yourself. 

14 Pay attention to the state of a price tag

If it’s old and faded, politely pointing out – with a smile – that the item in question has clearly become ‘an old friend’, and asking what the best price would be, may yield some surprising results. 

This feature was first published in the April 2017 issue of Homes & Antiques. Back issues are still available. To buy a copy, click here

Words: Mark Hill
Illustrations: Polly Fern

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