How to shop smart for antiques

In the second instalment of our two-part series, antiques expert and author Mark Hill helps us to get the best of our shopping online at auction 

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. 

However long you’ve been buying antiques, it can still sometimes be an overwhelming experience for even the most ardent of collectors. In an increasingly digital age, with auction sites popping up all the time, it almost feels like we need a trusted tutor on hand to help us avoid the pitfalls when searching for a genuine piece at a fair price.

BEFORE YOU BUY 

A few general points to keep in mind when shopping

1 Just because you don't know what it is, don't be put off from buying it

If it’s great quality, shouts out a key design style, or is highly unusual, take a risk if you can afford it. Some of the very best things I have ever bought were mysteries to me when I handed over my cash. Of these, a few turned out to be valuable learning experiences, while others made me money later on when I sold them. 

2 Reconsider 'flaws' such as a thumb or fingerprint in ceramic bodies or decoration

Many who grew up around mass-produced consumable and disposable items now see these features as charming, and as a human connection to the artist, potter or decorator and their place in time. Of course, placement and prominence counts.

3 Pay attention to size

Pay attention to size – biggest isn’t always best. Although they use fewer materials, small or miniature-sized examples require the same skills, expertise and production processes to make, and can be scarcer. 

4 Consider objects that will appeal to different groups of collectors 

Cross-market interest can often raise the value, due to increased demand from a wider audience. For example, a postcard of a female tennis player may appeal to enthusiasts of tennis or sporting memorabilia, postcard collectors, and even those interested in the history of women’s rights. Animals such as dogs, cats, pigs, owls and even bulls, in a range of formats, are also good examples.  

5 Many buyers today purchase with their eyes and hearts 

That may be because something moves them in some way, or brings back memories, or simply looks stylish. By comparison, connoisseurship and the academic value of an object have largely fallen by the wayside. ‘Anorak pieces’ of academic interest with lower visual appeal will always have their place, but among smaller groups of people.

ONLINE

The web is a wonderful resource for browsing antiques, but it can be bewildering. Mark helps us to navigate its virtual aisles

6 Learn how something you're looking for is described and how it is spelt in different languages

A search through country-specific online auction sites such as ebay.fr or aukro.cz can be very rewarding. This is partly down to the fact that certain things that are seen, desired and collected in one country may not have the same desirability in another. Online translation tools can help you with any communications you need to send.

7 For inspiration, do look at people's rooms when they show up in photos of an item for sale 

But, be aware that this is often intentional, partly to show off and sometimes to make you think that if you buy the piece for sale, you may ‘earn’ a chance at buying that rarity in the background. There’s often no intention to sell that, so don’t fall into the trap by letting your bidding go over the top. 

8 Consider colour carefully when bidding online

Particularly with regard to what may appear to be a rare colourway in relation to objects such as glass, die-cast toys or vintage pens. Equally, be aware of the effect of toning or ambering that comes with age, affecting items such as textiles. Colours and colour tones show differently on different computer screens and from different cameras and lighting conditions. If in doubt, ask for more photos taken outside in natural daylight.  

9 Use a separate email account for all of your online dealing

From payments to auction sites to dealing with dealers. That way you can keep and archive all of your buying emails in one place and also see how your email address is being used for the inevitable newsletters. It’ll also help you to avoid phishing and other scams. 

10 Look out for reproductions

Spend some time browsing websites that offer reproductions or new objects made in an antique style. As quality improves, knowing what ‘repro’ is around helps you spot real deal antiques. 

AUCTIONS

If you're planning on visiting an auction house, follow Mark's tips below for confident and successful bidding, and no nasty surprises...  

11 If in doubt about an aspect of a lot, always ask the auction specialist's advice

They will handle literally thousands of objects per year in their area, so will offer their opinion, based on both their experience and their expertise.

12 Leave enough time to register on the day of the sale

Also check the auction house’s terms and conditions a week before, as some require certain forms of proof of identity and – especially if you’re planning on bidding on high value lots – bank details or a deposit. 

13 Pay close attention to any symbols near the lot description or pre-sale estimate

These can indicate that VAT is payable on the hammer price, as well as the buyer’s premium. Be aware and tailor your bidding accordingly to avoid a horrible shock when you come to pay. 

14 Halving a bid can work to achieve an economical total price

For example, calling out, or asking for a bid of £190 when the current bid is at £180 and the next bid would normally be £200. But only do this if you absolutely need to. Don’t do it repeatedly, or at £5 increments, and make sure it’s worthwhile.

This feature was first published in the May 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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