Have you wanted to start buying vintage and antiques, but have been too afraid or felt your knowledge base too limited to take the plunge? Do you already collect, but would like some ideas about how to do it better? In today’s post I’ll leave you with some inspiration and some tools to help you improve how you buy.
It’s not an overnight process by any means, nor is it something you can easily learn through books alone. It’s a very hands-on process involving, yes, some reading, but also seeing and holding pieces in your own hands and taking advantage of the expertise of others with more knowledge. Becoming an antique collector should be thought of as an exciting journey involving the training of your mind and your body to recognize a real antique or vintage piece when you see it.
A Little Bit About Me and My Antiquing Journey
I grew up in the small town of Peru (NY) in a house filled with antiques and handcrafted (mostly Shaker-style) furniture. My dad taught high school shop, and he and my mom enjoyed all kinds of antiques, most of which they bought in poor condition and then my father restored to their original beauty, including a stunning deacon’s bench, an early oak refrigerator, and a large brass hanging lantern. My dad also dug bottles and often took me along with him–junking and the thrill of the hunt are deep in my blood.
Becoming an antique collector should be thought of
as an exciting journey involving the training of your mind & body
to recognize real antique or vintage pieces when you see them.
Fast forward through high school and college to early married life. When my sweet husband and I moved into our first home, we filled it with cast-offs from friends and family. I cannot think of one new item we owned, save our bed. Living on one income, we couldn’t afford many new furnishings.
Not too long before the birth of our first child, a sweet friend, who also happened to be an antique dealer, suggested that I get into the business. She thought I’d be good at it, and she told me it was the sort of thing one could easily pick up or put down, depending upon life circumstances.
At right about the same time, I volunteered to take the excess that remained after everyone in my family had chosen what they wanted, from my sweet grandmother’s estate.
My girlfriend helped me sort through each item and identify the vintage and antiques that had some value. We priced them, and then she took me along to an antique show and let me sell my goods from her booth. I loved the one-on-one interaction with customers, and I learned so much that day about antiques. I caught the bug and soon I found myself renting space in a nearby antique center.
Buying and selling, making profits and making mistakes, talking with other dealers, reading books and periodicals, attending auctions and estate sales, all led to my growth as an antique dealer, and they can work for you too. [Photo above: My current antique booth at the Gristmill Antique Center in Troy (NY).]
Study & Learn from Items You Already Own
I was very lucky to have such a knowledgeable friend who mentored me for several months, until she moved away. But what if she hadn’t been available–how would I have learned enough to start collecting or selling on my own? I recommend searching your house for any vintage or antique items you may already own.
Perhaps a family heirloom or two, some decorative purchases you’ve made over the years at antique shops or flea markets. Begin investigating the item(s); perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry, Waterford stemware, or a Queen Ann style desk. Pretend you’re going to sell it and that you need to learn all you can about it.
So if I had owned this ironstone tureen before I got into the business, I might have picked this piece to study and learn from because I love ironstone. I have always found I retain information about antiques that I’ve actually owned myself better than if I just learned about some random collectible.
When I own something, I’m personally invested in it. When I hold it and examine it with my own eyes and hands, I can add all of that sensory information to the “file” in my brain called “xyz” antique. So start here–with your own vintage and antique belongings.
Go to a Book Store and/or Your Library
In my early days of selling, my sweet husband and I used to go on dates to the bookstore. We’d get coffee and dessert, grab some books and magazines, and make ourselves at home on a comfy couch. I’d pour through antique books and research various collectibles, depending upon what new items I had recently purchased–antique purses, Roseville pottery, primitives, you name it.
I carried around a notebook to keep track of all the information I gathered. So if I had wanted to research my ironstone tureen, I would likely have unearthed some good info in a guide about English pottery or perhaps a general guide covering country antiques.
Another great place to do research is your local library. And while their selection may not quite as up-to-date or varied as that in the bookstore, you can take the books home and study them at your leisure, which is a nice benefit. In addition, libraries typically have a wide array of magazines that might prove helpful to you as well.
I also bought antique guides and other related materials at garage and estate sales whenever they were offered at a good price. You can build up quite a reference library this way. I also keep a binder filled with magazine and newspaper clippings about vintage and antiques; it contains some really excellent materials.
[Below you will find some affiliate links to resources I highly recommend (top row) and some new-to-me guides (bottom row) that look interesting.]
Conduct Research Online
Of course conducting research online is perhaps the easiest and fastest method these days, although sometimes it can be difficult to sort through all of the information that’s out there. You want to use reliable sites that have a proven track record of providing good information.
I’ve documented over one hundred and fifty online sources covering a hundred different antique and vintage topics that I believe contain reliable, quality info (sample above). At the end of the list, I also provide the names of some websites and blogs that I believe have good solid information that can be trusted, including Kovels, Collector’s Weekly, eBay guides, and more. (You can find it here: Antique & Vintage Online Info by Category.)
I’ve also begun to put together some price guides on collectibles that I have experience with. Here you see a screen shot of my price guide page, which covers the categories you see here, plus Transferware, Pyrex, and Christmas–and there are more to come!
Visit Antique Shops & Attend Estate Sales
Taking a trip to your favorite antique store, can really contribute to your learning experience. Plan on spending a couple of hours doing “research.” Look for items similar to your own; note similarities and differences. Note, of course, the price (jot it down in a notebook or on your phone).
Take a picture if you think it will add to your knowledge about the item. [I always ask for permission and have never been denied. Indicate that you are doing research or that you’re a blogger (if you are).] While you’re there, keep an eye out for things that catch your interest. They may be just the sort of things you’d like to collect or sell.
Estate sales are another great venue for learning more about various vintage and antiques. Often the advertisement for a sale indicates what type or era of antiques will be available at the sale.
Depending on when you attend, you may even have a chance to talk with the dealer running the show and/or the owners of the house. They could have useful background info on the things you are interested in. Find out about estate sales in your area via EstateSales.net, Craigslist, and your local newspaper. [Photo is of the Gristmill Antique Center.]
This may be my most important piece of advice: be sure to enjoy yourself and enrich your life by getting to know other collectors/dealers along the way. I mentioned that shortly after I got into the business, my dealer friend had to move out of town. I no longer had my “antique encyclopedia” readily at hand, and for whatever reason, I felt shy about talking with other dealers because I felt like such a “dumb” beginner.
One thing I know now, however, is that most dealers are happy to share their knowledge and experience with you, especially if you are open and friendly. I like to cement these kinds of relationships by being helpful myself and offering other dealers bargain prices on merchandise they are interested in. Believe me, it will pay off in the form of good info, a good deal, and/or a good friend.
All of this is true for online friends as well. Whether you’re a blogger or simply a blog reader, engage with bloggers in the vintage and antique niche. Leave thoughtful comments and don’t be afraid to ask a question or two. Most of us love to chat with our readers and help out whenever we can.
Just be sure there’s mutuality in the relationship. You don’t want to be knocking on someone’s door for help repeatedly without working on building the friendship at the same time in other ways.
This photo is of me and the sweet owner of the Gristmill Antique Center where I have a booth. He’s extremely knowledgeable and always ready and willing to help his dealers any way he can. I’m blessed to call him friend.
Pick a Collectible or Era & Begin to Learn About It
Are you in love with vintage clothing? Mid-century modern (MCM) furniture? Art Nouveau jewelry? Begin to use some of the methods we’ve talked about here to learn more about that collectible. Get a sense of what the items look/feel like, why they are valuable, what they’re worth, and whether they hold their value. Perhaps you are attracted to country style antiques. Start reading up on them.
Find ways to see pieces with your own eyes and to touch them with your own hands; take some more field trips to your antique shop and local estate sales. Use your research skills at the library and/or bookstore to learn more about the area you’ve selected.
Once you are pretty certain you want to start collecting a certain type of antique or selling antiques from a certain era, it’s time to begin buying. My advice is to start small. Set a strict budge for yourself and stick to it. The profit rule of thumb I use for buying is to (at a minimum) four times my investment.
So if I buy something for $1.00, I want to be able to list it for at least $4.00 (preferably $10.00!). If I can only get $2.00 for it, then I won’t buy the item. There is absolutely no way to make a profit with the goal of simply doubling your money, unless you are dealing with an item you know you can flip immediately with no overhead.
Of course, if you’re buying for your own personal collection, then you have to decide your own rule of thumb. Are you willing to pay market value, or do you want to build a collection on the cheap?
After buying some items, whether at garage and estate sales, flea markets, or auctions, research your purchases. Check on online, look at eBay sold listings, use some of my resources, and take some notes while you’re at it.
Depending on how much info you find, locate some other resources at the book store or library that might guide you further. Finally, pop into an antique store, and ask for some help. Most shop owner/workers would be happy to help you out.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Few Mistakes
If you are buying strictly for yourself, and you buy only pieces that you really like, then you can never truly go wrong. If, however, you bought an item thinking it had much more value than the amount you paid, only to learn that it does not, that can be very discouraging.
I have three thoughts about this: (1) don’t spend a lot of money on something unless you’re sure, (2) you can only be sure about something if you’ve learned about it– through reading, seeing, touching, and talking with knowledgeable people, and (3) learn from your mistakes. Trust me, once you’ve spent too much on an item, you will do everything in your power to understand your mistake and make sure it never happens again!
More often than not your mistakes will be of a small magnitude. For example, you may buy something to sell, only to learn that you paid market value for it. In this case you probably will not be able to make much of a profit, but you will likely make your money back.
I consider the lovely mustard yellow vanity chair (above) to be a mistake. When I bought it, I thought I would spray paint the metal and recover the upholstery. Ultimately, I decided this effort would far outweigh the potential value of the piece, and I donated it to my local thrift store. I lost just $2.00 because I’m so
cheap fiscally conservative, but I’ll certainly think twice in the future before buying anything that requires too much work to upgrade it.
Use the knowledge you’ve gained, along with your eyes
and fingers to evaluate a piece before buying it.
I always warn new buyers to try to keep their heads while shopping. Before handing over your hard earned cash, you want to be sure that you know what you’re buying. In other words, is it really what you think it is and is it in good condition?
I’ve gotten so excited about a purchase that I quickly made payment, only to discover when I arrived home that the beautiful perfume bottle has “Avon” written on the bottom, or that the base of the lovely sterling silver candy dish was welded on, making it worth only its scrap value (true story). Use the knowledge you’ve gained, along with your eyes and fingers to evaluate a piece before buying it.
If you are continually reading, observing, and talking with other collectors/dealers, then your knowledge base will grow and your mistakes will become fewer and far between.
Not without its ups and downs, dealing with antiques—whether as a collector or a seller–is part adventure, part treasure hunt, part hustle as you track down the next great deal, study it, learn from it, and enjoy it. It’s a junkin’ journey that promises to never leave you bored.
What hints do you have about how to buy antiques & vintage?
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