6 Questions You Must Ask Before Buying Vintage & Antiques

Hi there! Today’s post is primarily addressing issues that concern those of us who sell vintage and antiques (or who are considering it!). I think it will nonetheless be interesting to those who collect for themselves, but the principles related to whether or not you should buy a particular item will be slightly different. Ready to hear the 6 questions you should ask before buying vintage & antiques?

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6 questions you must ask before buying vintage & antiques adirondackgirlatheart.com

Is it really vintage or antique?

When buying to sell in your own antique shop, an antique booth, or on Etsy, the first question you must ask yourself is, “Is the item vintage or antique?” If your business is selling antiques, then you want to be sure that your merchandise falls into the category of vintage or antique, right?

how to get started buying vintage and antiquesIf you’re just starting out in the business, then you may want to read my post: How to Get Started Buying Vintage & Antiques for Business or Pleasure. In it I teach a variety of way that you can go about learning what is an antique and what is not. I suggest a number of different resources that can help you grow in your knowledge base.

Adirondack Girl @ Heart Vintage and Antiques Price Guide buttonWhen seeking to identify an item and establish its value, I hope you’ll make use of my price guides, and of course, you can cruise eBay and Etsy in search of items like yours.

Another valuable resource I’ve begun to use recently is WorthPoint; they have over 350 million listings, ready to help you figure out what you’ve got and what it’s worth. Look for more information about this company, coming soon.

The bottom line is that this first threshold question must be answered: is it old or not, because you don’t want to attempt to sell merchandise that looks old, but is actually new. That certainly won’t build your reputation as an antique dealer.

antique and vintage online informationAnother resource I put together is a long list of different types of antiques, with corresponding articles and websites that contain good information to help you identify whether or not you have a true antique. Real or Repro, another great resource, is filled with some terrific information that will help you make good choices.

In the long run, it takes time and practice to discern whether that light fixture you found at a garage sale for $10.00 is 1953 MCM or 2015 big-box store. Truthfully, sometimes it can be difficult to tell, but with time and some effort to educate yourself, you’ll begin to acquire the knowledge you need to be successful.

Is it desirable?

The next big question, “Is the item desirable?” presents a real dilemma because many types of antiques that had value in, say 1990, have not retained that value. In some cases, like East Lake furniture and silver plated tea sets, they’ve plummeted. The antique market has taken a nosedive since 9/11 and does not appear to be improving.

Baby boomers selling off collections and the increased popularity of minimalism are not helping us out, either. Many other factors like the economy, changing styles, and internet sales have affected the market as well.

antique pressed glass spoonerWhen I first got into the antique business back in 1995, pressed and elegant glass of any color, even clear, sold extremely well. Today, I find almost no market at all for clear glass, even for particularly beautiful pieces, and even when priced very low.

Another category that has been hit, perhaps not quite so badly as glassware, is china. Back in the day, older transferware (newer, too!) and flow blue china fairly flew out of an antique booth. While they still have a place on the market, the prices achieved are much lower.

So how can one know what’s desirable and what’s not? Hard question. Will you hate me if I tell you that it’s somewhat hit or miss, and that you need to test your own particular market to really get an answer to this question? Just from writing my blog, I’ve learned that some of what sells well for me in Upstate New York, would just sit on a shelf in, say, Texas. And vice versa.

antique market basketI’m sure you’re saying to yourself, “Thanks a lot, Diana!!” right? Let me throw you a bone. Here are a few things that I think might be universally desireable: small occasional tables, baskets (this one sold for $65.00), primitive cupboards, folding rulers (ha, ha), flags, ladders, step ladders, galvanized items…

antique green yellow ware bowl…yellow ware bowls (this one sold for $65.00), 1940-40’s era fans, wooden skis, skates, natural history items (large shells/bee’s nests/birds’s nests/rock & fossil specimens), garden hand tools, flower frogs, leather books, and farm tables.

Is it in good condition?

Next, you must consider the condition of the items you plan to purchase. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to look for and buy items of the highest quality; they will almost always sell more quickly, and certainly for higher prices, than items that are missing pieces or have condition issues, like chips, breaks, or other damage.

I never buy pottery or glassware with chips, cracks, water marks, or other damage. Even if you price them low, they will tend to sit on the shelf. Look at items in good lighting and examine them carefully and run your fingers around rims and footed stems.

[NOTE: This means something different when selling shabby chic or farmhouse, where some items may sell faster with a certain amount of chipping, rust, or other “damage.”]

chipped ironstone pitcherI recently picked up this ironstone pitcher at an estate sale, only to discover when I got home that it had a nice chunk out of the bottom, reducing it’s value to almost nothing. Fortunately I paid very little for it, but the lesson remains–check out your potential buys carefully.

And by all means, steel yourself against the lure of the low-priced piece that is imperfect. Trust me, you do not need to buy it. Leave it on the shelf and walk away.

Don’t buy baskets missing chunks of reed, beaded purses with missing beads, books with torn pages or loose bindings, furniture with peeling veneer (unless you plan a quick paint job), quilts with excessive rips or stains,  paintings with torn canvases, or vanity jars missing lids, as in the case above.

waxed and unwaxed sides of an antique wooden platformAll that said, do buy imperfect items which can be cleaned or restored relatively easily or which will be exponentially more valuable after you put in some time/effort to restore it. Like this wooden pedestal that I conditioned with my “private recipe” wood salve that I’ll have available for sale SOON!!

Consider buying wooden items that can be easily waxed or painted, frames that can be tightened and reused, rusty items that can be wire brushed and oiled, or dirty furniture that can be cleaned. However, you must use good judgment when making these sorts of decisions.

Is it unique?

If an item is neither vintage nor antique, if it is nonetheless a unique piece, then you might want to consider buying it. When you’re out and about buying, you will sometimes come across items that are not necessarily old, but are so unique and interesting, you know there’s a market for it. Just be sure to indicate on your tag that the item is “newer” or “not antique.”

unique vintage piggy bankI bought this ridiculous fiber glass pig a couple of years ago because it fell into the “unique” category.  I had no idea whether it dated to 2010 or 1970, but I knew it would sell and it did, for $45.00.

The trouble for me is that I focus primarily on farmhouse goods in my booth and so something as garish as this pig would have been difficult for me to put in my booth. It just wouldn’t have looked right. Fortunately, our shop has a large covered porch where dealers can place items like this for sale.

one way signModern road signs like this One Way sign definitely falls into the unique-but-not-old category and should not be left behind. I manage to buy about one a year and always sell them very quickly for good money.

vintage enamelware punch bowl and ladelThis blue enamelware punch bowl and ladle, however represents the absolute best of both worlds–a unique antique(!). Something you should absolutely buy, presuming you can answer our final question (coming soon) in the positive.

Would it make a good accent piece?

I often buy newer items that nicely accent the merchandise in my booth. Things like berry garlands, white lights, small wreaths of all kinds, and faux fruit can add some pizzazz and cohesiveness to a booth and really pull your look altogether.

faux pears in chalk painted bowlThese faux pears look so real, don’t they? They really enhance the look of the dough bowl and add a sense of life to the display.

green basket with lemonsSame with the beautiful lemons.

berry wreathI snatch up every berry wreath that I find for a good price because they are so attractive and sell extremely well.

basket with faux leaves
Items like these branches of maple leaves and the plaid napkins celebrate the changing seasons and make a booth inviting.

Is the price right?

Depending on who you talk with, you will hear a number of different answers to the question, “Is the price right?” The common recommendation I’ve heard throughout the years is that a dealer should double his/her money. To which I heartily respond, “Fubar!” Personally, I try to six to ten times my money on each item that I buy. You heard me correctly–6-10x.

Merely doubling your money is fubar.

Most sellers, like myself, have to take into account overhead and taxes. To keep matters simple, I plan on overhead (rent, business cards, commissions, PayPal fees, supplies, etc.) costing approximately 1/3 of my profits and taxes (federal and state) costing another 1/3.

This means that if I buy an item for $10.00 and charge $20.00 for it, in the end, I will make just $3.33 profit ($3.33 went to overhead and $3.33 went to taxes). Not really worth the effort of buying, cleaning, preparing, inventorying, pricing, driving, displaying, and the like, is it?

Set a goal to at least 5 or 6 times your money.

However, if I bought the item for $10.00 and charged $60.00, then my profit would be $16.66, better, but still not fantastic. If I could sell it for $100, however, I’d net $30.00, and that’s not bad. Keep it simple while you’re out there shopping and keep in mind that you want to more than double your money, you want to minimally, 5 or 6 times your money.

Before I let you go, let’s just briefly review the questions you want to ask yourself before you commit to buying something to sell in your antique booth or Etsy shop:

  • Is it really vintage or antique?
  • Is it desirable?
  • Is it in good condition?
  • Is it unique?
  • Would it make a good accent piece?
  • Is the price right?

Now, I’d love to hear from your point of view whether I’ve asked all the right questions or not. Let the comments begin!

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6 questions you must ask before buying vintage & antiques adirondackgirlatheart.com


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  1. I agree with all your points, Diana, except the point you make about quilts. I always buy quilts in poor condition if I can get them cheap ($1-5). I sell them as cutter quilts for around $20. My sales are strictly online though. I don’t have the costs of a booth. Just my 2 cents.
    I would like to hear more about Worthpoint too.

    1. I SO agree with you Florence! By all means consider buying any item that you can 6 to 10 times your money on, even if it’s not in perfect condition. But also consider whether it’s desirable (i.e., will it sell quickly) and does it add or detract from your booth “look” (if you have a booth). Thanks for your 2 cents, Florence 🙂 I’ll have more to say about WorthPoint soon!

      1. Hello Diana. Great article! I am working with a Antique and Collectible shop and would like your opinion on the best strategy you suggest to increase sales and awareness for the shop. Also would you be willing to write a review on the shop ? I look forward to talking.

  2. Your advice is spot on. I have made some of the same mistakes, especially with dishes. I tried vintage textiles such as clothing or tablecloths,but find that odors are a problem, so I stopped. Thanks for the website referrals too.

    1. Thank you! I hear you about the odor problems, but honestly, with a few exceptions, like buffalo plaid hunting jackets and quilts, I have a hard time selling any clothing or linens out of my booth anyway.

    2. Most linens I encounter are not new & pristine so they can be laundered gently and pressed (ironed). There are other ways of removing odors too, such as “fluffing” in dryer with a lightly scented dryer sheet & damp washcloth.

      Another method is just gold old fashioned sunshine! Let them air in the sunshine for a few hours, just be sure to shake well & fluff in dryer afterwards (no dryer sheet needed) to remove pollens.

      If selling online describe as “freshly laundered.” If they are going in your booth customers will be able to tell on their own. Just my experience & “two cents.”

  3. Thanks, Diana, for the great review of buying and selling for a business. I follow almost every one of your rules! For me (and I think for most of us) pricing is the most difficult part of the journey. I spend some time at my antique mall checking out the most successful dealers and seeing what they have priced their merchandise. It is a good lesson. I don’t always get to 6-10 times the pricing, but I always try for three times the price. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure a purchase price because I bundle things at a sale, but I know at the end, I make a decent profit. This is my first year at doing this and I do a lot of upcycling furniture and I doubt if I make more than 3 times the profit if I paid myself for the labor. But it’s what I love doing, so it makes it worth it. And I still haven’t figured out what sells best other than chippy white anything and ironstone!

    1. Yes, Laura, most of us are in this business because we love it and that does make it worth it! But I wouldn’t mind a little more income, LOL. Glad to hear ironstone sells for you; I’m guessing it would for me too, but I sell very little of it (I keep most of what I buy, ha ha). Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Thanks so much for this post and all the helpful information on your blog! I have learned these same points to be true in my 6 years running a shop–sometimes the hard way. I will set a new goal of selling at 5-6 times my cost. This builds on something I was told in my early days: You make your money when you buy your inventory. So buy smart and low. I also added a new word to my vocabulary– fubar. Had to look it up. What a great word!

  5. I really appreciate all this information; I’m gonna come back and read it again. I’m finding that with a tight economy, people often won’t pay the 6-10x what I paid for it! I get a lot of smalls and 2-3x what I paid for it (too much?) is about what the market will bear. However, I am beginning to have SOME sales resistance when it comes to buying stuff that I will have to spend a lot of time on to make it saleable, sellable??? Never heard of Worthpoint so looking forward to another lesson.

    1. I hear you, Kathy–I have to pass by a lot of merchandise because there’s just not enough profit in it to make it worth all the effort. Bigger ticket items that are hot would be an exception, where I’ll consider a smaller profit margin. I’m with you on buying things that require a lot of work to make salable–stay away!!

  6. Thanks for this information. I usually ask the question: “Trash?” or “Treasure?” before I buy for my booth. Beautiful displays are very helpful to sell quickly. If you buy small items with low margin, then go for high volume items. Large items will bring in a higher profit margin but may sit for a while waiting for the right customer to come by. Seasonal items need to be displayed at the appropriate time. Know your customers – I take time to watch what people are buying from other booths. If people walk by your booth without stopping to look, there may not be a focal point or an attention getter. There is so much more to selling and it takes experience to get a good return.

    1. Terrific suggestions, Ann, thanks for taking the time to pass them on to us. I agree 100% that there’s quite a learning curve with this business that only comes through the actual process of buying and selling. I guess I view my job here on my blog to be providing some good info that makes that process shorter and easier 🙂

  7. A very informative post, Diana. I have been seriously considering renting a booth at a local antique mall and every bit of advice or information I can get I take into consideration in making a decision to take on this venture. I am grateful for all you share from your experience and all the references you provide, too.

    Thanks so much for this type of information! I’ll let you know what I decide about my decision to sell, sell, sell or not! It may be a while before I actually make a firm decision as I have some other ideas in the works, too.

  8. I try to use that calculation in my head when deciding whether or not to buy an item for resale. Sometimes my heart wins out, though:) $65 for a basket? Sweet! Thanks for sharing at Vintage Charm:) xo Kathleen|Our Hopeful Home

  9. It makes sense that one should always get a proof of purchase from the antique shop where I’ll decide to buy my furniture and decors. Mom and I are assigned to design the house for Christmas, and we chose to do a mix up for modern and antique design. I’ll ask for a receipt after the transaction is done as well as the condition of the items before purchasing it to know the furniture age and how to take care of them.

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