If you like to shop for antiques, then you probably also like to haggle over prices. After all, you may not even know what you re looking for when you walk into an antique shop, but you probably know one thing that the dollar amount on the price tag isn t always what the dealer actually expects to get. For most buyers, though, the negotiation is shrouded in one mystery: Just how much wiggle room do I really have?
Lincoln Sander, an antique dealer in Redding, Conn., explains that dealers generally have what s called a trade price that is, an amount for which they will sell the item to another dealer, a known collector, or a regular customer. The discount can be significant often as high as 20 percent and most dealers build it into their markup when pricing an item. What you may not know is that the trade price could also be available to you as a first-time customer. The dealer may, for example, offer you the special price if he sees the potential for building a relationship with you, Sander says. But you might also get it just for being pleasant and not so presumptuous in your negotiating. Ask in a nice way, Sander advises, with the idea that you might or might not get the price. Pat Garthoeffner, a dealer in Lititz, Pa., agrees that manners go a long way. Never make an offer [by saying] I ll give you . . . or Can you take . . .? That s just insulting, she says. The phrase that makes her most likely to give customers a break? I think the best thing to say, says Garthoeffner, is Do you have any room . . .?
Congratulations, you re an antique dealer! Want to call yourself an appraiser, too? Go right ahead. In fact, of the 30,000 to 50,000 people in this country who say they re personal-property appraisers, just 10 percent are professionally trained, according to the International Society of Appraisers. The reason is that appraisers are completely unregulated, with no educational or licensing requirements. Anyone can hold himself out as an appraiser of fine arts, antiques, or whatever, and can even obtain accreditation, says Marshall Fallwell, Jr., an antique appraiser in Nashville. And those dealers who do boast of their appraisal credentials are not necessarily well trained. Your pet cockatiel could be a member in some of these [appraisal] organizations, says Irene Austin-Gillis, an appraiser in Providence, R.I.
Even the four biggest and most respected groups that offer credentials to appraisers don t have the most rigorous standards for admission. In fact, just one, the American Society of Appraisers, requires its members to pass a test on a specific area of appraisal expertise Oriental rugs, say before gaining entry. The remaining three test the bulk of their members only on general appraisal standards and practices. Says Paul Dewees, president of one of them, the Certified Appraisers Guild of America, Our test is general, primarily because the type of work our members do is usually not high-end appraisals. Our members are trained for the everyday estate sale.
But the problem isn t just that many dealers can t give you an accurate appraisal. It s also that they shouldn t. Austin-Gillis says that you probably shouldn t seek an appraisal from anyone affiliated with an antique store or gallery. Only someone who s not going to buy or sell the property will give you its true value, she says. Your best bet? Do your research and educate yourself, says Patricia Hefner, treasurer of the International Society of Appraisers. And seek the help of a reliable dealer (they do exist). Look for someone who is willing to educate customers and who works toward cultivating relationships, not just turning a quick profit.
If you re a regular on the flea market circuit, you know that there s no shortage of reproductions out there. If it s repro-able, they re doing it, says Pat Garthoeffner, adding that she was once at an antique show where there was a rug on sale for $1,200 that she had bought at retail store T.J. Maxx for $36.
The trouble is that even some professional dealers can t tell the difference between a fake and the real thing. Donna O Brien, a dealer in Brownsville, Tenn., admits that she was taken earlier in her career when she purchased what she thought was an authentic Qing Dynasty figurine for $100. Since then, I ve been in stores in Memphis and seen the exact same piece, she says. And when you see six of them sitting on the shelf, that s a dead giveaway. And O Brien is pretty sure she s not the only dealer who s been had. I m in good company, she says. They say even the experts at Sotheby s have been fooled.
Part of the problem is that the word antique covers a lot of ground. There s furniture, jewelry, art glass, and the list goes on. Any buyer who expects her dealer to be knowledgeable in too many areas is dreaming. Says Gary Espinosa, vice president and director for the auction house Bonhams & Butterfields, A person who can answer a question on any object is a person you should stay away from.
Given that you can t count on your dealer to be certain of what he s selling you, the last line of defense is a written guarantee. But not every dealer will be willing to provide one. Sander says that your request might be met by a suspect dealer with resistance or a simple no ; just as likely, the dealer may try to hedge his bets by saying, That s what I believe the piece to be. In that case, caveat emptor.
As a buyer you should demand more, say the experts. A dealer should be 100- percent willing to describe the condition in full and guarantee things, says Leigh Keno, a dealer in New York who is known for his appearances on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. A true guarantee, he adds, should include a detailed description of the item, when it was made, and what parts, if any, have been repaired or replaced. Armed with that documentation, you can be sure you ll get a full refund if the item turns out to be something other than what you and your dealer thought it was.
If you re buying something used, repairs are usually a good thing, right? Not when it comes to antiques. Many types of repairs can seriously reduce an item s value. Not only that, you may need to look closely to detect any artful touchups. For Lyn Fontenot, author of Antique Furniture: How to Tell the Real Thing From the Fake, it was the early morning light that tipped her off. While delivering a lecture in Puerto Rico, she stopped in an antiques shop and found what she thought was a very special piece a 16thcentury Italian wood carving. Intrigued, she asked the dealer to send the carving to her hotel room so she could examine it more closely the next day. When she did, she found that about half the carving had been replaced and some of the wood cuts were made by a modern saw.
While the repairs may have made the piece look better, they had the opposite effect on its value: Untouched, the piece would have been worth about $7,000, notes Fontenot; with the repairs, its value dropped by roughly 60 to 70 percent. Even a simple cleaning can make a big difference. When looking at wood furniture, for instance, be sure to ask specifically if anything has been done to the surface, since a cleaning that improves a piece s finish could strip away much of its value. Keno points out that a piece of 18th-century furniture that has been overly cleaned could see its value cut from $100,000 to $20,000 as a result.
While a turbulent stock market may lead you to seek the safety of investing in a piece of well-built furniture, be forewarned: The bulk of what s for sale in the antique market is not going to appreciate at any dizzying rate. I don t think that people should be buying antiques as investments, says Lincoln Sander. But what about those people you ve heard of who made money buying high-quality antiques? For the most part, they ve held on to their purchases for a very, very long time. I think that the people who have done well from a financial point of view are those who bought [antiques] with the intention of never selling them, Sander says. They bought them with the idea that they would take them to the grave.
While you may not need to take it that far, don t expect to turn a quick profit either. In the vast majority of cases, you re going to need to keep a collection together for probably at least a minimum of 10 years, says Kyle Husfloen, editorat- large of Antique Trader magazine, and maybe up to 25 years or more, to see any important escalation. Most of all, be aware that an item s value will ebb and flow with its popularity. If you invested in Beanie Babies, says Rudy Franchi, a collectibles appraiser who makes regular appearances on Antiques Roadshow, you would be up to your ass in them now.
No businessperson wants to be sued. But for an antique dealer, the prospect is particularly unpalatable, since most are sole practitioners in a business where reputation reigns supreme. Antique dealers live by their reputations, notes John Collins, Jr., a rug dealer in Newburyport, Mass. No one wants unhappy customers. All of this adds up to one truth: If you think you ve been had by a dealer, don t throw in the towel, even if you failed to get a written guarantee.
Marshall Fallwell, Jr., has been called on dozens of times to do appraisals for clients who have bought antiques that turned out to be fakes. And in every case, he says, those who have gone back to the questionable dealer with an appraisal in hand have gotten their money back. Yet despite this incredible success rate, Fallwell still finds that some clients who have been taken just go off and lick their wounds. Don t be one of them. I think they see having gotten nailed as an indictment of their own taste, Fallwell says. Somehow if you have the taste and money to buy those things and you get a fake, that means that you really don t have that much taste. And that, of course, is absurd.
Remember that rosewood cabinet your decorator said would be fabulous for your living room? Well, it s possible that she had another motive besides making your home look its very best. It s common practice for an interior decorator to offer to do your antique shopping for you, either recommending that you buy a specific piece from a certain dealer or simply going out and buying it for you. And especially when the decorator and the dealer have an established relationship, the decorator in many cases will earn a commission for her trouble.
Some in the business consider commission a generous description of said payment. Do decorators get kickbacks from antique dealers? Oh, my goodness, all the time! exclaims one New England appraiser. The trouble is that such an arrangement sets up an inherent conflict of interest, putting the decorator in a position to benefit financially from buying certain pieces from certain dealers. As a result, you should make sure that your decorator discloses any such payment arrangements before the shopping begins.
There s no question that public interest in antiques has gone up in recent years. Everybody and his kid brother now has a tax number and is a professional dealer in old stuff, Fallwell says. But, he adds, what they re selling often isn t antique, because there aren t that many antiques left. So what exactly makes a piece an antique ? Contrary to what most people think, the term isn t simply synonymous with old. In fact, it s generally accepted that to qualify as antique, an item must be at least 100 years old. And by that definition, the 1930s art deco desk you just shelled out for doesn t qualify.
The trouble is that dealers know most shoppers aren t aware of the distinction. Armed with that knowledge, many will overuse the word antique to get buyers inside the shop, where much of what is being sold today should really be referred to as collectibles that is, stuff that s less than a century old whose value has been enhanced by widespread interest or vintage a catch-all marketing category that covers anything roughly 30 years old or more. So why don t dealers simply change their wording? Because If the sign in front of the shop said collectibles, people probably wouldn t go in, says Garthoeffner, the dealer from Pennsylvania.
As with most things, the Internet has totally changed the nature of the antique business. Whether you are looking to buy that last dish to complete your collection or unload a Queen Anne chair that you re tired of, you re no longer confined to doing business with your local dealer. The Internet allows a skittish buyer to educate himself without being at the mercy of the dealer and also links up a huge community of buyers and sellers in a quick and seamless way. Sites like PriceMiner.com and Artfact.com provide reams of information for buyers who just want to know a little bit more before they plunk down their credit card. And, of course, there s always eBay, which, because of the enormous amount of traffic it gets, is often the perfect venue for those trying to sell their wares for top dollar.
David Amer, a collector of pre-casino Atlantic City memorabilia, knows just how valuable the Internet can be. After spending five or six years schlepping from shop to shop looking for a few specific items to round out his somewhat obscure collection, Amer had great luck in just two weeks after posting a listing online. His greatest coup? Finding silverware from the now-defunct Ambassador Hotel, where his mother worked as a pool attendant decades ago. There was a slim chance in hell that I would have walked into the right antique store and found that, Amer says.