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The novice guide to collecting antiques

Updated on May 20, 2013

Antique buying, selling and collecting has become a craze over the last few years, with the influx of television shows and websites dedicated to the topic. For the novice buyer, it can be an intimidating market. Thrift stores, swap meets and garage sales used to provide the best options for purchasing antique and vintage collectibles, but with the high demand for treasures prices have risen accordingly. Here are five tips to help the beginner antique or vintage collector get started.

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1. Define your collection

The first thing to do is decide what it is you want to collect. Your purpose for purchasing antiques is most likely to display your finds in your home for all to enjoy, rather than put them in a box in the attic to gather dust. Because the items will be on display, you want to determine what it is you want to collect. Types of antiques collections include kerosene lanterns, perfume bottles, china and dishes, linens, silver, apothecary bottles, war memorabilia, jewelry, etc.

Don’t collect antiques just because they are antique; specialize in an area to make your display stand out. In addition, only collect what you like. Don’t buy antique musical instruments if you have no interest. Because antiquing can be costly hobby, make sure you will fully enjoy your collection for years to come.

2. Identify your budget

Secondary in importance to defining what your collection will consist of is identifying your budget limitations. Antiques are not cheap. If you plan on collecting antique furniture to furnish your home, plan on having a large budget to support your collection. You may prefer vintage McDonald’s glasses as your niche, and therefore do not need as large of a budget. Other antique items can vary drastically in price. Antique crystal glasses (wine glasses, champagne flutes, cordials, etc), for instance, can range in price from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars for a set of four glasses.

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When you find a piece to buy at an antique store, swap meet or garage sale, it is beneficial to not accept the listed price but to make an offer. Most buyers do not realize that even at an antique store, they can offer less than the asking price. If you find an item you wish to buy, take it to the register and make an offer. The manager may have to call the vendor of that booth to negotiate the deal, but if you can get 10% or more off the price of an item it leaves more room in your budget to buy. You can also use Ebay or Etsy from your smart phone to demonstrate the true value of an item or to show that you can purchase it for less online. Just make sure that your offer is not insulting. Most dealers and vendors will not refuse reasonable offers, but if you go too low you will be shot down and required to pay full price.

3. Educate yourself

Once you have defined your collection and identified your budget, the next step is to educate yourself about the pieces you may encounter on the hunt. If you want to collect silver pieces, familiarize yourself with silver markings, which pieces are most desirable. In addition to researching how to identify if a piece is truly an antique, educate yourself as to the value of such items. This is the best way to ensure you always get a good deal on the antiques you buy.

If you run across an item to add to your collection but you are unsure of the value, use your phone to instantly get a value or more information. Using Ebay or Etsy as your go-to tools to determine value can save you the heartache of overpaying for an item. You can also confirm what it would cost you to purchase the item online, as you may find it is cheaper. Just make sure to add shipping costs to your price when deciding whether to buy something at the antique store or online. The only way to know if you have found a real antique at a good value is through education.

4. Condition is key

Part of your education should also include what kind of condition you should buy for your collectible collection. Some antiques have their value destroyed if they are refurbished or restored. Other items are worth more when restored to original condition. Sometimes things are not always clear and it comes down to personal preference of the collector, rather than a hard and fast rule on condition. Some dealers and collectors swear that polishing antique silver enhances value while others believe it destroys value.

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On the other hand, damage to an item will always reduce value. Be sure that before you purchase an antique or vintage collectible that you thoroughly inspect the item for any possible damage inside and out. There is no worse feeling in antique collecting than getting home with your latest treasure and realizing there is a crack or a chip that previously went unnoticed. Since garage sales, swap meets and most antique stores employ an “all sales are final” policy, inspecting an item is of the upmost importance before money exchanges hands.

5. Be cautious

Unfortunately, there is a lot of fraud in the antique world. Scam artists have taken full advantage of the antique craze, with replicated and forged works all over the place. When shopping for your collection, you need to be familiar enough with the items to be able to spot a phony. Look also for words such as “antique style” to identify items that appear to be antique, but are not. When shopping online at places like Ebay, make sure you check the condition to see if the seller has checked “New” or “Used”. If they have marked an item “New”, then you know for sure that the item is not truly antique or vintage. Trust your gut feeling. If you think a find is too good to be true, it probably is.

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