A beginner's guide to buying antiques and collectables

01 September 2008
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Follow our beginner's guide to antiques and collectables before you start collecting. ...
A beginner's guide to buying antiques and collectables Images

Buying antiques and collectables is not always easy.

Perhaps more than in any other marketplace, it can be very difficult to know whether you are getting a good deal or not.

Condition, history, age, authenticity and purchase location can all affect the price you pay – and what an item is worth. In this article, I’ll explain how to approach buying at fairs and antiques centres – and show you some of the differences you should expect.

Antiques & collectors’ fairs

Fairs come in many shapes and sizes – from village halls to exhibition centres and county showgrounds.

Most antiques and collectors’ fairs have no restriction on what can be sold, but there is also a wide range of specialist fairs. These fairs encourage specialist dealers to attend by focusing on one collecting area, such as postcards, toys or glass.

antiques fair photo

Antiques For Everyone offers high quality antiques

  If you are looking for fairs with a high level of good quality, older stock, you should also look for ‘datelined’ fairs.

Dealers at datelined fairs are only allowed to sell stock made before a certain year. Such fairs are often vetted, too – dealers’ stock is inspected by experts before the fair opens to ensure that it is of an acceptable age and quality and is accurately described.

A good example of such a fair is the Antiques for Everyone Fair, which is held at the Birmingham NEC.

Stock at this fair is datelined to 1950 or earlier, depending on the type of antique. This fair provides an exceptional choice of high quality antiques at all price levels, with as many as 50,000 items on sale.

A committee of antique experts vets each dealer’s stock before the fair opens, and having stood at this fair, I can confirm that this is quite a thorough process!

Fairs provide a great opportunity to locate items you would never find any other way – a large fair like the Newark International Antiques & Collectors Fair will have hundreds or even thousands of dealers, each of whom will have a constantly-changing stock of items sourced from many different areas of the country.

If you are just starting out collecting – or just fancy a fun day out – smaller fairs, like the monthly fair held at Elsecar Heritage Centre, near Sheffield, can prove a fertile hunting ground for patient collectors.

Smaller fairs also offer a more friendly and relaxing environment than larger fairs, making a good introduction to fair buying for many collectors.

Fair buying tip

A combination of luck and expert knowledge of your collecting area will enable you to find the occasional bargain at fairs, but don’t expect it to be the norm.

Prices should be reasonable but are unlikely to be bargain basement. Dealers at larger fairs may have travelled several hundred miles and will be spending several days away from home in order to stand at the fair.

They need to make a profit over and above their travel expenses and stall costs – it is a business for them, even if it’s also a hobby.

While haggling is expected, don’t make the mistake some buyers make of thinking that however low your offer is, the dealer should be grateful for it. They shouldn’t and they won’t.

Although many dealers will be regulars at a fair and will have an interest in maintaining a good reputation and building relationships with like-minded customers, the onus is on you as a buyer to be aware of what you are buying and to check it carefully.

The odd rogue trader inevitably appears from time to time – make sure you aren’t one of their victims.

Antiques centres

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Antiques centres offer the chance to view and buy stock from many dealers under one roof. Although the same description could be used for antiques and collectors’ fairs, centres are quite different.

The most obvious contrast is that the dealers are not present – only their stock.

Antique centres employ their own sales staff and make money by renting out cabinets and display units to dealers.

Each dealer pays a fixed rent per month and possibly a commission on each sale they make. The dealers themselves will just visit the centre periodically to renew and clean their displays.

antique telephones

On sale at The Antiques Centre York

More time to choose

The obvious advantage of an antiques centre over a fair is its availability – typically open five to seven days a week, just like a shop. Centres are usually relaxing, friendly places that allow you to take your time while viewing and inspecting their stock.

The Antiques Centre York, for example, is open seven days a week and has stock from more than 100 dealers spread over three floors.

This includes a wide range of jewellery, ceramics and glass, as well as a mixture of other items such as furniture and paintings. In common with many centres these days, it also has a café where you can slake your thirst or enjoy a light meal.

Buying tips

Although they are usually eager to help, antiques centre staff can’t be knowledgeable about all of the stock in their centre. Their role is primarily to allow you to inspect and purchase items, rather than provide the kind of expert advice you might expect from a dealer.

Antiques centres will sometimes be able to provide a discount on the ticket price if you ask – usually a small, fixed percentage. If pressed, centre staff may phone the dealer to negotiate directly, but don’t always expect this to work.

Final thoughts

Today’s antiques and collectables marketplace is probably more open and accessible to collectors than ever before, thanks in no small part to the Internet.

However, while buying online can have its advantages, buying from fairs and antiques centres still provides an unequalled opportunity to view a wide range of stock and to meet expert dealers who share your passion.