Design & DIY

A beginner’s guide to antiquing

Antique Market

Crisp, cool fall weekends are tailor made for exploring cottage country’s antique markets and auctions. Sure, you can find things quickly and easily on eBay, but the real joy of antiquing lies in the serendipitous thrill of coming across the perfect piece unexpectedly.

Whether you’re looking for a specific item—Danish mid-century dining furniture, perhaps—or just waiting for something to catch your fancy, these tips will help you make the most of your trip.

Know where to go

If you just want to explore and don’t have a particular goal in mind, a market with many different vendors is often larger and has more variety than a single-owner store. Somewhere like the Roadshow Antiques Mall boasts a little bit of everything, from furniture to silver to jewelry to cookie jars—perfect for stumbling on that special something. If, however, you’re looking for something specific, like a particular pattern of pressed glass, then do a little extra legwork by using an online directory or a simple Google search: many vendors specialize in time periods or types of antiques, and will likely have either a stall at a larger market or a stand-alone store.

Know an approximate value

A quick search of eBay and antique dealers’ websites can give you an approximate idea of an item’s fair price. But remember that pricing can be very subjective, depending on the location of the market, how much a dealer paid for the piece, and how trendy the item is. The value of a piece can also be affected by its condition, whether or not it has been repaired, and whether or not it has provenance (proof of where it’s from or who made it).

Know your budget

Establishing a budget and sticking to it is especially important at auctions, when the excitement of the moment can mean spending three times more than you meant to on a box of doorknobs. Having a firm budget can also be a useful negotiating tool—if a vendor knows you’re serious about walking away, they may find a little wiggle room on their price.

Know when and how to bargain

Negotiating a price is usually part of antiques shopping. Ask for the best price the vendor is willing to give you, see if they’ll give you a break if you pay cash, or offer to buy several items for a flat price. If you’re at a show, like the twice-yearly Christie Antique Show, you’ll usually find the best deals at the end of the day, as vendors try to off-load items they don’t want to ship home. At large antique markets, you may not be able to bargain directly with the vendor, although you may be able to get their contact information. Just don’t be obnoxious—the type of hard bargaining that’s typical in traditional marketplaces around the world isn’t usually appropriate. Instead, enjoy talking to the vendors—many will have amazing stories about their finds.

Know your measurements 

Print up a list of room, window, and door dimensions, so when you find that ultra-funky 1920s hutch, you’ll know whether it will fit in your dining room or—even more important—through your front door.

Know when to walk away (and when to stay)

If a piece is going to require extensive repair, cleaning or reupholstery, beware—those costs can drive up the price of an item significantly, unless you’re in a DIY mood and want a project to tackle. You should also keep in mind that repairing or cleaning some items can reduce their value, which should be a consideration if you’re thinking about reselling. If you don’t really know what you’re doing, avoid buying a piece because you think it might be a good investment. For all the Antiques Roadshow dramatic reveals, there are many, many more disappointed buyers stuck with a bad copy of a Stradivarius. But if you really love an item or can see that it has potential, despite a terrible paint job or ugly handles, then go with your heart. The right piece in the right place can make you happy for a long time.

Where’s your favourite place to buy antiques?