A Beginner's Guide to Buying Antiques

31 January 2018

Buying antiques can be hugely rewarding. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of finding a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece that fits in perfectly with your home - especially if it’s a bargain.

Westland London has been dealing in antiques since 1969 and we well remember how daunting it can feel when you’re just starting out! It can be tricky to know whether you’re getting a good deal, but the best way to learn is to arm yourself with a bit of basic knowledge and start from there.

We’ve put together a beginner’s guide to buying antiques that has many tips that you may find helpful including where to buy, how to find gems and spot fakes, and how to do it on a budget.

What is an antique?

First things first - what actually is an antique?

Whilst the term is used somewhat loosely, most antique dealers agree that items over 100 years old are antiques. The Oxford Dictionary definition of an antique is “a collectable object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its age and quality“.

Items that are old but not quite that old are often called vintage or collectible, but the terms ‘antique’, ‘vintage’ and ‘collectible’ have no real effect on the value of an item in themselves. Antiques derive their value from a number of factors, including:

  • Historical significance
  • Age
  • Rarity
  • Beauty
  • Quality
  • Utility
  • Personal or emotional significance

Some antique experts have differing opinions on what can properly be called antique. For example, some consider only ‘masterpieces’ of design and quality to be antiques - but many people (including us) would think this is doing a lot of wonderful items a disservice.

As a general rule of thumb, the 100 year rule is probably the safest way to go. But we’d encourage you to do your own research to help you decide.

Do your research

When buying antiques, you need to be able to distinguish between different time periods. This will help you identify bargains, suss out fakes and talk to antique dealers with confidence - as well as work out which styles will work best in your home.

Before you begin your antiques odyssey, do a bit of research online or get a good book on the subject. Look at pictures, drawings or photos showing examples of fireplaces, furniture or mirrors from different periods. Pay close attention to the different materials, finishes, styles and decorative motifs common to each period. For example, a Renaissance fireplace will be very different from an Art Deco fireplace.

To give you a little head start, here’s a mini antique furniture buying guide explaining what to look out for to determine the age of an antique. Looking at these clues individually, as well as the piece of furniture as a whole, should help you ascertain how old it is.

  • Examine backs, bottoms and insides - most handmade items will have irregularities in their surfaces. The bottoms and backs of items, and the insides of drawers and doors, are good places to look for these imperfections. Most machine-made pieces date from after 1860, so if the piece you’re examining is perfectly finished, it’s likely to have been made after this date.
  • Look at upholstery fabrics and woods - different types of wood were common during different periods, and the same goes for upholstery fabrics and patterns. Familiarise yourself with them during your research, and these elements will become important clues to an item’s age.
  • Check out matching elements - elements that are supposed to match, like drawer handles or feet, may be slightly different in shape if they were handcrafted. Again, perfectly uniform components are likely to indicate machine construction.
  • Look for old screws - screws weren’t fully machine-made until the mid-19th Century. Screws made before this were either partially or fully handmade, meaning no two are alike.

It will take time to become an expert, but equipping yourself with some basic knowledge to begin with will stand you in good stead - and the more antique shops, fairs and auctions you go to, the quicker you’ll learn!

The best places for buying antiques

There are lots of different places to hunt for antiques. Here are some of the best places to look:

  • Car boot sales - car boot sales are a great place to start out buying antiques, and can be prime bargain territory. You’ll see a lot of junk, but there are gems to be found. Be prepared to turn up early, pay in cash and negotiate hard.
  • Flea markets - as with car boot sales, you’ll probably have to do a lot of sifting, but every now and then you’ll hit on something special.
  • Charity shops - charity shops are great for finding lower-end antiques. Donated items are often vetted first by local antique dealers, so a lot of the good stuff won’t make it to the shelves. But bargains slip through nonetheless, so it’s always worth a rummage.
  • General dealers - antique dealers’ shops are often delightfully chaotic, making them a joy to explore. General dealers usually do house clearances, meaning they may have items they don’t know much about. Once you’ve got a bit of knowledge, this is the ideal place for buying antiques - just beware of dealers believing pieces are worth more than they are.
  • Specialist dealers - specialist dealers’ shops are good places to find rarer or more specific items. Their pieces may seem expensive, but they’ll be valued correctly, so you’ll be getting what you pay for. If you can afford them, these pieces often turn out to be the best investments.
  • Antique centres - antiques centres are perfect for newbies. They gather together lots of different reputable dealers, so you can be confident they know their stuff. If you show an interest, dealers are usually willing to share their knowledge, so antique centres can be great places to learn the ropes.
  • Antique fairs - there are fairs held throughout the year all over the country, some with a staggering number of dealers. Fairs like this are worth the entrance fee just for the sheer variety of items on offer and the number of serious dealers you’ll find under one roof.
  • General auctions - general auction houses will often have sourced a lot of their haul from house clearances, so they’re good for picking up undiscovered treasures. If an item you like is unsold at the end, speak to the auctioneer - they may be willing to accept the reserve price.
  • Specialist auctions - there’s no need to be intimidated by specialist auctions. Like specialist dealers’ shops, they’re often the safest and easiest places for buying antiques. The specialists will have correctly dated and valued the items, so you’re very unlikely to get ripped off - and this is where you’ll find some of the very best pieces.
  • eBay - it can be a little more difficult to buy antiques from eBay as you can’t see the items in person, but there’s a huge variety available. If you’ve got a bit of knowledge and know what you’re looking for, it’s an antique buyer’s playground.

We recommend trying as many different places as you can, as often as you can. Make sure the auction houses and dealers you buy from are members of BADA or LAPADA - this will ensure they’re reputable and greatly reduce your chances of getting ripped off.

Finding a gem

Anthony Bridgman, our co-director and head of restoration, says one of the most important pieces of advice in any antique buying guide is to buy what you love. “Go for what you like, because you have to live with it. And always go for the best you can afford.”

Anthony has been at Westland for over 20 years and has a lifetime’s experience of both collecting and working with antiques. He recommends that “if you see something you love, ask the seller about its history and take a closer look!”

Key things to consider are:

  • Is it sturdy?
  • Are the legs even?
  • Are the joints well made, or have they separated?
  • Do doors and drawers work properly?
  • Are there any bits missing?
  • Is the hardware complete and tight?
  • Are there any cracks, stains, chips or broken bits?

If you’re happy with the condition, or are willing to restore it, then follow your instincts because you may not get a chance to buy that piece again!

 

How to spot a fake

It’s every antique buyer’s nightmare - taking home a fabulous period find only to realise later that it’s a fake. So, how do you spot those fraudsters?

First, look at the materials. Is it made of…

  • Plywood?
  • Chipboard?

Are there...

  • Philips screws?
  • Staples?

These are all evidence of post-1930s construction and are tell-tale signs that the piece is a reproduction.

Look for signs of wear - but more importantly, signs of wear that make sense! The underside of a 19th Century table may have a waxy rim around the edge where people have touched it, an antique chair will likely show more signs of wear at the ends of the arms where people’s hands have rested, and a drawer that’s been opened thousands of times will show signs of wear around the runners.

Check for classic authentication marks like hallmarks on silver and purity marks on antique jewellery. There are numerous sites cataloguing different antique marks and how to identify them.

Here are some other signs to look out for:

  • Wood - older furniture is often made from more than one type of wood - it didn’t make sense to use expensive wood for parts nobody would see. Reproductions tend to be made from one type of wood all over.
  • Upholstery stuffing - synthetic stuffing materials weren’t introduced until the 1920s, so original pre-1920 upholstery will be stuffed with natural materials like horsehair.
  • Hand carving - slight imperfections in the craftsmanship are an indication that an item was carved by a human, rather than a machine.
  • Joints - reproductions are often joined exclusively by glue, whereas antique pieces tend to have reinforced joints like dovetail, dowel or mortise and tenon.
  • Odour - newer pieces of furniture will smell newer, with the scent of wood still discernible. It’s difficult to describe an ‘antique’ odour, but you’ll know it when you smell it!

Remember that reproductions have been around for a long time, and some reproductions are valuable antiques themselves - but only if they’re sold as such.

If you think an item may be a fake, ask the seller and make sure they answer positively one way or the other. Legitimate dealers won’t object to your questions. If there’s any uncertainty in their answers, walk away.

The more experienced you get, the easier it will become to recognise the fakes. The best thing you can do is learn as much as you can - handle as many genuine antiques as possible, compare them to known fakes, study reference guides and speak to other collectors and dealers.

Antiquing on a budget

You don’t have to be rich to enjoy antiques - it’s possible to find great antique pieces to suit even the smallest budget.

  • Be a treasure hunter - at antique shops, don’t just look at things at eye level. Hunt on top of cabinets and shelves and under tables - this is a great way to find smaller hidden gems.
  • Get to fairs and car boot sales first thing - this might mean arriving at 6am but it will be worth it! All the best bargains will have been snapped up within a few hours. Having said that, if you can hold out long enough it’s well worth sticking around until the end of the day. Sellers may be willing to knock down their prices if items are left hanging around. So make a day of it!
  • Be open to anything - whether it’s a teapot, compact mirror or walking stick, you can find some really unique items if you keep an open mind. Sometimes the cheapest, most unassuming trinkets turn out to be worth much more.
  • Don’t be afraid to haggle - spend five or ten minutes building up a rapport with the seller. Ask about the piece and maybe tell them a bit about why you’re interested in it. Ask the seller what their best price is, and if it’s too much, gently probe to see if they’d be willing to accept less. Keep it friendly and hold your nerve - you never know, you might be able to negotiate a bargain.

Time to start buying antiques!

We hope our antique buying guide has whetted your appetite - now all that’s left to do is dive into the wonderful world of antiques.

Our Shoreditch showroom is a great place to start. Housed in an atmospheric Grade I listed church, it’s packed with exceptional antique fireplaces, chimneypieces, chandeliers, furniture, sculptures and more, and we’re always happy to talk about our collection.

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