We’ve all been ripped off. And if by some chance you haven’t been, your time is coming! The keys to safe, fun, and affordable antiquing comes down to research, experience, and asking antique dealers the right questions. So what are those questions? First, let me briefly address research and experience.
Why research and experience matter
I’ve asked several antique dealers the same question, “how can you tell if [fill in the blank] is fake?” Their answers are almost always the same, “well, after you’ve studied, seen, and handled thousands of [fill in the blank], you just kind of know.”
It’s true; very few things in life can replace experience. This is especially true in the antiques business.
Regardless of what your collecting interests may be, the best advice I can offer you, is to buckle down and do your homework. Visit trade shows, antique shops, flea markets, and garage sales, as there’s no better way to get up close; and when permissible, handle the object(s) you’re interested in collecting. Frequent online auction sites to monitor past and current auctions to determine the average selling price. Read trade publications, reference books, and pricing guides to learn about the object(s) history and availability.
Why? The questions you ask a dealer will be based on what YOU KNOW; so put the time and effort into your research.
Always ask an antique dealer these four questions
Now that you’ve done your research, the trick is to learn how to ask the right questions in order to make sure you’re buying an authentic antique at a fair price.
1. How do you know this is a real antique?
Even the best, most well-respected dealers get duped by fakes. If you’re a regular on eBay, or even the local flea-market circuit, you know there’s no shortage of fakes out there. If it’s “repro-able”, someone is going to make it and fake it. A reputable dealer will be the first to tell you as such and will offer reinsurances through an authenticity guarantee and a return policy. More on these in later.
You’ll also want to keep a watchful eye on their inventory selection. If a dealer sells both authentic antiques and reproductions, the repos should be separate from the authentic items and clearly marked as such. If reproductions are mixed-in with authentic items and/or aren’t clearly marked as being a repo, I would suggest walking away.
2. Will you guarantee the authenticity of this item?
Given that even the best antique dealers get bitten by fakes from time-to-time, it’s important that you ask them for a written guarantee of authenticity. As reasonable of a request as this is, a suspect dealer may resist, or defiantly respond by saying “no”.
One of the most despicable things a disreputable dealer will do is to hedge his or her bets in an attempt to wiggle their way out of this question. As a frequent viewer of eBay auctions, I’ve seen many seedy dealers describe their items with such language as “I believe this piece to be authentic”, or “this is an estate find that I believe to be an original”, or my favorite, “I’m not an expert but it appears to be authentic.” When such language is used in response to questions about authenticity guarantees, the seller is deploying caveat emptor, which means the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.
As a buyer, you should always demand more. Every reputable dealer will describe the condition in full and offer a 100% guarantee of authenticity – in writing. A complete guarantee should include a detailed description of the item, when it was made, and if any repairs have been made. Armed with that, you can rest assured that you’ll have everything you need to pursue a full refund if an item turns out to be something different than what you and your dealer thought it to be.
3. What’s your return policy?
While a written guarantee of authenticity is a great first step in ensuring a risk-free purchase, you also must ask the dealer to produce a written return policy in which the dealer agrees to take back an item that you later find isn’t authentic.
I’ve never met a business person that wants to be sued―especially an antique dealer. The prospect of being dredged through a lawsuit is particularly unpalatable to an antique dealer, since they’re in a business where reputation reigns supreme. Bottom line, antique dealers live and die by their reputations. All of this to say, if you think you’ve been taken by a dealer, don’t just chalk it up to an expensive learning experience, even if you failed to get a written guarantee or return policy.
4. Do you have any room…?
If you buy and collect antiques, then you’re probably no stranger to haggling over prices. For most buyers, though, one question reigns supreme: How much wiggle room do I have?
Over the years, I’ve befriended many antique dealers. In the course of our conversations, I’ve asked them how they go about pricing their items. There’s general consensus around what they call a “trade price,” that is, a price for which they’ll sell an item to another dealer, a well-known collector, or a loyal customer.
The discount offered to those audiences typically ranges 10% to 20%, with most dealers building it into their markup when pricing an item. When wheeling and dealing with a new dealer, keep in mind that they may offer you a discount in the hopes of building a long term relationship with you. Knowing this, you’ll want to negotiate the price.
So how should you go about initiating that conversation? Well, it’s like momma always said, “you’ll attract more bees with honey than vinegar.” Start the negotiation process in a nice way, with an understanding that you might not get the price you’re looking for. Manners go a long way!
I would suggest steering away from questions like “I’ll give you…” or “Can you take…?‘ Instead, try “Do you have any room…?” This signals to the dealer that you’re interested in buying versus playing hardball. This approach also puts the dealer in the position of offering the first number in the negation.
So remember, the keys to safe, fun, and affordable antiquing comes down to research, experience, and asking the right questions. Have fun out there!