A shop owner shares their secrets!

Finding Affordable Antiques

by Deb Palmer


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When a guest whispered to her child, "Don't touch a thing. These are valuable antiques," I laughed. Our home is not a museum. It welcomes five strapping grandsons and two granddogs. We don't worry because our 1920s Arts and Crafts style home is furnished for less than the price of a decent entertainment center and everything is built to survive.

The pursuit of vintage plunder is a grand adventure. Was it easier 25 years ago when we were starting out as baby pirates? You bet. There was no internet, eBay, or television shows glamorizing the hunt. Let's just say that the opportunity was so ripe that I craved a smoke afterwards and I don't even smoke.

Today, it takes more patience and time, but if you learn some basic guidelines, the treasures are yours to glean. Are you tired of paying top dollar for shabby junk? These tips are the ones that dealers like me keep secret.

Learn to Identify Quality

This applies to new and used furniture. Don't buy cheap. Instead, buy smart. Look for wood. Stay away from particle board or any manmade conglomeration of odd materials hiding under a picture of wood. Watch for sawed off legs, deep scars, poor repairs, or new parts. Be willing to paint, replace hardware, and clean. Never look at the price tag first. Sometimes the store owner will pull a price out of the air. Evaluate the price based on quality.

Do Your Homework

When my husband and I were dating, we were penny-pinching college students. For entertainment, we hung out in quaint vintage boutiques, elite shops boasting rare and precious finds, and the Salvation Army. Later, we realized we'd earned a Master's in the art of spotting the deal.

Here's what you need to do. Visit the swankiest antique stores you can find. Learn what you like. Study the construction. Next, visit both high- and low-end furniture stores. Compare design, structure, and quality. Learn the difference between dated and vintage. Don't equate age with worth. That's faulty thinking. Look for classic design. If it weighs a lot, that's a good sign.

Understand the Food Chain

My husband and I chuckle when a customer asks for the story behind their purchase. They want to hear, "We purchased this trunk from the original owner, moments before her passing. Between her final breaths, she shared her story of hiding inside, as the stagecoach was robbed by Jessie James." We usually say, "We purchased this from an estate in Canada." But, it would be more truthful to say, "We purchased the trunk from a secondhand dealer who found it in an alley by the trash at an estate."

Remember the food chain lesson from 4th grade? A similar hierarchy exists in the world of antiques. Here is a true scenario. A woman sells a vase for $1 at her garage sale to a retired teacher who collects matchbox toys as a hobby. A secondhand dealer follows him to his car and offers $15. He takes the vase to his friend's retro shop and sells it for $50. I walk into the retro shop and buy the vase for $200. I price the vase at $600. Six months later, a Portland dealer buys the vase from my shop and sells it to an auctioneer who yells "sold" to the bid of $4200. The story ends for now, but it may begin anew when the collector dies and her family sells it at a garage sale for a $1.

Here's the point. You could have been the lucky buyer at any of these stages. Don't bypass the shops at the bottom of the food chain.

Kiss an Army of Toads

Toss preconceived ideas about where to find treasure. Don't mark any off this list.

For yard, garage, tag, rummage, estate and farm sales, summer is best for quantity, but the best sales are held late fall and winter. If there are too many to choose from, skip those advertising baby clothes and exercise equipment (the staples of most sales).

When buying at thrift shops, second-hand stores, and pawn shops, the buyer should beware. Remember to evaluate the price.

At vintage shops, antique malls, and boutiques, don't judge and keep an open mind. My husband hates what he calls "foo foo" shops. Yet, we've scored super deals beneath a pile of baskets and silk flowers.

Treat antique malls like individual shops. You'll find treasures in the unlikeliest place.

Estate auctions are great, but be careful. Arrive early, so you can study each piece. Decide your top price. Do not let the auctioneer hype you into changing your mind. Trust me that it takes discipline. They are good at their job.

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Internet auctions and shops are a great way to research prices. Remember that only sold prices count. Anyone can list an item for whatever price they choose. Most are not experts. Don't disregard the price of shipping. Try to find an internet seller in your area to arrange for local pick up.

Play Nice

There's a myth I'd like to bust. Too many articles encourage customers to ask for a discount based on nit-picky flaws with the item. This is not how it works. Yes, ask for a discount, a deal, or a break, but be polite. Do you want our very best price? Show affection for the item. Don't pick it apart. Most shop owners live to see their finds end up in good homes.

Lastly, get to know the store owners. Tell us what you are looking to find. Complement our shops. We work hard and truly want to please you.


Deb Palmer and her husband Sandy have been dabbling in antiques for more than 25 years. They owned and managed an antique store in Ellensburg, Washington for 16 years. In 2010, they closed shop but continue to sell antiques online via ETSY.

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