Antiques & Collectibles Education Sought
October 20, 2011 10:33 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn about antiques & vintage collectibles?

I have more than a passing interest in collectibles and antiques, though to be perfectly frank more on the vintage collectibles than the antique side.

I've been going to a local auction house for the last couple of months and I routinely see things there that not only interest me for my personal use/collection but that I recognize as having resale value. I have met a couple of people there who either have stores of their own or who deal in this stuff already and I'm interested in doing this as a sideline/hobby now with the possibility of doing more with it down the road.

My question is how do I get the best combination between a quick education and a deep understanding of the market? I've just ordered a couple of books - Kovel's guide and Schroeder's Collectible Toys to read through. Are there others that I should seek out?

I watch American Pickers, Storage Wars, Auction Kings, and a couple of other shows like it.

I have an inherent "need to know" about things that interest me and generally pick up knowledge about those things easily and quickly.

I understand that condition impacts value, but I'd like to have a greater understanding of not only what to look for and how to value items but also how deeply certain condition levels impact certain collectibles or even furniture. Especially confusing are the items where refinishing/restoring can either enhance or destroy the value of something.

Example: a few weeks ago I picked up an original (not one of the newly produced) Heywood Wakefield step side tables with drawer in champagne finish for only $35. The finish on the top surfaces has been damaged. The wood is in good condition. I know it's next to impossible to refinish this with a good match to the original champagne stain though. I can't decide if it would be better to leave it as is or to refinish in the easier to deal with wheat finish.
posted by FlamingBore to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Wifey and I do this on a regular basis; we go to auctions, buy stuff, and resell it on ebay or at flea markets or in our antique booth.

The way we have learned is mostly through doing, starting small and risking mistakes. Price guides, the antiquing shows, etc., all give prices, but they're really rather broad approximations. Knowing what something's worth comes from handling and experiencing as much as reading in a book.

Now, glassware and stamps and comics, which are all heavily documentable collectibles, do need the help of a guidebook -- there's just too much to memorize. But, when it comes down to resale, it comes down to what would somebody pay for this.

That is a matter of artistic license. Wifey and I have written for collectible blogs, magazines, run our own blogs, and talked to dealers and auctioneers and appraisers and so forth, and everybody's got a different method. It's based on a combination of their own experience, their knowledge base, and what they feel they've been 'lucky' on. There's a lot of hunches and having a 'feeling' in the antiques resale business, so if somebody tells you that eBay is only good on Mondays and Tuesdays (something one dealer told me), take it with a grain of salt, but don't dismiss it too out of hand.

Coming up with your expertise(s) will be a big asset. As you learn, focus on the stuff you like and decide that's where your money is. Mine is electronics, books, and history-related things. Wifey is fabrics and books and 60s memorabilia. We know we can trust ourselves on those sorts of items; things outside of that, not so much. Once you've figured out your expertise, use that to find the most profitable stuff. But do take risks, because that's how you learn -- if $5 just seems like too much of a bargain, jump on it even if you're not completely sure what it is. If you learn it's a fake or too chipped to be resellable, that's $5 of learning right there.

Condition is, by far, a big deal in an item's value. What's more important to know is when an item's condition reduces its value to zero, or less than zero (costs you more to hold onto or dispose of it). If you buy something for $20 and can't sell it for more than $10, you sell it for $10 and move on. If you buy it for $20 and it sits and sits and sits, you're out the space, your time, and the money you paid for it. Reselling anything is about moving inventory, so you try and buy low and sell high -- but sell is something that needs to happen, no matter what. You'll begin to learn how much a condition issue is 'worth', that it's damaged but still resellable, so you won't be so fixated on getting the perfect thing, just the thing that'll definitely resell.

So, my advice is: go get your hands dirty. Buy things that are dirt cheap, but you're certain you can sell. Then sell them. If you're not sure, ask somebody. Every dealer I've known loves to tell stories. There is some backstabbing and 'secret plans' in that world, but not as much as you might think. Everybody loves to talk about what they do and what they know, and if somebody thinks you think they're an expert, they'll tell you all about it. You'll start building your own stories, which will, in turn, be your reference library for future buys. There might be a logic to it, or not, but if it works, keep doing it.

Also, if you want a book, the new American Pickers book is actually a nice primer on getting started buying and selling antiques.

MeMail me if you want to talk, too.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:38 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

See my answers from previous, somewhat related question. AzraelBrown's answer is spot-on too.

You have to understand your market, and that television shows are in no way real. The only way to learn is by spending time in the trenches, and making connections. You need to have a good reputation, you need to have "an eye" and you need to deal with people as much as with the things.

The Pickers shows often have the dealers picking interesting items that look good on TV, but that they'll only double their money on, and that's no way to run a business. You need to research the retail-priced antique stores, you need to research online prices, and you need to visit the flea markets too - know all the markets in your area.

You also need to understand how the guides work behind the scenes. They're not gospel. The Kovels reps would come through the auction house I worked for and choose a selection of varied items that would round out their book nicely, we'd email them the images and they'd ask for us to forward the prices received when they sold. They do not specify when showing an auction value for an item whether it went to an "end user" or a dealer to flip, that Toronto was currently keen on something because of the designers that shopped there, or whether it was snowing that day and so the crowd was thin, or whether Martha Stewart just wrote about her brass tray collection again and they were trending, or whether the item had a reserve, or other factors that influence the ultimate hammer price. And, they take a year to publish so they're out of date as soon as they're on the shelves. They're a good identification resource, and a general guideline - but they are ephemeral.

is a fun book that takes you on a journey, is about buying and selling and enjoying fun things, and had good information in easily digestible nuggets.

My advice: When you're at the auction, learn who everyone there is, not just a couple of people.

Taking the example of your table: You're at an auction along with dealers, and you either outbid a dealer with an established outlet for it or they were avoiding it because they knew it had issues, which is why you only got it for $35. Dealers know their limits. Your choice now is to find the end user yourself, and have the choice as to how much you make by either refinishing the table and getting a price in one range for that; or by flipping it quickly to the next level and making a quick profit (an end-user who can't attend auctions, and can't pay full antique retail for a perfect table). The more you put into it, the less you make. But, now, you can't take it to the store of a person (especially one who was at the auction) to flip it if they would have bought it at the next lower increment, see?

Okay, I've got to run, but MeMail me if you'd like.
posted by peagood at 12:04 PM on October 20, 2011

Addressing the example specifically: Well, first of all, you paid $35 for a damaged piece of furniture, so there's your baseline right there.

Should you refinish? If you want to sell the Heywood Wakefield step side tables as "Heywood Wakefield step side tables", the answer is generally no, a person who wants a Heywood Wakefield step side table wants them in as untouched original condition as possible.

But, that doesn't mean nobody would ever buy it again: that's what Cash and Kari and Pickers Sisters do: they buy old stuff, but they don't sell it as collectible examples of old stuff. They repurpose it and sell it as decorating or furniture pieces. Depending on your market, even a mint-condition piece of 1920s furniture could be worth more as a restained and repainted piece of 'modern' furniture. The Shabby Chic movement has been living off that for years. If you don't think you have the ability or materials to produce a restoration-quality Heywood Wakefield step side table, then do something else with it and sell it as whatever you make. Strip the whole thing and stain it something new. Put a coat of green over a coat of blue, then paint it white and beat it with a chain to show through the underlying layers. Sell it for $50, and depending on what you spent on paint or stain that's profit right there.

You can even use that to your advantage: there's a level of arbitrage in antiques dealing; you're buying from "my basement is too full" to sell to "I am decorating my sunroom", or buying from "can't get film for this camera anymore" and selling to "I have every model of Canon ever made". There is likely a nice market which involves buying from "slightly damaged furniture" to sell to "buy cute things for my living room", that doesn't involve the word "collectibles" or "antiques" anywhere within, which means that you needn't worry so much about mint condition.

If the furniture gurus look at your Heywood Wakefield and pass because it's too damaged, that just means that, to the market they sell to, it is worth less than zero to them. Their preferred buyers will not buy the thing you're selling. You, on the other hand, may know of a market that will pay something more than zero, and hopefully more than you paid for it. Maybe you have to put some work into it, maybe not, but in the end you're going to be able to sell it where other prospective buyers didn't think there was enough profit. That's a risk, but it's a risk you took, so use it to your advantage and see what you can do with it.

(a little caveat: if you do refinish, disclose that the item is refinished. Don't strip and sand your stepside tables and then stain them as close to original as possible and hope nobody notices; they will notice, and if you didn't disclose the refinishing it will not look good for you)
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:14 PM on October 20, 2011

Speaking as someone who owns original finish, and refinished HeyWake stuff in Champagne and Wheat the difference between the original finish for Champagne and the finish kits sold online is pretty negligible.

Also, in my experience at auction for HeyWake items refinishing seems to have little to no impact on the value seen at auction for my area.

Also speaking specifically for my SO and I (and extending this to the MCM communit she interacts with), we do not have an issue with refinished modern wooden furniture, original fabric for upholstered furniture is much more important.
posted by nulledge at 12:42 PM on October 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. Very helpful.

The table is just one example of many, of course. I think on the day I picked up the HW table I got lucky because every other day I've gone to this auction place the competition has been stiffer. That day was gorgeous and a holiday so I think a few people opted to enjoy their day.

I have been observing the people almost as much as the items at auction. This isn't a high end place and the buyers range from a guy who has a low end resale shop to designers looking for inspiration and collectors picking up great buys.

Right now the plan is to roll the dice on this with $5k to see if I am any good at it, can make some money and most importantly, still enjoy it.

Keep the thoughts and suggestions coming!
posted by FlamingBore at 1:51 PM on October 20, 2011

Apron Thrift Girl is a great blog that discusses reselling. She has a great list of resources and works harder to resell than most.
posted by peagood at 2:35 PM on October 20, 2011

The best bit of advice I ever heard - about the antiques biz - was from a 90 year old dealer. Very rich dude. Always had the best stuff. When I asked him what the secret to antiquing was, he said -

"Be the first one in the house."

What he meant was, be the first one to get to pick through the estate. Before an auctioneer, before the dealers, before anyone. You need to get creative to find ways in the door. Networking with estate lawyers is one venue.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 6:45 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing you should probably do is pick a focus. Find the particular genre of collectibles you love, and learn everything you can about it. This will allow you to develop an eye for quality and age, and make it much easier to find the stuff worth buying.

For me, it's clothes. If you show me an item of clothing made in the last century, I can tell you when it was made within about a five-year window. I can ID vintage clothes by their labels, zippers and finishing. I'm learning about particular designers, lately, and I can go to any given thrift store and come out with the two or three items that are worth my time.

Find what you love, and get knowledgeable about it. Talk to other dealers. Make contacts and connections. Listen to the rambling stories that older dealers tell. All these things will make you a better picker.
posted by nonasuch at 9:00 PM on October 20, 2011

We don't have estate sales in the UK, but in the past I have made money from buying from charity shops and selling on. Partly it is a case of spending time - going to them on a regular basis, knowing where to go (rural and affluent towns can be good, I also found that one-off shops had better stock than the big chains who employ people to spot the collectables), partly it's a case of knowing what's what. I had a summer with little to do so I read up on 20th century homewares, which was handy when I came across some Carltonware Walking Ware plates and sold them for ten times their value via eBay. I also know some fashionable brands or styles, so that was also something that was useful - for example, with clothing it's useful to know about vintage labels and what's likely to command a resale price on name alone, but it's also useful to know, for example, whether there's a fashion for jumpers with tiger heads knitted into them or whether there's a 1950s retro movement who may want that 1980s repro dress. Picking an area/era and zoning in on it helps. Look at what people are buying and selling on Etsy and eBay, and also have a look at some magazines or sites that cover trends in the area so you can see what people are wanting just now. Not long ago people were getting rid of their chintzy prints, now that stuff sells like, well, flower-covered hotcakes.

A lot of it, though, is taking a chance - I bought some Strawberry Shortcake mugs knowing it was a pretty retro character, sold one for £3, then put the other on just to get rid and sold it for £75. To this day I have no idea why.
posted by mippy at 8:42 AM on October 21, 2011

mippy mentions seeing what people are selling on Etsy and ebay. ebay's "Saved Searches" function is great for getting a sense of various categories. Pick the categories you're interested in, do a search for listings or completed listings (you'll find the latter option on the advanced search page) and set up some saved searches that cover those areas (click on "Save search" under the search box). Etsy doesn't have saved searches, of course, but you can bookmark searches you use frequently in your browser.

The great thing about this habit is that looking at hundreds of items in the same categories every single day will quickly give you a sense of what is common, what is uncommon, what condition tends to be like, where people tend to start their pricing, and what things tend to sell for, all without leaving your computer. Here's a completed listings search for Heywood Wakefield.

There are limitations to ebay/Etsy research, of course - furniture is an especially problematic item, because it's heavy and difficult to ship. I think people tend to overprice vintage furniture as compared to local stores in my local city, because they rationalize that they reach a larger audience.
posted by jocelmeow at 3:54 PM on October 21, 2011

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