How to find a good deal

Collectors don't always find the bargain antiques under the auctioneer' s hammer.

Where do you go to get the best deal when buying antiques? In the halcyon days of the early 1960s, I innocently said while being shown a neighbour's porcelain collection: "You must really enjoy browsing round antique shops." The response was immediate: "Oh no, I cut out the middleman and buy at auction." Although only aged 10 at the time, I have never forgotten the remark.

If you looked at a recent edition of the Great Antiques Hunt, you may be forgiven for thinking that the advice still holds good. The programme was filmed at an antiques fair at a stately home in Yorkshire. One team of contestants spotted a pair of Victorian watercolours. Their negotiations to purchase the pictures from the dealer rapidly saw the traditional 10 per cent discount from the initial asking price turn into almost 50 per cent.

It is unlikely that the dealer was helping out the contestants. He could have been so short of money he simply wanted to sell at any price, or had purchased the pictures for "a song" from a car boot sale the previous day and was passing on part of his windfall. Whatever his reason, the 10 million viewers watching his performance no doubt concluded a dealer's profit margin is so high that if would-be purchasers push hard enough, the initial asking price will be halved.

Sadly for the antiques trade as a whole, the impression he relayed does not reflect reality. Also, while buying at auction in the 1960s may have "cut out the middle man", the same is not true today. The fact of the matter is that the sale rooms are no longer the dealers' wholesalers, as private individuals increasingly buy at auction. Indeed, it is not unusual for dealers to consign slow moving stock to sale rooms to find that the objects sell for far more than the prices on the retail tickets in their shops.

This may sound like Alice in Wonderland, but fact can often be stranger than fiction. A collector, or discerning buyer seeing value for money, will purchase antiques from any source - at auction, car boot sales and from dealers, whether they have shops or sell at antique centres, fairs or street markets. Dealers will also buy from any source, including "house clearances" which is the purchase of the contents of a complete home when someone dies.

The house clearer will consign the "rubbish" to the local municipal tip, while the secondhand run-of-the-mill material will be sold at a local auction or other outlet. What are considered to be the choice pieces will be on-sold, probably several times, before they find their way to an up- market antique shop or are consigned to auction.

Let us look at an actual example of how the chain works, though for obvious reasons the early stages are based on what is likely to have happened rather than fact. The house clearer may have appreciated the quality of a vesta box, a case for matches, which he found amongst the trinkets in a jewel box. Using a simple acid test he discovered it is made from gold. The person to whom he sold it realised that the button which opens the case is a cabochon ruby. The next dealer in the chain knew that the hallmarks it bears are Russian. By the time it reached Portobello Road, London's largest street antique market, the price had increased substantially.

At Portobello, a keen-eyed "runner", a person who makes his money spotting bargains for specialist dealers, knew from the hallmark that it is the work of August Holmstrom, Faberge's workmaster. He sold the piece to a specialist Russian dealer who in turn passed it on to a Faberge collector. By now the piece had risen from possibly as low as pounds 100-pounds 200 in the early stages of the chain, to pounds 2,500.

Research by the collector in the Faberge archives in St Petersburg then revealed that the piece was made for Grand Duke Sergey Michailovitch in 1901. At auction it would be likely to sell for a minimum of pounds 3,000, which with the buyers premium would have cost the collector at least pounds 3,500. Everyone involved in our true story has gained, with the exception of the beneficiaries of the late, original owner.

This all looks easy, but in our story, only the final three links in the chain knew exactly what they were buying. Even with a basic knowledge, buying antiques can be a minefield. The untrained eye may not be able to spot the pitfalls, let alone translate them into financial terms. Repairs, restoration, poor condition and alterations to genuine objects all detract from their value. Then, of course, there are later (but old) copies as well as fakes waiting to be snapped up by the inexperienced.

The market for antiques can be likened to a game of snakes and ladders. The pitfalls that lurk to trap the unwary are the snakes, while the ladders represent knowledge, experience and a certain amount of luck in finding the good buys. Until you can distinguish between the good, the bad and the indifferent, it is essential when spending reasonable amounts of money to buy from a reliable source. Reputable dealers will be more than willing to share their knowledge and to offer advice on purchases. If you decide to buy at auction, seek the opinion and guidance of the auction house's expert before bidding.

While this cautionary approach is unlikely to bring you a bargain, it will give you value for money and you will avoid paying over the odds for something which is not up to par.

AUCTIONS

Specialist and general sales generally contain more lots than most dealers' stocks. Run-of-the-mill pieces could well sell below a dealer's retail price, but choice and unusual pieces can sell for much more.

Objects are sold with "warts and all", though counterfeits are returnable within a certain timescale. Bidders do not always act rationally, so two equally determined bidders can push the price to exorbitant levels.

Experts at the larger auction houses will give their opinion as to the merits or otherwise of specific objects and guidance as to what should be paid. Do take advantage of the service - it could save you making a costly mistake. Remember that buyers pay a premium on their purchases - usually 17.625 per cent (including VAT).

DEALERS

As retail property overheads have increased in recent years, the number of antique shops has declined. However, the number of antique centres and antique fairs has increased, which is more convenient for potential buyers as there are many sellers under one roof.

Some dealers specialise, others have a wide general knowledge while others only have a smattering of the basics. If your own knowledge is basic, only buy from reputable dealers with whom you feel comfortable. It is prudent to obtain a receipt which describes your purchase.

Dealers will keep a lookout for items that are likely to interest collectors who become established customers.

STREET MARKETS

Undoubtedly the best in the UK is the Saturday morning market at London's Portobello Road. It is the largest such event in Europe - the nearest Underground Station is Notting Hill Gate. The dealers, who come from all parts of the country, begin trading amongst themselves very early in the morning.

Serious buyers should contemplate arriving around 7am as tourists start to swamp the area after 9am. Buying here is not for the novice, but it is an Aladdin's Cave for the established collector. It is also a great experience. Other London street markets are Camden Passage (on Wednesdays) and Bermondsey (on Fridays).

JUNK SHOPS

They sound like a place for real bargains. However, I have yet to discover a junk shop which offers value for money for anything.

CAR BOOT SALES

A great hunting ground for bargains, especially for "modern" antiques such as 1960 designer objects.

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