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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Don't count your retirement money yet: employers will stop receiving a pension rebate next year and their staff may lose out

Defined-benefit pension schemes: Rebate change in 2016 may leave you out of pocket

Employees in defined-benefit schemes are held up as the lucky ones, but the state pension scheme will be overhauled in April 2016
Labour will raise the national minimum wage to more than £8 an hour by October 2019 (EPA)

Barclays new Blue Rewards hands cash to customers. What’s the catch?

Joining Barclays Blue Rewards costs £3 a month but then lets customers in for handouts of up to £15 a month

New research reveals that despite the recovering economy, four out of five low-income households have seen no sign of their financial situation improving

Hard-up families could be eligible for financial help

A charity is urging anyone struggling financially to see if they could get help from the state

When is the best time to buy foreign currency?

Video: With an election looming, a hung parliament could hit sterling

General Election 2015: Vote for the party that will boost your finances

Experts warn that the general election is unlikely to lead to stable markets. Simon Read talks to two investment managers who are advising caution

Make the most of your money in 2015-16: The end of the tax year is the beginning of the next...

The new tax year brings with it a raft of new rules and regulations

General Election 2015: Will pension reform be a major factor?

Video: Tom McPhail, head of pensions at Hargreaves Lansdown, says May's outcome could alter your pension

General election 2015: David Cameron's promise brings uncertainty to investors

Video: Simon Read talks to Fidelity's Tom Stevenson

Have you won one of the £1m Premium Bonds' jackpots?

Video: The Independent's Personal Finance Editor runs you through the key facts about Premium Bonds

Give me the money: but not all providers are ready for transfers to Junior Isas

Parents will be able to switch dormant child trust funds to more competitive Junior Isa

Millions of dormant junior savings accounts were yesterday given the go-ahead to swap to better deals as the Government agreed to allow switching. Samantha Downes reports
Hard labour: a woman bears the load in a factory. But equal treatment is causing pension problems

Women to lose benefits from contracted-out pension scheme

Workers were promised that the state would pay inflation increases on parts of their pensions. But now the DWP disagrees
The Budget, says one critic, should have done more to encourage construction of affordable homes

Help for buyers but where are the homes?

A vote-winning Budget promised less tax, greater savings flexibility, and government handouts for first-time housebuyers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

    £50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

    £13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

    Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own