It's a risky old game

JUST where do you go to buy antiques to get the best value for money? Do you scour car boot sales, join the throngs at street markets like London's Portobello Road, pay a fee to view the wares at antiques fairs, browse round antiques centres, visit junk and antiques shops, patronise leading dealers, or restrict your purchases to auctions?

There is no simple answer. However, there are some myths that can be dispelled. Auctions are not necessarily cheaper. Junk shops can be expensive. Some antiques fairs and centres can make a charity white elephant stall look exclusive, while certain street markets appear orientated towards foreign tourists looking for cheap souvenirs.

Buying antiques is a little like a game of Snakes and Ladders. The "snakes" are the pitfalls for the unwary. Whereas a certain class of share in a particular company is the same as any other, almost all antiques are different from each other. Condition and quality are the two big variables that can result in two apparently identical objects being worth quite disparate amounts.

Add the effects of restoration, repairs, alterations, reproductions and fakes to the pricing formula and a minefield appears. The untrained eye may not be able to spot the traps, let alone translate their significance into financial terms. What may appear to be a bargain could be an expensive mistake.

The "ladders" are knowledge and experience that steer buyers away from the snakes. Knowledge is acquired from books; experience from handling a dealer's stock and items at auction views. A reputable dealer or auctioneer will always advise potential buyers of the merits, or otherwise, of specific pieces.

lt is estimated that more than half the buyers at London's large auction houses are dealers. Some, of course, may be buying on commission for private clients. But do not fall into the mistake of thinking of the saleroom as the dealers' wholesale source. All it takes is two determined buyers who want the same piece and the price paid may not be rational. Saleroom fever is rarely fatal, but it can damage the bank balance.

The secret is to know when to stop bidding. The purchaser may gain some comfort from the thought that there was an under-bidder. But if both parties were turning a blind eye to economic reality, such comfort is delusory. Of course, there can be bargains at auction if a rarity goes unnoticed. It is essential, however, to know when to withdraw gracefully from the battle to acquire.

Items sold at auction are not just brought by the public. Dealers try to bury their mistakes at salerooms, hoping against hope that the defect they failed to spot will go unnoticed by at least two bidders. Slow-moving stock also often finishes up in the sale room. Ironically, it can sell for far more at auction than the price that dealers have been trying to secure.

Many dealers do not buy at auction, finding it a time-consuming process with no guarantee of success. Instead they obtain their stock from other dealers, private vendors and "runners", who spend their time looking for good buys.

It is not unusual for a runner to drive 2,500 miles a week attending small provincial auctions, car boot sales, and markets, and visiting dealers and those who specialise in house contents clearances.

Their patience is sometimes well-rewarded. They may also find it very frustrating.Runners generally work on a quick turnover and are quite prepared to sell their acquisitions to dealers rather than wait to consign them to auction even though that would offer the potential of a far greater profit. Dealers, of course, buy directly from the public, who want ready cash.

They also obtain items from collectors, who upgrade their collections by trading items with dealers. It is because dealers buy from many different sources that their stock can yield bargains. No one can be an expert in everything.

The purchase of antiques should be approached in much the same way as the prudent consumer buys anything else. Buy what you like, but adopt a military cast of mind, surveying the lie of the land before making an acquisition. In other words, do some homework by reading up the subject.

Browse through dealers' stock and attend auction views and sales to get a feel for prices. Do not be afraid to ask questions. It is only by handling antiques that you will really learn. Your knowledge will help you spot the bargains, wherever they are.

Buying tips

q Early birds get the best buys.

q Although junk shops can yield bargains, grime and tarnish does hide damage.

q A buyer's premium of around 15 per cent is payable on purchases at auction.

q When buying from a dealer, try to negotiate a discount on the asking price.

q If you have a specific collecting interest, or are looking for a particular item, it is worth asking dealers/auctioneers to let you know when an item that may interest you is available.

q Do not buy items for the home that don't appeal just because they seem to be bargains.

q If acquiring antiques as an investment, ensure you buy quality pieces rather than inferior or damaged items.

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