The Art of the Hunt
Shopping for antiques at a street market isn’t just a hobby or a habit. It’s a bona fide vice-obsession that oftentimes occupies entire weekends for me. Walking the aisles and the shops for hours on end, while convening with friends with whom I’ve found camaraderie over the past couple of decades brings me the greatest pleasure. We sip coffee, exchange knowledge, revel in masterful finds and laugh together. These are friends I’ve made for life. We’ve developed a culture of our own, and we’ll never part from it, or from one another.
It’s said that variety is the spice of life, and that cannot be overstated when it comes to the variety found in an antiques market; the sheer variety of people, objects, interests; you can always find gold in between all the rusty metal. Deep down, we’re all collectors, lovers of both objects and of the stories behind them. It’s like a timeless movie whose characters’ back stories fill the plot with depth and life. Antiques are much the same, and you find yourself drawn in, never wanting it to end.
My group of friends are all into watches, pens and lighters – items almost all men can find some degree of interest in, whether from a pragmatic or a collector’s mindset. I’m the only one in our group who is also deeply passionate about antiques as a whole. I like everything, but what drives me most is the quest to find items of real quality. I don’t have a specific niche. I can buy a tapestry one day, a painting the next, a watch a few weeks later. My goal is the richness and beauty of the find.
But while my group walks in one direction, there are other groups that are collectors of military paraphernalia, tools, weapons, seals, coins. And then there are the professional antique dealers who come from the high-end stores, and they are our biggest competitors. They also happen to be a great source of useful information. We are far from being the only experts here, and we learn from their knowledge.
Some sellers have true knowledge and expertise regarding the items they’re selling, while others care only for what the items can bring them. Money. There are those who pretend to be experts and talk a good talk, and they are the ones who just come across foolishly and won’t convince anyone. Most come from afar; buying directly from families, pawn stores, or even churches. They will occasionally manage a big sell, hitting gold or silver by way of bronze.
Aside from meeting old friends, the greatest pleasure in these markets is finding something interesting, new, and even extremely rare, with a relatively affordable price tag. You quickly learn how to contain your emotions, feign a modicum of disdain or indifference, not letting the seller perceive that what they hold is worth much more. It’s a difficult game. Even after the transaction is done, you can’t let on that you’ve just worked your magic and found treasure. You celebrate it afterwards, with your friends. That object will go to your collection, to the showcase, to be admired and appreciated for a long while, while also being the theme of many rich conversations.
There’s an art to it all, and a real learned skill. You have to be able to read people, as well as understand your own predispositions and weaknesses. In this post, I will share a bit of my own experience, my tips and tricks for negotiation, things I’ve learned through more than thirty years of experience in antique fairs.
I like to say I collect not only great pieces, but I pull off great deals.
I never look for a specific piece, but stay watchful for the good ones at a good price. Don’t ask the price of everything, but only what you’re certain to buy. The price of a watch from a watch seller will probably be considerably higher than the same watch from a furniture and crystals guy. Be aware of what’s out there and what it’s worth before you go hunting.
Punctuality and attendance are key. There’s no use in going to an antiques market only once a month, and you can’t show up only occasionally with the hope that your luck will win out. The exhibitors count on those who are always there, for they already know schedules and preferences and are always happy to show the good, new stuff first-hand to those who are regulars.
Steer clear of what is fashionable; years ago it was the Murano crystals, nowadays it’s the Advertising Signs. Whenever an item becomes fashionable, it doesn’t take long for them to be perfectly counterfeited and sold to those who are unsuspecting and green.
If you’re asked, be honest about what you want to pay for the item, because you might be tested. But if the item in question interests you and you don’t want to rate it, make an offer, but make it clear it is not your rating.
Try not to bargain on every transaction, otherwise you’ll be known for it, and sellers will steer clear of you. Reserve the bargaining for what really interests you and is highly valued. Many times I find incredible pieces very cheap. If the price is fair, don’t bargain for the sake of bargaining; it will cost you future deals with that vendor. Beware that many of the sellers are cranky and difficult to interact with. Pay the asked price and let it be clear you’re not bargaining, that you recognize the value of their piece. You can win these people over if you handle yourself properly.
Buy wisely when you’ve found the treasured object buried amid less favorable items. Let’s say you find a lot of 5 pens and only one of them is great, while the others are worthless. Never ask directly for the price of that one pen. Split 3 from the lot, ask for their price together, and then offer a 1/3 for the great one; or even buy the whole lot for the sake of the gem. Don’t let the seller be under the impression he could have gotten more out of you.
Do not buy an item simply because it's cheap. That’s an utter waste. Buy what you like, and buy only pieces that add value to your collection. Sell the ones that have lost meaning to you. Don’t be an accumulator: this is a frequent trap that every collector needs to be aware of and sullies the purity of what you originally set out to do. You are a connoisseur of antiques, not a hoarder.