Smart Tips for Antique & Vintage Shopping!

Shopping shows & markets can be a great experience with bargain prices, unique finds and the thrill of the hunt all making for a perfect weekend excursion. In the moment, however, they can also be a bit overwhelming as it can be tough to know what to buy and what to pass up. Before heading out, here are a few tips to keep in mind.


1. Do your homework. Especially if you are looking to make a big ticket purchase, it’s important to go into the show, or market knowing the price range of an item you like. Having comparison shopped will save you headaches and some hemming and hawing. The usual internet suspects of Ebay and Craigslist can quickly give you an idea what an item should cost.

2. Check the item’s materials and their condition. Price should correlate to quality. See if the item has original tags to help date it and let you know if you’ve got the “real thing” or a knock-off. Also, notice what it’s made of: is it leather or nagahide, glass or plastic, oak or pine? Whatever the materials, expect some age-appropriate wear and tear, but make sure there aren’t any substantial flaws. That $50 antique dinner table won’t seem like a bargain when you realize it has a giant, hard-to-mask gash. Politely mention this kind of thing to the seller, and you’ll have ammunition for bargaining.

3. Size up the seller. If you’re unsure, you can get hints as to whether the price is fair by looking around and talking to the owner/vendor. Notice if there are other pieces whose price range you’re more familiar with, and see if they’re reasonable. If you’re at a flea market, take your time and comparison shop between booths (and know that prices will be more negotiable by the end of the day). As for the vendors themselves, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I know I feel more comfortable shelling out cash when the seller proves he really knows his stuff. Also, an item feels more valuable to me when I know its history.

4. Go with your gut. Maybe those chairs you’ve found are a little more expensive than similar ones you’ve seen, but they have an extra detail you love. It’s your wallet, and the bottom line is whether a price feels fair and worth it to you. If it doesn’t, haggle or walk away. If something is not exorbitantly expensive, my final test for deciding if I “have to have it” is deciding if I would really regret not buying it if I knew someone else had snatched it.

5. Bring a tape measure. It helps to know ahead what the dimensions of your space are and what you have room for. Toss a tape measure in your bag to avoid purchasing things that won’t fit your space properly.

6. Look for a label. If you know your designers, a label will help you distinguish a real vintage find from a knockoff. Checking for original details will also help you make the distinction. This is where the ability to Google an item on your smartphone can be a game changer.

7. Check the craftsmanship. Dovetailed joints, hand-stitched seams, and solid hard wood are all markers of quality and craftsmanship that can help determine an item’s value and let you know if a piece is an heirloom worth investing in or really just “vintage Ikea.”

8. Think outside the box. Plenty of quirky vintage pieces can be repurposed as decor if you think outside of the box. I’ve seen vintage wire egg baskets used as pendant lighting, Mexican sugar molds as candle holders and vintage typeface used to spell out words. Get creative and the options will open up.

9. Look for good bones. Don’t be turned off by ugly upholstery or a bad paint job. As long as a piece has great bones it will really shine when refinished.

10. Consider the cost of refinishing. That said, be sure to calculate the time and cost of sanding down and refinishing or replacing foam and reupholstering before deciding that something is really a bargain. If the initial cost plus labor and materials add up to a good deal and you’re sure you want to take on a project, go for it.

9. Be aware of timing. The serious shoppers tend to come out early so things tend to be picked over by the afternoon. On the upside once it gets close to time to wrap things up sellers tend to slash prices or be more open to bargaining in an effort to move a bit more inventory.

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