Unless you inherited a three-story house jammed with antiques, you'll have
to begin acquiring the inventory for your shop many months before you actually
open the doors. You'll need hundreds of items to fill your shelves, cabinets,
and floor space. Obviously, you have to buy these antiques at prices that will
allow you to cover your expenses and make a profit. Also, each piece you sell
must be quickly replaced with another. So, how can you develop a system that
will provide you with a continuous, reliable source of antiques at substantial
The usual places where most other antiques dealers buy their stock are
estate sales, auctions, yard sales, individuals, and other dealers.
Many dealers also go on annual buying trips. Some dealers, especially those
who man-age their shops alone and don't have time for much scouting on their
own, employ a small army of what are known in the business as
"pickers." Many dealers take in antiques on consignment. A few
create instant inventory by buying the entire stock of another dealer who's
going out of business.
Auctions are a great way to buy antiques—if you bid wisely—and are
loads of fun. You'll get some really good laughs just watching the antics of
the auctioneers and their helpers.
Consignment Auctions. Consignment auctions are usually held regularly on
the same day of the week or month in a large building owned by the auctioneer.
Dozens of people may bring merchandise to be sold, and the quality ranges from
good to abominable. In many cases a great deal of this merchandise is pure
junk, even leftover yard-sale stuff.
Antiques dealers attend these auctions faithfully even though individual
items to be sold are seldom advertised in advance. The dealers just take their
chances on finding quality antiques at this type of auction. You couldn't, for
example, attend one with the express purpose of buying an early Victorian bed.
Maybe there'll be one there, maybe not.
Estate Auctions. Another type of auction is the estate auction, a
one-time-only event held to dispose of the entire contents of a home. The sale
is often held on the premises. Auctioneers of these events usually place large
display ads in newspapers advertising the sale, and they nearly always include
a long list of items to be auctioned. You just might find that Victorian bed
on the list, along with hundreds of other antiques.
Buying Procedures at Auctions. Regardless of where an auction is held, the
procedure for buying is the same. You approach a table or counter where one or
two people sit and ask for a bidding card. The person there will ask for some
identification, then issue you a large cardboard card that has a number
written on it. The card costs nothing, but you can't bid without it.
Smart dealers always arrive at an auction at least a half hour before its
advertised starting time. The first reason is to stake out a place up front
close to the auctioneer, where it's easy to see the merchandise being
auctioned. Most auctioneers will let you reserve such a seat in some way. One
method is to tape a piece of paper with your name on it to the seat.
The second reason for arriving early is to look over the merchandise. Many
auctioneers won't allow you to browse through the items once the auction
starts, and if you haven't scrutinized everything carefully beforehand, you
can make some big mistakes once the bid-ding begins. Few auctioneers are
really dishonest, and most will point out a flaw if they know of it, but all
merchandise at an auction is sold as is. No returns.
You should walk through the merchandise to be auctioned, taking note of
anything you might want to bid on. Examine those pieces carefully for cracks,
chips, missing pieces, or any other flaws. Every item will have a lot number,
which auctioneers call out when the piece comes up before them. Write the lot
number of antiques on which you plan to bid on the back of your bidding card.
Beside the number, write the amount you're willing to bid for it, based on
what you think you could sell the antique for. Dealers always write the
highest bid they're willing to go on every item on the back of the card. This
is good insurance against getting caught up in what's called "auction
You bid by holding up your card. If a Wedgwood vase, for example, comes up,
the auctioneer will start the bidding by saying, "Who'll give me $500 for
this vase?" Never bid at that first price! That's just the auctioneer's
way of getting the bidding started. He will invariably then say something
like, "All right, who'll give me $100?"
If you're new to buying at auctions, I suggest you attend several of them
before placing bid. You can learn a lot about buying at auctions by watching
the other dealers.
How do you know who's a dealer? They're the ones constantly checking the
back of their bidding card as they bid. They're the ones who look so serious
that you'd think they ere in the middle of a business conference. They enjoy
the auctions, but they don't get emotional about them, as do most bidders who
Any antiques auction offers the potential for finding good buys, but for
real bargains you can't beat the ones held in the country. The farther the
auction is from a large town, e better your chances will be to come home with
your car full of treasures at rock bottom prices.
A Virginia dealer was out for a drive on a beautiful fall day, but not out
scouting. She stopped at a country store to buy a cold drink and noticed a
flyer on the window announcing an auction. Being an auction addict, she asked
the store owner how to get to the auction. He told her to go eight miles down
the road and then five miles down another road before turning onto a gravel
road. So she started out and drove and drove and drove. Pretty soon, she
headed farther and farther into the hills. She finally found the place and
parked her car. There were quite a few people milling around looking at the
merchandise spread out in front of the beautiful country home, but not many
dealers, so she was able to make some excellent buys. One of the best was a
large cardboard box that held a beautiful silver water pitcher, eight silver
dinner plates, three silver trays, and several small silver bowls. They were
all salable antiques, for which she paid $5.00 for the box.
Many auctions go on for hours and hours. Plan to stay until the end,
because that's often when you'll get your best buys, maybe even some real
bargains for 50 cents to a dollar or two.
Sometimes, you might find a treasure if you’re patient and just a bit
aggressive. Many auction houses hold weekly consignment auctions on a
particular day of the week. Items in these auctions may be assorted or grouped
on a theme, such as American folk art. Start attending these on a regular
basis. Get to the know the auctioneer. After you’ve attended a few of his or
her auctions, you can boldly go up after the sale is over–usually the
auctioneer will stop at a certain time and hold over any items not sold until
the following week–and ask if you can buy one of the items that you had your
eye on. More often than not, the auctioneer will say yes to your offer and you
may walk away with a real find to turn around and sell in your shop.
Every dealer has at least one story of a spectacular discovery, a real
treasure bought for a pittance. A dealer in Ohio discovered four sterling
silver steak knives at a not-too-promising yard sale. On one table sat a worn
pink satin jewelry box displaying a medley of cheap jewelry in its upper tray.
She was about to move on when her instincts told her to pull out the lower
drawer in the case. There, dropped in among more cheap jewelry, lay four,
antique sterling silver steak knives. Hurriedly, she picked them up and dashed
to the seller. "How much for these knives?" she asked. "Oh,
four dollars," the seller replied. After she had paid for them, she asked
the seller why he sold the knives for four dollars?" The seller’s
reply? "Oh, we have a new set of stainless steel and those didn't
match." The knives were worth a minimum of $250!
Some dealers learn this lesson the hard way. Many novice dealers go to yard
sales without taking any price guides along. A dealer might find an item that
he thinks is priced well, but he doesn’t know for sure. If he had brought
along a general antiques and collectibles price guide, he’d have been able
to decide if the price was too high or if he should make the purchase. If he
left the sale to check on the price back home, he might return and find that
the item had been sold.
Many dealers seldom take items on consignment unless they know the person
who owns it. Why? Because too many people place too high a value on their
antiques, especially since The Antiques Roadshow has aired on PBS television
stations. The antiques may also have been family pieces and, thus, have
sentimental value. Or perhaps the owners bought them in an area with higher
prices. Whatever the reason, the owners aren’t too logical about setting
reasonable selling prices on them.