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Buying guide: How to shop for antiques

Buying guide: How to shop for antiques

©iStockphoto.com/Courtney Keating Image by: ©iStockphoto.com/Courtney Keating Author: Canadian Living

Home & Garden

Buying guide: How to shop for antiques

When Judith Miller self-published her first Miller's Antiques Handbook & Price Guide in 1979, she was creating the definitive resource she'd always dreamed about. "It was the book I wanted," says the born-and-raised Scot, who now lives in London, U.K. And it turned out a lot of other people wanted it too: Thirty-four editions later, the doyenne of secondhand chic is a world-renowned authority on everything antique, sharing her expertise with the likes of BBC's "Antiques Roadshow" and now Canadian Living. We caught up with the savvy shopper the last time she crossed the pond to visit relatives in Toronto, and sussed out her eight strategies for making the most of the summer antique markets. Happy hunting!

1. Buy low, sell high
The frenetic pace of the stock market might seem a world away from the ordered calm of the outdoor antique bazaar, but look again. They're both about making investments, and that means buying low and selling high.

"And now is a great time to buy," says Miller, noting that the global recession has driven antique prices to new depths. Design trends further influence market values; Victorian tea sets, for instance, are an absolute steal at the moment, something Miller attributes to the younger generation. "I blame my daughters," she says. "My daughters are 30 and 32, and they don't drink afternoon tea, they don't like pretty little flowers on things and they can't abide china that isn't dishwasher safe." 

But with prices in that category bottoming out, Miller sees vintage Victoriana poised for a 21st-century comeback. "Trendy New York hotels are starting to serve afternoon tea on 19th-century teacups and saucers, so it's a style that's coming around again."

2. Rethink antique
Just because something is old doesn't mean it should be treated like a priceless museum piece. In fact, Miller says some of today's best buys are far more functional than fussy. "One of my colleagues from ‘Antiques Roadshow' just furnished his son's entire dorm room with antiques," says Miller, who notes that the prices of "brown furniture" – sturdy but simple wooden furnishings that would have been made for the lower middle classes a century ago – are comparable to the cost of flat-packed medium density fibreboard (MDF) furniture from big-box retailers. "And unlike MDF, you could resell brown furniture in 10 years' time and get your money back, or even make a profit," she says.

3. Know when to restore and when to reinvent
Built to last, but very basic in design, affordable pieces of brown furniture like a Georgian table are ripe for reinvention. "It isn't the prettiest thing in the world as is," says Miller. "But if you put a coat of grey paint over it and distress it a bit, you would have an absolutely brilliant-looking table that's very much in the Swedish Gustavian style." On the other hand, you wouldn't think of wielding that paintbrush anywhere near an 18th-century Italian baroque console appraised at five figures. "You've got to think of the piece's inherent worth. And to know its inherent worth, you've got to do your research," she says.

4. Play the singles' game
On the hunt for vintage dining chairs? Miller suggests steering clear of sets – a strategy that could easily save you hundreds. "Dealers and auction houses don't know what to do with single chairs," she says. "They are so cheap!" Over time, you can collect what she calls a "harlequin set" of individual chairs that may not be identical but play well together when pulled up to the same table. What's more, the legwork you've put into creating this custom collection will be reflected in its value if you ever decide to resell. "A set of eight chairs that you build up over time will be worth double what you paid originally," she says.

5. Master the art of mixing and matching
Miller's no-fail formula for pulling together a harmonious harlequin set is a simple matter of choosing a period style and sticking with it. 
"I decided I liked chairs from around 1780 and 1790," says Miller. "So although all the chairs around my dining table have different backs, they're all from that era and they're all built from mahogany, because that was the wood of the period." This delightfully eclectic approach is a hit at parties, too. "My friends each have their own favourite chairs and they always get their particular seats at dinner," she says.

6. Learn the lingo
Can you spot the difference between a Louis XIV and 
Louis XV? Having a familiarity with styles, periods and design elements will not only help you make a better-informed bid, but could also earn you some serious cred with the seller. A quick glance at a piece of furniture's fancy footwork is the only clue an expert of Miller's calibre needs to help identify the antique's origins.

7. Barter smarter
Although haggling is at the heart of every secondhand sale, it's a skill that doesn't come naturally to everyone. In fact, Miller says she has seen some shoppers make downright disastrous bartering attempts in the hunt for bargains. "Dealers aren't asking $200 for something that's really only worth $10, so don't insult them with a ridiculously low offer," she says. If a $200 item catches Miller's eye at the market, she says her first strategy is to offer the dealer $150 in cash, which will most likely be met with a counteroffer. "We'd probably finish up agreeing on $175," she says.

8. Forget everything you thought you knew about auctions
Despite what you've seen in the movies, you won't leave an auction with a Gainsborough and a bill for $5 million because you inadvertently scratched your nose at the wrong moment. "You have to be quite obvious with your bid," says Miller. And if the auctioneer doesn't know you, you'll be very lucky to get their attention.

"You really do have to lift your catalogue in the air and make it quite clear that you're actually bidding." Her other advice for auction amateurs? Try not to get carried away. "It's terribly easy to get into a bidding war," she says. "Even if you've budgeted a hundred dollars going in, your bid could be at $500 before you realize it."

If you're loving the vintage appeal of antiques, you'll be even happier to find out how preloved items can save you some dough. If you're an online shopper, preloved clothing are now just a click away. Check out our favourite online vintage shops.

This story was originally titled "Market Values" in the July 2012 issue.
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Buying guide: How to shop for antiques