Tips on the antiques trade
by Bill Bowen
If you cruise the ads on Craigslist, the auctions on Ebay, or any one of many, many other sites on the Internet, you will see the same item described as antique, vintage, collectible or old. To be perfectly accurate, the traditional definition of what constitutes an antique is something of artistic value 100 years old or older. In the U.S., that definition dates to the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. This presently means that furniture or decorator items dating to 1914 would be considered antique. Over the years, the term “antique” has been so overly used that most people will use the term to describe anything “old.”
While most of what my dealers and I sell don’t fit the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act definition (1914 or earlier), they do fit into the other categories or descriptions that have become, incorrectly, synonymous with antiques. Those two words are “collectible” and “vintage.”
1. Understand the difference between a true antique and the more commonly used collectible or vintage item. And just because something is old does not mean it should have a premium price associated with it. From Wikipedia:
An antique (Latin: antiquus; “old,” “ancient”) is an old collectible item. It is collected or desirable because of its age, beauty, rarity, condition, utility, personal emotional connection, and/or other unique features. It is an object that represents a previous era or time period in human society. Note the above reference to beauty, rarity, condition, etc. in this definition, because that is what differentiates something old, vintage or collectible.
“Vintage” is generally the time period from 40 years ago to 99 years ago. Using that scale, items from around 1975 to 1915 can be classified as vintage. “Collectible” is a catch-all term. People collect everything from thimbles to furniture, from baseball cards to French porcelain. And people collect many things that are neither old, vintage or antique. Beanie babies, cabbage patch kids, Department 56 villages and hundreds of other recent items are collectible. So also, is a Fabergé Egg from Czarist Russia (pre-Soviet Union). But the Fabergé egg is a true antique (beauty, rarity, condition), while the Cabbage Patch doll is a recent collectible.
So, let’s say you are walking the aisles of your favorite “antique” shop and you spot a really interesting piece of furniture that the dealer has marked “antique sideboard.” If it is truly an antique you have to do some research to see whether it should command the price being asked. It could be a really great sideboard that dates to the 1940s, in which case it should be marked “Circa 1940s vintage sideboard” – but not “antique.” And the price should reflect the difference. The key, as a buyer, is to be able to understand the difference between vintage and antique, and that takes study!
2. Know your dealer and your dealer’s specialty.
While you are studying the difference between vintage and antique, remember that the dealer must also know the difference. The world of antiques and collectibles is vast. A dealer who specializes in one generic form, say furniture, will probably have a better idea of a piece’s true value than a generalist who may draw on experience or the same research you use.
3. Where do antique dealers get their merchandise?
The price point at which dealers can afford to sell depends on where the item is bought and how much they have “invested” in the item. I personally do not go to auctions.
Many, many dealers do but I find I don’t have the time or patience for them. However, I have the advantage of owning a shop and much of my inventory comes from direct contact with people who want to sell things. A typical call might start out, “Hi, my name is Sally. Do you buy antiques?” Of course, my answer is yes. The remainder of the call then centers around what the customer has and whether it is something I think I can sell at a price that allows me to negotiate with the customer.
I also go to yard sales. Like many dealers, I find the world of yard sales to be fascinating. Some of my better purchases have come from yard sales. Estate sales are a little more “iffy” for me as the prices at estate sales are generally determined by a professional and may be too high for me, as a dealer, to turn a profit.
So like many of you, I get my inventory from readily available sources. The key is knowledge. My purchase price versus my selling price. If you are not a dealer, you can simply ask yourself: “Is this something I really like?” I tell people all the time, don’t buy something you’re on the fence about. If you really like it, and can afford it, buy it and enjoy it!
— Bill and Monica Bowen own and operate Bunker Hill Antiques Associates, a 35,000 square foot, multi-dealer antique and collectibles store in Bunker Hill, W.Va. Bill is a 1969 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and had a successful 26-year career in the Coast Guard before accepting the position of Program Manager of the Coast Guard’s largest software contract at the Coast Guard Operations Center in Martinsburg. After 13 years there he turned his attention to Bunker Hill Antiques which he and Monica bought in July of 2001. Bill’s personal specialty is sports memorabilia.