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My Top 10 Golden Rules for Buying and Collecting Antiques

Have you ever noticed that avid collectors of anything larger than coins, stamps or postcards, seem to have much bigger houses than most of us? I can't decide whether they buy the houses to provide haven for their collections or does a huge empty house cry out to be filled with whatever takes the owners fancy?
Like many others before me, my collecting (some would say obsession) started at the age of 3 or 4 with coins, stamps, cigarette cards and key rings. Of course, also like most others before me and probably since, quantity was always infinitely preferable to quality. And so, whilst my collections grew rapidly and cheaply, their values always remained fairly constant, worthless.
Nevertheless, it was fun and laid the foundation for the discipline that would be needed in later life as my collections began to mature with my income, no doubt in a similar fashion to the way your collecting started, which is why you are even contemplating reading this.

1. The first rule is not to get over possessive about an item you purchase at an auction or an antique shop. That is to say, never become so attached to your pair or Wedgwood Fairyland lustre vases that you will never be able to part with them. Remember to become an antique, an item has grown old and probably had several owners, each who considered themselves its temporary custodian and guardian. Not that you shouldn't receive pleasure from owning something so beautiful and maybe even profit from its appreciation upon transfer. Quite the contrary, look at it, adore it, allow yourself to be enthralled by its beauty, and then let it move on, and enrich someone else's life.

2. The second rule is to find out as much as you can about what it is you are trying to collect or buy. You may already know much about your chosen field of expertise, but there is always room for updating what you know in the light of recent finds, sales and auction prices. Do your research and don't be afraid to invest in books, magazines and membership to collectors clubs, where you'll find a wealth of information that only adds to the enjoyment of what you collect.

3. Rule three covers those who only buy as a form of investment. Unless you have a proven track record, a very keen eye and deep pockets, this is really best left to the experts. Valuations can go down as well as up, just like shares. In fact, antique prices seem to be inextricably linked to share prices. When stock markets crash, antiques seem like a good deal, but watch prices tumble when world trade recovers and people want to put their money back into the markets. The secret really is to purchase the very best example of an item that you can afford. That way there is the greatest chance that its value will increase over time.

4. My fourth rule stems from the mistakes of youth and is to do with giving your collection a focus. Gravitate toward a particular manufacturer (i.e. Moorcroft), artist (Lowry), region (France), time frame (Victorian), or theme (Rugs from the Ottoman Empire). You may do this naturally after a while, or you may ignore me altogether and collect what you want.
I must admit that whilst my collecting has become more focused, just like the branches of a tree, I still, even now, find I take the odd detour. Despite this, the trunk still keeps me on the straight and narrow and is the means by which a collection matures.
Eventually, any new piece must stand-alone against the backdrop of other acquisitions and it is at that moment you will discover the piece doesn't "fit". Not only that, but you'll find that it actually detracts from your collection. This is when you have to hope you bought wisely, and pristinely, because at the same moment that this truth dawns on you, your first thought will be "Can I sell it?"

5. Rule five also stems from the mistakes of youth and that is to buy the best example you can afford. If you started your collection by buying slightly damaged, cheaper versions of the same type of thing to establish yourself as a collector in this field, consider selling all of them to buy just one exceptional example. It will pay in the end! Suddenly you'll discover that one absolutely perfect example is worth more than three - five times what damaged examples are worth. I give no specifics here because this axiom remains true for almost all types of antiques, from whatever field or time period you can think of.

6. My sixth rule is to do with the condition of an item and the likely cost implications of any repair or restoration necessary to bring it up to an acceptable standard. Try to buy objects that are in as good a condition as possible and be very careful of the wording in the catalogue description if the item is an auction lot. Lookout for words in the description such as, 'after' so-and-so in design, or 'in the style of...', or 'similar to...'. These distractions confirm any suspicions that the item is a fake, possibly a forgery and at the very least, not original. These are areas of the Trades Description Act that are not open to interpretation and the way an item is described must be real and true. Nevertheless, note that unless you build into your own price estimate the likely cost of restoration, you could easily end up spending more for the item than it is worth, even at resale. This is why the research you do on an item will never be wasted time. The old saying "Caveat Emptor" - let the Buyer Beware, is never more true than in the antiques world!

7. As a side note to rule six, while Caveat Emptor has a long history in common law, I quite like the new Consumer Rights version, Caveat Venditor. Literally meaning Seller Beware, the saying purports that the Seller is much more knowledgeable about an item (after-all he/she did buy it with the likely prospect of making a profit and so it may be assumed knows more about it than the prospective purchaser) and therefore must bear responsibility for protecting an unwary purchaser. Whilst there may be a certain poetry about the idea, don't rely on it when you realize you've bought a dud.
So rule seven can quite legitimately recommend that you buy items that are well made, have a fairly easily proven provenance, and are representative of the time in which they were made.

8. It's always tempting to 'go with the flow' and buy things that are in vogue at the moment. The trouble is that that is the trouble. A vogue is now, not yesterday and certainly not tomorrow. Rule eight is about not following a fashion, paying the inflated price of that fashion and watching the price fall as the next fashion takes over.
I've lost track of the number of times you see an item on a TV program, such as The Antiques Roadshow, or see a glossy picture of a fine piece of pottery in the Millers Annual Antiques Guides, only to come across it, or something similar, at an antiques fair and with a price tag twice its actual value, just because it's 'in vogue'. Some even have the audacity to advertise the item, "As seen on Antiques Roadshow", as if that justifies the exorbitant price. The fact is, some unlucky person will be suckered in and regret it in fairly short order.
Self preservation and instinct will serve you better if you stick to your own area of expertise.

9. Rule nine? Always, always, always ask and obtain a proper receipt. This is not only useful to establish ownership, it may be necessary for probate, the tax office, your insurance company or the police may want it should, heaven forbid, the item ever get stolen. Your receipt will need to contain the following information: (a) The date. (b) The complete name, address and telephone number of the seller. (c) A full and complete description of the item ('a pair of candlesticks' isn't good enough!) (d) Whenever it's important, make sure any damaged or worn areas are also noted and also the date estimate of its origins (i.e. circa 1895). (e) And finally the price you paid. You should also note for yourself the method of payment, credit card, cash, or cheque.
Mostly, an auction house or antique shop owner will give you most of this information without asking. Your main problem will be at 'car boot sales' or 'antique fairs' where stall owners all to often turn up without a proper receipt book or even a piece of paper to write any sales on. Take your own paper and get them to write it out, or you write it out and get them to sign it. At car boots sales, I even surreptitiously write down the registration number of the car driven by that table owner. Believe me, you'll be glad you took the trouble one day!!

10. My last rule is simple; Only ever buy something you really, really like!

Needless to say I have kept the collections I made as a youth, why would I not? They sit in the attic, in fairly ornate, and incredibly old, biscuit tins, whose value is probably much higher than any of the contents, mainly as a reminder of the B.S. of youthful folly.
Happy Collecting!

Author: Phil Chave

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