11 Rules for Collecting
1. Do your homework
We can't emphasis this rule too much: you really need to do your homework. Luckily the internet makes it a lot easier to uncover information these days, but being informed also involves getting out and seeing - touching - examples of whatever it is you want to collect. Make yourself familiar with the market; know what items are selling for how much and you'll have a much better idea of whether something is a good buy or not when it turns up in front of you. Auctions are a very good way to keep tabs on the market by tracking the sale price of items that interest you (don't forget to factor in the buyer's premium). The internet is also handy for research when something is listed as 'rare'. If you can find several other near-identical pieces offered for sale after a quick Google search, it isn't rare. It's always a good idea to invest in specialist books and magazines, go to exhibitions and consult museums. Your chosen field of collecting may have been all the rage 150 years ago but that doesn't mean there isn't new information being uncovered all the time. Risk is reduced by information.
2. Be hands on
Pick an item up and look at it! Feel it, put it down, pick it up again, look at it from the bottom, the top, the sides and even get a magnifying glass out if you want a closer look. Make sure you're entirely happy with what you see, especially if you're buying at auction. A mistake made when buying from a dealer can usually be rectified but if you buy something at auction that you later discover has damage, missing parts or isn't what you thought it was - too bad. It's your problem.
3. Buy it because you like it
In other words, don't try to buy an investment. Don't expect your antiques and collectables to make you lots of money, because the chances are they won't. But they'll probably do something that anything you buy brand new will never do, and that's hold their value. Let's say you spend $5500 outfitting your bedroom with antique pine. You could probably have gone to Ikea and fitted it out for under $2000. But when you eventually decide to sell your antique pine and redecorate your bedroom, you'll more than likely get around $5000 (or more) back for your antique furniture. If you bought everything from Ikea, you'll be paying someone to take it away. The rule is to buy it because you like it, because if you're probably not going to end up making money on something you might as well love having it around.
4. Buy the best you can afford
In some ways this contradicts the previous rule. The main reason to buy the best you can afford is because if you decide to sell later on, you're more likely to get a return on your money. The reason for this is simple: the better quality an item, the more sought after it will be by collectors. There's more competition for higher quality items and there are less of them - it's a case of demand outstripping supply. The best work by a maker or designer will appreciate in value faster than a mediocre work by the same person and if you're building a genuine collection for your own pleasure, you'll want to buy the best you can afford for your own satisfaction.
5. Be prepared to make a mistake
Because the chances are high that a mistake will be made. You might get caught up in the moment and pay too much at auction; get talked into buying something that you don't really want when you get it home; or buy a piece that's not genuine. It's happened to everyone and the best thing that can be said about it is that it offers a great excuse for learning. A good fake can teach you about craftsmanship, authenticity and style and alert you to what's out there that isn't genuine. The chances of accidentally buying a fake are higher if you're buying online and can't actually physically see the item before buying it. This is why building up a relationship with a trusted dealer is so important - it minimizes your risk of making a mistake. Getting carried away and paying too much for a piece at auction will probably only happen to you once - it's a lesson learned the hard way.
6. Don't be shy
The best people to talk to about antiques and collectables are antiques and collectables dealers. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and if you like something in their shop or on their stand at an antiques fair, talk to them about it. Yes, dealers are in business to make sales, but they don't expect every conversation to end with a purchase and if you have a genuine interest in something, most of them will be more than happy to chat with you about it. If you're developing a specialist interest, a specialist dealer with decades of experience is going to be invaluable in helping you to learn and to buy right. And don't forget the added advantage of having a friendly dealer in your corner - most have a very good network for sourcing stock and can come up with items that you will never see on the open market. Other collectors are another great source of information, and if there's a club you can join for your particular interest you'll find the enthusiasm and experiences they share can greatly enhance your collecting enjoyment.
7. Avoid the strippers
When a piece of furniture has existed for a couple of hundred years and been used, dusted, waxed and polished, and exposed to sunlight, chemicals, grime and dirt, it develops a finish known as patina - best described as everything that happens to an object over the course of time. Collectors will pay far more for an item with a lovely deep patina than they will for something that's been stripped and refinished, even if the restoration job is top quality. The soft glow of a rich patina on antique furniture is what gives it character and offer proof of age and authenticity. Choose the piece with patina and respect the fact that it has taken centuries to build up - including the occasional scratch or ding.
8. Give it a theme
Some collectors have many different collections going at once; others hone in on a very narrow criterion and become super-specialised. Most collectors sit somewhere in between. If you can, choose a focus for your collection. It might be broad - everything retro; or it might be more specific - 1920s picture frames. When you've got a theme to collect by it will make it easier to select pieces that suit that focus, and you'll find that items in your collection that don't quite 'fit in' will eventually be moved on.
9. Read descriptions wisely
If something is described as being 'after' so-and-so, or 'in the style of', or is 'similar to', the seller does not have proof of an actual connection and the value of the item will be considerably less than if it was directly attributable to the maker. If damage is noted on the description, look for it on the item - what is described as a 'hairline crack' or a 'minor chip' might not be so negligible in actuality. And if there's no damage noted on the description, ask just to be sure.
10. Get a receipt
There are several reasons why you might need a valid receipt including for probate, tax reasons, insurance or proof of ownership. The receipt should include the date of purchase, the name and address of the seller, a proper description of the item, a notation of any damage or restoration, an estimate of date of origin and the price paid. Most antique dealers and auction houses provide this as a matter of course, but if you're at a car boot sale or a market, you really should still ask for the same information. Don't be put off by the seller being too busy, or not having a receipt book handy - be prepared and take your own pen and paper with you. You can either ask them to write you a receipt, or word it yourself and ask for their signature. You just never know when it might be needed.
11. Try not to covet
By its very existence as an antique, an item has had more than one owner. You're its custodian for as long as you own it, but eventually it will - for one reason or another - move on to another home. Appreciate it while it's yours and graciously allow it to be appreciated by someone else when the time comes.
This information first appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.