Over the centuries those who have dealt in antiques and secondhand items have not been held in the highest esteem. The popular ’80s/’90s Brit TV series “Lovejoy” featured an antiques dealer (Ian McShane) with a keen eye for the real deal but who wasn’t above creating and selling a little antique fakery. And yes, it’s true, the industry has been rife with fakes, forgeries, scams and dishonesty. Even tony auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s were caught in a massive price-fixing scandal that cheated buyers. But does this industry attract people who are inherently a bit shifty?
Though I am not an unbiased observer (obviously!!), I thought it would be interesting to share what I think are a few misconceptions and the real problems.
Secondhand Dealers as Buyers
It’s not unusual for those of us who sell vintage stuff to be contacted by family, friends and friends of friends with the words “I’ve got a few things I’d like to sell you if you’re interested.” I enjoy these private picks, but they don’t always end well! Here’s why…
“But My Item is Valuable!”
Most people think their items are worth more than they really are. It’s our human nature to believe our stuff is valuable. Especially if it’s old or we have a sentimental attachment to it.
It’s not uncommon for folks to get insulted at the amount offered by a dealer. I have been on the end of that frustration when a woman wanted to sell me a couple of her vintage items. One was a Georges Briard glass bowl and another a ceramic Spode Christmas tray that I didn’t really want. The Spode tray typically resold for $14-20 while the large Briard bowl could possibly sell for $30-50. Both pieces would be a pain to store and ship. I offered her a generous $30 for the two and she blanched and sputtered, “But the bowl alone is worth more than that!” Oh dear. At $30 the deal already wasn’t worth my while. Offering more could have potentially put me at a loss, but in her mind that bowl, being mid-century (which it was) and well loved (truly), was really valuable (it wasn’t!). So my $30 offer was a slap in the face.
“Dealers are Skin Flints”
Margaret told me she felt she was being ripped off when an antiques dealer offered so little for her antique wood furniture. “If he could sell the table for $125 in his store, he should at least pay me $90 for it.” I flinched at that. With such a thin profit margin and no guarantee that the table would sell for $125, it would have been crazy for him to pay her that. In the end, she thought he was being greedy and donated most of the furniture.
The truth…he was just being realistic. There is time, cost and RISK involved in reselling vintage and antique things. Here’s a snapshot…
- traveling to and from sourcing locations
- time spent at estate sales, auctions, thrift stores, flea markets, etc.
- researching items
- cleaning or repairing items
- photographing/describing items
- arranging antique booths
- tracking/storing inventory
- keeping records
- packing/shipping items
- dealing with potential customers
- waiting for items to sell
- purchasing items
- car and gas expenses
- space rental fees (antique booths, storage lockers)
- online sales fees and commissions
- packing and shipping materials (You’d be surprised how fast I go through tape, tissue paper and bubble wrap!)
- software applications like PicMonkey, WorthPoint, etc.
- broken or stolen items
- paying for staff, insurance, etc.
- items that don’t sell (and that happens)
If dealers pay too much for items, they won’t be in business long! If you want full market value (or close to it) for your stuff, you have to undertake to sell it yourself.
Secondhand Dealers as Sellers
I’ve been buying antique and vintage items for decades and 95% of the time have felt that my purchases were accurately described and at fair market prices. The other 5%? Well, here are some of the problems.
Lack of Seller Knowledge
The most common problem I see with sellers of vintage and antique goods is a lack of knowledge about what they are selling and then out of ignorance inflating or falsifying attributes.
Take for example:
- The woman who spotted an “antique” rug at Brimfield priced at over $1000. It was the same rug she had bought a few years ago at Crate & Barrel for $300.
- Last year I spotted a creamer on eBay that the seller listed as “sterling silver,” but one of the photos showed the clear EPNS (electro plate nickel silver) marking, so not sterling.
- Or take the case of a piece of flatware I found on Etsy that was listed as “antique” although the maker hadn’t even been in existence 100 years ago!
So yes, people can get cheated. (Of course on the flip side, a lack of seller knowledge can lead to some stellar finds!)
Some sellers throw wackadoodle, inflated prices on things just to see if someone will bite. Others because they honestly don’t know what the item is worth so they figure it’s best to start high. Sadly, a buyer may think that the item is worth that amount, buy it and later discover he overpaid and that the true value of the item is much less. Now I know some of you may be thinking, but no one forced him to buy it at that price! True, but still it feels wrong to me to vastly overprice items.
- On eBay I saw a vintage sterling silver charm bracelet listed at $1,000. There were no rare charms on it and while it was nice, it was a $200-$250 bracelet. (In the end, after lowering the price repeatedly, it sold for $179.)
- A few years ago I was browsing in an antique store and saw an antique brass beehive candlestick. I had collected those for years and knew a bit about them. I turned it over and saw a price of $795 for the one stick! My eyes boggled. I double checked to see if it was special in any way. Nope. I had bought all mine for under $75 a pair, some for under $40 a pair. This price was so far off the mark and the current value that even if the store gave a buyer a 50% discount the candlestick would still be overpriced. Not sure what they were thinking. Some of my beloved antique brass beehive candlesticks below.
Hidden Condition Issues
This is especially a problem for online purchases where you cannot handle the item before purchasing it. Items may be photographed in ways that do not show any damage or images may be photoshopped to hide it.
Additionally there is seller subjectivity in describing an item’s condition. Years ago I bought a used Eileen Fisher wool jacket from an eBay seller. Described as being “mint” condition, it in fact had pilling and moth damage. When I contacted the seller about it, he said, “Well, that’s ‘mint’ to us.”
Protecting Yourself as a Buyer
- Don’t go into a buying situation without knowledge. Know your stuff!
- Keep abreast of the current prices of the items you collect.
- Be willing to walk away if you feel uncertain about the price or the seller. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured.
- Beware if a seller says “This is worth a lot more.” Then why aren’t they selling it for a lot more?!
- If something described as antique shows no signs of age /wear or sports dubious aging, walk away.
- If buying online, look for the sellers who allow returns.
Most sellers of vintage and antique goods are honest, hardworking, decent folks who make a modest income, but they do make mistakes from time to time. And like any industry, there are a few bad apples.
Would love to hear your thoughts!
As always, happy hunting,