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by Bob Brooke



Unless you inherited a three-story house jammed with antiques, you'll have to begin acquiring the inventory for your shop many months before you actually open the doors. You'll need hundreds of items to fill your shelves, cabinets, and floor space. Obviously, you have to buy these antiques at prices that will allow you to cover your expenses and make a profit. Also, each piece you sell must be quickly replaced with another. So, how can you develop a system that will provide you with a continuous, reliable source of antiques at substantial discounts?

The usual places where most other antiques dealers buy their stock are estate sales, auctions, yard sales, individuals, and other dealers.

Many dealers also go on annual buying trips. Some dealers, especially those who man-age their shops alone and don't have time for much scouting on their own, employ a small army of what are known in the business as "pickers." Many dealers take in antiques on consignment. A few create instant inventory by buying the entire stock of another dealer who's going out of business.

Auctions are a great way to buy antiques—if you bid wisely—and are loads of fun. You'll get some really good laughs just watching the antics of the auctioneers and their helpers.

Consignment Auctions. Consignment auctions are usually held regularly on the same day of the week or month in a large building owned by the auctioneer. Dozens of people may bring merchandise to be sold, and the quality ranges from good to abominable. In many cases a great deal of this merchandise is pure junk, even leftover yard-sale stuff.

Antiques dealers attend these auctions faithfully even though individual items to be sold are seldom advertised in advance. The dealers just take their chances on finding quality antiques at this type of auction. You couldn't, for example, attend one with the express purpose of buying an early Victorian bed. Maybe there'll be one there, maybe not.

Estate Auctions. Another type of auction is the estate auction, a one-time-only event held to dispose of the entire contents of a home. The sale is often held on the premises. Auctioneers of these events usually place large display ads in newspapers advertising the sale, and they nearly always include a long list of items to be auctioned. You just might find that Victorian bed on the list, along with hundreds of other antiques.

Buying Procedures at Auctions. Regardless of where an auction is held, the procedure for buying is the same. You approach a table or counter where one or two people sit and ask for a bidding card. The person there will ask for some identification, then issue you a large cardboard card that has a number written on it. The card costs nothing, but you can't bid without it.

Smart dealers always arrive at an auction at least a half hour before its advertised starting time. The first reason is to stake out a place up front close to the auctioneer, where it's easy to see the merchandise being auctioned. Most auctioneers will let you reserve such a seat in some way. One method is to tape a piece of paper with your name on it to the seat.

The second reason for arriving early is to look over the merchandise. Many auctioneers won't allow you to browse through the items once the auction starts, and if you haven't scrutinized everything carefully beforehand, you can make some big mistakes once the bid-ding begins. Few auctioneers are really dishonest, and most will point out a flaw if they know of it, but all merchandise at an auction is sold as is. No returns.

You should walk through the merchandise to be auctioned, taking note of anything you might want to bid on. Examine those pieces carefully for cracks, chips, missing pieces, or any other flaws. Every item will have a lot number, which auctioneers call out when the piece comes up before them. Write the lot number of antiques on which you plan to bid on the back of your bidding card. Beside the number, write the amount you're willing to bid for it, based on what you think you could sell the antique for. Dealers always write the highest bid they're willing to go on every item on the back of the card. This is good insurance against getting caught up in what's called "auction fever."

You bid by holding up your card. If a Wedgwood vase, for example, comes up, the auctioneer will start the bidding by saying, "Who'll give me $500 for this vase?" Never bid at that first price! That's just the auctioneer's way of getting the bidding started. He will invariably then say something like, "All right, who'll give me $100?"

If you're new to buying at auctions, I suggest you attend several of them before placing bid. You can learn a lot about buying at auctions by watching the other dealers.

How do you know who's a dealer? They're the ones constantly checking the back of their bidding card as they bid. They're the ones who look so serious that you'd think they ere in the middle of a business conference. They enjoy the auctions, but they don't get emotional about them, as do most bidders who aren't dealers.

Any antiques auction offers the potential for finding good buys, but for real bargains you can't beat the ones held in the country. The farther the auction is from a large town, e better your chances will be to come home with your car full of treasures at rock bottom prices.

A Virginia dealer was out for a drive on a beautiful fall day, but not out scouting. She stopped at a country store to buy a cold drink and noticed a flyer on the window announcing an auction. Being an auction addict, she asked the store owner how to get to the auction. He told her to go eight miles down the road and then five miles down another road before turning onto a gravel road. So she started out and drove and drove and drove. Pretty soon, she headed farther and farther into the hills. She finally found the place and parked her car. There were quite a few people milling around looking at the merchandise spread out in front of the beautiful country home, but not many dealers, so she was able to make some excellent buys. One of the best was a large cardboard box that held a beautiful silver water pitcher, eight silver dinner plates, three silver trays, and several small silver bowls. They were all salable antiques, for which she paid $5.00 for the box.

Many auctions go on for hours and hours. Plan to stay until the end, because that's often when you'll get your best buys, maybe even some real bargains for 50 cents to a dollar or two.

Sometimes, you might find a treasure if you’re patient and just a bit aggressive. Many auction houses hold weekly consignment auctions on a particular day of the week. Items in these auctions may be assorted or grouped on a theme, such as American folk art. Start attending these on a regular basis. Get to the know the auctioneer. After you’ve attended a few of his or her auctions, you can boldly go up after the sale is over–usually the auctioneer will stop at a certain time and hold over any items not sold until the following week–and ask if you can buy one of the items that you had your eye on. More often than not, the auctioneer will say yes to your offer and you may walk away with a real find to turn around and sell in your shop.

Every dealer has at least one story of a spectacular discovery, a real treasure bought for a pittance. A dealer in Ohio discovered four sterling silver steak knives at a not-too-promising yard sale. On one table sat a worn pink satin jewelry box displaying a medley of cheap jewelry in its upper tray. She was about to move on when her instincts told her to pull out the lower drawer in the case. There, dropped in among more cheap jewelry, lay four, antique sterling silver steak knives. Hurriedly, she picked them up and dashed to the seller. "How much for these knives?" she asked. "Oh, four dollars," the seller replied. After she had paid for them, she asked the seller why he sold the knives for four dollars?" The seller’s reply? "Oh, we have a new set of stainless steel and those didn't match." The knives were worth a minimum of $250!

Some dealers learn this lesson the hard way. Many novice dealers go to yard sales without taking any price guides along. A dealer might find an item that he thinks is priced well, but he doesn’t know for sure. If he had brought along a general antiques and collectibles price guide, he’d have been able to decide if the price was too high or if he should make the purchase. If he left the sale to check on the price back home, he might return and find that the item had been sold.

Many dealers seldom take items on consignment unless they know the person who own it. Why? Because too many people place too high a value on their antiques, especially since The Antiques Roadshow has aired on PBS television stations. The antiques may also have been family pieces and, thus, have sentimental value. Or perhaps the owners bought them in an area with higher prices. Whatever the reason, the owners aren’t too logical about setting reasonable selling prices on them.

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