Guide to Antiquing in New Hampshire
It’s August, which means it’s time for the 58th annual NH Antiques Week. To mark this year’s celebration of antiquing, we’ve constructed a guide for newbies with advice from experts who’ve played the game of treasure hunting for years.
It’s August, and that means another NH Antiques Week (the 58th!), where people from across the country gather in NH to buy and sell antiques. To mark the moment, we’ve constructed a guide for newbies, those who have witnessed the joys (and addiction) of people who are antiquers and want to learn how to do it. Barbara Coles, our managing editor, who’s been an antiquer for years, puts you on the path. Let the game begin.
Get Started: Pick Your Path and Know Your Stuff
Group shops, flea markets, auctions, estate sales, eBay — most serious antiquers (we’re including collectors in the term) can be found at any and all of them. Others might concentrate on one path — just eBay, for instance. We’ll tell you what the different paths are like, with our resident antiques expert, Jason Hackler, co-owner of New Hampshire Antique Co-op in Milford, providing an expert tip and pitfall for each. You can also see his monthly column "Treasure Hunt" here.
Before you step into the game, you need a modicum of knowledge about antiques and collectibles. Otherwise, you may pay too much or find you’ve bought a reproduction. There are so many different kinds of antiques or collectibles that it’s impossible to know everything about everything. (That’s one reason why people specialize, collecting just Depression glass or daguerreotypes, for instance.) There are lots of ways to educate yourself — there’s a ton of information online, you can buy price guides (Kovels, probably the best known) or you can watch shows like PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” as well as the less-genteel “Pawn Stars” on the History Channel. You also want to acquaint yourself with terms like “as is.” Check out Jason's glossary here.
Basics: What is an antique? Officially, the US Customs Service says an antique is an item at least 100 years old. But, in practice, the term is used loosely and often reflects the age of the person using it.
What is a collectible? If something is less than 100 years old, it’s considered a collectible. There are three types, according to PBS: artistic and historical (like a Tiffany lamp), mass-produced (Beanie Babies) and associations (the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK).
It used to be, if you wanted an antique or high-end collectible, you went to an antique shop owned by an individual. If you wanted a lower-end collectible, you went to a flea market. But in 1972, in Maine, a group shop opened and changed everything. The shop owner had built rows of booths that dealers (or hobbyists) could rent to sell their wares. Early on, it was mostly flea market stuff, but soon antiques appeared in the mix. Today, individually owned shops still exist, but most of the selling is done in group shops, many of them in a large space with a labyrinth of booths. You can find everything under the sun there, from Roy Rogers lunch boxes to a pricey grandfather’s clock. If you’re a dealer, you get a discount. Dealer or not, prices are often negotiable. Tell someone on the staff what price you’d offer and they’ll call the seller to see if it’s acceptable.
Jason's Expert Advice
TIP: If you are going to ask for a lower price, be prepared to pay with cash or check. Take your time to look and read tags; there is no rush. Group shops are amazing places to learn about antiques and see many different types of product from dealers with many areas of expertise.
PITFALL: Not all group shops have someone available to answer questions about specific objects. At New Hampshire Antique Co-op, we have a knowledgeable staff and appraisers available to answer questions.
They’re usually open from April to October on Sunday mornings, starting very early (we’re talking 7 a.m.). Antiquers say if you get there at 9 it’s too late. Indeed, most of the good stuff will be gone. Dealers have already swept through and by then are back home drinking coffee. Some pickers start even earlier; they’re peering into car windows and truck beds at 6 a.m. as the people who are going to set up are waiting in line to get in. They often buy stuff right there. Even if you get there early, as you’re perusing the tables on the field, sometimes you’re hard-pressed to find antiques or collectibles among all the socks, cleaning products and leather goods. But no matter, it doesn’t dampen the thrill of the hunt. You might check out the Hollis Flea Market, said to be the largest and oldest flea market in New Hampshire.
Jason's Expert Advice
TIP: Bring cash and checks; credit cards are not often accepted. Be nice if trying to negotiate. Remember the vendors were up before sunrise!
PITFALL: Sometimes you only have seconds to make a decision about whether to buy an item because there may be someone right over your shoulder who will buy it as soon as you put it down.
This is a flea market on steroids. It’s the largest in New England; some say the largest in the world. Three times a season — in May, July and September — dealers come from all over the country to Brimfield, Mass., (about an hour and a half drive from Nashua). For six days, rain or shine, more than 5,000 dealers on 20-plus fields display their wares. Opening days and times of each field are staggered throughout the week, so it can be a little complicated. And, if you’re waiting in a crowd for the gates to open, it can be hazardous. The crowd surges forward and then people start running so they can quickly scan the hundreds of booths in hopes of beating out the competition. People looking for one specific item often wear a T-shirt that states what the item is in hopes a dealer will spot them; others wear signs on their hat or hand out cards. Cash is the preferred method of payment (sometimes it can get you a better price). For a schedule and advice for making your trek easier, visit brimfieldshow.com.
Jason's Expert Advice
TIP: Plan for Brimfield as if you are going for a 10-mile hike: water bottles, snacks, good shoes, a hat and knapsack. Find great falafel in the food court.
PITFALL: There is so much to see it is easy to get overwhelmed – parking and traffic can make a city rush hour seem tame in comparison.
You might think estate sales are always to dispose of the property of a deceased person at their home, but about half the time the property is that of someone who’s simply downsizing. (Remember that when you’re feeling a little weird rummaging through stuff.) The sales are held either by the downsizer, the family of the deceased or a professional company. However it’s done, the goal is to sell everything (curtains and all sometimes) and sell it quickly. Get there early because, no matter how early you get there, dealers will be ahead of you in line. Once in, they’ll plow through the rooms with ruthless efficiency (you’re not likely to see them sorting through a basket of vintage linens) and be out the door, on to the next estate sale. That leaves you with fewer treasures to choose among, but you can take your time examining the china for chips and the chairs for cracks. Prices tend to be a bit higher than at yard sales, but they’re usually lowered each day (sales can last up to four days), so what’s left at the end can be had for cheap.
Jason's Expert Advice
PITFALL: If you do not know what you are looking for, the start of the sale will make you feel very rushed as everyone is in a tear to get through.
Live auctions are perhaps the most exciting aspect of antiquing because they’re part buying, part blood sport. In the thick of it, for instance, you might get drawn into a bidding war, where you bid way past what you wanted to spend because you just had to slay your opponents (see Jason’s tip for avoiding that). The process starts with the preview, where the auction house displays all the goods that will be on the block, usually taking place the night before, in the hours prior to the auction or both. This allows you to see what’s there and closely examine anything of interest. Right before the auction starts, get a bidding card, which has a number on it. Note terms of payment and whether there is a buyer’s premium, which is added on to the final auction price. When the bidding begins on your item, wave your bidding card until the auctioneer sees you. After that, a nod of the head will probably suffice. All auctions are not the same — in New Hampshire they can range in quality from, well, junky to the very finest antiques. And, beware, auctions can be addictive.
Jason's Expert Advice
TIP: Look everything over before the auction! If you did not get a chance to examine it and look for restoration or condition issues, then do not buy it. Bring a flashlight to help you look at items.
PITFALL: Remember at auctions there are no returns or guarantees. If you buy it, then you own it. Stick to your price, don’t forget the buyer’s premium and do not think that if someone else is bidding it must be worth it. I have seen objects bring many times what they could be purchased for in a non-competitive shop environment.
A new kind of auction was added to the mix in 1995, when eBay went live as part of the dot.com boom. The site became a multi-billion dollar international business by offering, for a small fee, the ability to buy and sell antiques and collectibles online. You can peruse a multitude of categories from Pez dispensers to hand-painted Tibetan rugs, decide what to bid and wait the (usually) several days to see if you win. You can either monitor the bidding and enter your bids as it progresses or you can use the automatic bidding eBay provides. The fact that the hammer goes down in a split second with online auctions has spawned strategies that sophisticated buyers use to make sure they’re the ones that get the last bid. These strategies include bid sniping, squatting, low-balling and more. Google “eBay bidding strategies” for advice about how to use those tools to win. If you do win, your item will be packed and sent to you. Be sure to rate the seller. Also, you can avoid the angst of bidding by using the “Buy It Now” option that many sellers have.
Jason's Expert Advice
TIP: eBay is a great place to purchase collectibles that can be easily photographed and described. Look at the photographs carefully and ask for more pictures if you need more details.
PITFALL: I find purchasing antiques difficult if you cannot see them in person. Photographs can make things look better (or worse) than they actually are. Condition reports can be too subjective. Shipping can be difficult.
- As is/As found/Restored: Uh-oh, something is wrong; the item has a chip or crack, may be missing parts or not working. It may also be restored so well that it is difficult to tell (reputable dealers will disclose if something is restored).
- After: This term is used to describe whether something is a reproduction or done in the style of a particular artist or designer.
- Provenance: The history of an object, likely including its ownership, origin and/or exhibition history. Provenance can also help authenticate a piece.
- Ephemera: Collectible printed paper items that were used for advertising such as pamphlets, notices and postcards as well as historical letters and documents.
- Smalls: Term referring to items that would be displayed in a case. Often ceramics, silver and glass.
- “Brown wood”: Term describing formal furniture typically made from mahogany or walnut.
- NFS: Simply means NOT FOR SALE – no one likes to see this!
- Mint in the box: Term used for boxed toys and collectibles that have never been used. Usually these items are from the 20th to 21st century. You will see this term used often on eBay.
- Crazing/Craquelure: When a glaze, finish, or paint shrinks, typically from temperature changes, and forms surface cracks.
- Listed Artist: This means that the artist has a biography that can be found either in art reference books or online databases. This can increase the value of the work.
- Lot: Typically a description for an item or grouping of items being sold at an auction.
- Maker’s Mark: Not to be confused with the bourbon, this is an identifier or label by the company, maker or artist of a piece. These marks can be clear and easy to identify or cryptic with only a symbol or initials. There are reference books to help research marks.
What’s Hot, What’s Not
We asked Terry Kovel, co-author of 97 books and guides to antiques, bibles to many antiquers, to tell us what antiquers are searching for these days (it changes frequently) and what they’re not. Here’s what she said.
Brown furniture: Unless it’s a museum piece, any kind of brown furniture is hardly worth buying (unless you’re using it). Kovel says she saw a Chippendale period desk that sold for $1,000 a few years back recently sell for $300. Same drop-off with Victorian. Look instead for 1950s furniture — especially Danish blonde and anything by Charles and Ray Eames.
Advertising: If an item has advertising on it, it’s likely to be worth something — maybe a lot. It could be on silver pieces, in paintings, wherever, but Kovel says what’s really desirable are metal signs (you see the guys on “American Pickers” scrounging for them all the time). Older pieces, if they’re rare and in mint condition, have gone for up to $20,000. Automotive signs are hot too; they’re perfect for man caves.
Dolls: Victorian dolls have long been a favorite and still are, but now 1950s dolls are the big sellers. Barbie, Chatty Cathy and even Shirley Temple dolls are at the top of the list. But, to fetch a good price, the dolls have to be in mint condition. Kovel says she saw a potential buyer examining a doll’s hair with a magnifying glass to make sure it hadn’t been cut. Combed hair is also a no-no.
Toys: Toys of all kinds, for all ages, are big sellers, especially, Kovel says, if they move and make noise. Anything Popeye, L’il Abner and Disney are good, though, again, they have to be in mint condition to fetch a good price. What not to buy — Beanie Babies. That market has collapsed, she says.
Bottles: Bottles are big again, Kovel says. Flasks, bitters bottles and milk bottles with slogans on them are a few of the more popular. Pyro (short for pyroglaze) is also of interest; the mixture is often used to write words and pictures on soda bottles.
Glass: Depression glass and pressed glass have bottomed out, Kovel says. What’s popular now is large (some, two to three feet tall), colorful, hand-blown glass like Blenko and the much-more-expensive Chihuly. Interior designers like the larger pieces to anchor today’s vaulted ceilings.
Holidays: If you have a papier mâché Halloween pumpkin from your childhood, hold onto it. The rattles and candy containers too. They can all be worth a pretty penny. Actually, Halloween is the second-most collectible holiday; Christmas is first. Old ornaments are especially desirable. Easter stuff is third most collectible.
Miscellaneous: Disney’s hand-painted animated cartoon cels, once sold as souvenirs at Disney parks, can be worth $3,000-5,000 if they’re Donald Duck, the Wicked Witch or other popular characters. Again, in perfect condition. Same with comics and baseball cards. On the negative side, Royal Doulton figurines, Hummels and china sets like those by Haviland are now poor sellers. And, Kovel says, limited edition coins are in “meltdown territory.”
The “Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2016” will be released this month, both in bookstores and online at kovels.com. The website has lots of good information for playing the antiques game.