Top tips for navigating antiques markets

Christie’s interiors specialist Richard Nelson serves as your expert guide, offering advice on where to shop, how to spot the latest trends and the important questions you should be asking

It’s not all about buying

Antiques fairThe most important advice I can give is sometimes the hardest to follow: don’t be eager to buy. Before you start purchasing, take time to look, handle and talk to the dealer. Remember: act in haste, and repent at leisure!

As a society, we’ve come to expect instant gratification — but sometimes you’ve got to resist. Sure, you could furnish your home in a day shopping online, but buying antiques is about more than that: it’s the thrill of the hunt, and creating a unique environment.

Ask the right questions

LondonFair4For most people in the antiques business, it’s not just about the money  — they love what they sell, and they know a great deal about it. Take advantage of this, and ask key questions. Is this a good example? How can you tell? What is it about the piece that allows you to date it to a specific period?

If you talk to dealers, you stand to learn an incredible amount. If it’s a piece of furniture, you can learn about the type of wood you’re looking for, whether it’s old or first growth timber, whether the hardware has been replaced — such as the feet on a chest of drawers — or it it’s been harshly refinished.

You don’t necessarily need a shopping list

I go to antiques markets with an open mind. Of course, if you’re just starting out with a first home, you need to buy the basics pretty quickly — chairs, tables and so on. But, as your tastes develop — or your budget grows — you can start looking for things that reflect the way you live. If you decide you want to start entertaining at home you can broaden your search to include silver, linens and china.

Go to markets to discover the latest trends

Quite often, trends begin at flea markets and street sales. The sellers know what people are looking for, and can really be at the cutting edge of the market. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of styles emerge: back in the 1990s, it was Gustav Stickley and American arts and crafts; in the last 10 years, there’s been a renewed interest in great 1970s design.

In the States, there are a couple of designers who always catch my eye — the 1970s designer Karl Springer, and the Hollywood designer William Haines, who worked from the 1930s up until the late 1950s.

Compare prices

When deciding to buy, it’s important to look around and compare prices. Luckily, the Internet has made things all the more simple, allowing you to quickly get an idea of what’s out there. It’s quite normal to see people walking around markets, searching for things on their iPhone — and, as a Christie’s specialist, I’m often called on to offer advice!

Indulge in market tourism

A French antique marketThe markets of England and France — which had a booming upper-middle class in the 19th century — can be a great place to look for antique textiles. France has a lot of very good dealers who specialise in 19th and early 20th century dowry linens, often beautifully embroidered and monogrammed. Paris’ Marché aux Puces is an absolute must for me, as are the brocantes across the country.

In England, look for great silver — something that is much harder to find, for example, in markets in Italy. In the US, there’s Scott Antique market in Atlanta, which attracts as many as 1,200 dealers, and in Massachusetts, there’s Brimfield, with over 5,000 dealers.

Watch out for fakes

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about where you’re buying from — it’s perfectly acceptable, for example, to request documentation verifying a work’s provenance.

Certain works are more vulnerable to forgery than others. Prints, for example, can very easily have a signature added. At Christie’s, we dateline all of our works and if there’s a problem we point it out. There are a lot of fakes out there, so we try to create a level playing field.

There’s value to old and new

Today’s interiors market has changed: increasingly, people are more open to mixing Modern and Contemporary pieces with a careful selection of older objects, which bring a sense of history and personality to an interior.

In terms of value, however, older pieces can represent a real investment. Often, it’s as expensive to buy something that’s 200 years old as it is to buy something that’s absolutely brand new. Older pieces, too, tend to hold value — if you change your mind, you can sell again. If you invest in modern only, you risk a slightly throwaway lifestyle.

Look for multipurpose masterpieces

Smaller city apartments, and changes in our lifestyles, mean people are increasingly looking for beautiful pieces that serve more than one function. Look for elegant pieces capable of working hard — a dining table might also serve as a place to work, or entertain.

This article first appeared on Christie’s Daily.

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