Antique-buying at flea markets can be risky business

It's spring, and something else is stirring in the land besides robins and dandelions. All over America people are poking through their basements, digging into the dark recesses of the attic, burrowing into the jumble at the back of the garage, and taking a hard second look at that Christmas present from Aunt Agatha.

Spring cleaning? Well, partly, but for many people spring means the start of flea-market season.

Webster says a flea market is ''an outdoor market, especially in Europe, where inexpensive and/or secondhand items are for sale.'' It's too bad Webster isn't around to peruse the offerings seen in today's flea markets. You name it, it's there. Antique autos, used cars, freshly baked pies and breads, silver jewelry, hand-thrown pottery, old clothing, new men's suits, mink coats, woodstoves, snow shovels, snow tires, comic books, baby furniture, wheelchairs, and, frankly, lots of junk. Inexpensive? Sometimes. But don't count on it because one last item should be included in that incomplete list: antiques.

Antiques make up the stock at most flea markets. In fact, many flea markets specialize entirely in antiques. That could cause problems for buyers because most antique experts agree that buying antiques at a flea market is much different from buying in a shop.

''Let's face it,'' one shop owner explains, ''the sellers at flea markets are out there for one day or a weekend, then they're gone back to wherever they came from. How are you going to get a guarantee or return something?''

Other dealers aren't quite so pessimistic. ''Flea markets? Sure I buy at them -- and get some good buys, too,'' a Vermont dealer explains, ''but I know what I'm looking for. I doubt half the tourists at them do.''

Dealers do agree on what flea-market browsers can do to protect themselves. High on the list is avoiding the bargain at a flea market unless the buyer knows what constitutes a bargain.

Unless a buyer has some expertise in the antiques field, can tell a quality piece from a clunker, and knows the prevailing price range in the area, experts recommend avoiding buying expensive antiques at a flea market. They stress that any good antique shop will give a written sales slip that is crucial for returning the item if it turns out to be something other than stated.

As one dealer says: ''Try that at a flea market!''

There are exceptions, of course. Some full-time dealers do hit the flea-market circuit during fair-weather months, and they take pride in their offerings no matter where they're being sold. Most of the time, however, the seller at a flea market is a small operator. If you discover later that the cast-iron toys you bought are reproductions, you could find yourself with a sales slip (if you even get one) that simply states ''iron toys -- $100'' and with a seller who has already spent the money. Chances of recovering your money are minimal. The sales slip has to describe the purchased item and state that it is an antique.

Many shop owners complain of another dubious flea-market tactic. ''I've seen it happen many times,'' one dealer admits. ''They give some poor guy who doesn't know Duncan Phyfe from Danish modern the old sales pitch. The guy ends up walking away with a 20-year-old chair for a couple hundred bucks, thinking about what a great buy he's got and how he talked the seller down from $250.''

The dealer continues: ''If I sold like that in my shop I'd have the Better Business (Bureau) people in here. But nobody makes those customers buy the stuff. They don't know anything about antiques, and they think they've got a bargain when they talk the seller down 50 bucks. Look, there aren't any bargains in antiques unless you know antiques.''

That seems to be the consensus among the dealers. A bargain in antiques is a piece below its fair market value. Good dealers know how to set that value. They know what a piece in pristine condition should sell for. They know the same values for a repaired piece, a refinished piece, and a damaged piece. Above all, they can distinguish between a fake, a reproduction, and an original.

Reproductions do have a way of showing up at flea markets. Some are frankly sold as just what they are. Others get that little bit of extra aging treatment that lets them slip into the price range of the genuine article. All of the dealers surveyed agreed on one point. They never buy without examining the offering very closely. Even so, most admit that they'd made a slip or two at some time in their careers and ended up buying a reproduction for the price of an original.

So what's the flea market buyer to do? Common sense and knowledge, most dealers agree, are the best defense. Know what real antiques are. Visit local shops to get familiar with area prices. Buy a price guide and compare the shop prices with what you see in the guide to set a norm. Find out what constitutes quality and what lowers an antique's value. Examine any potential purchase closely.

Also, dealers advise, don't let yourself be hurried into a purchase by a sales pitch. If you have any questions about an expensive purchase, get a signed and dated sales slip from the seller and discuss how you're going to handle any returns or problems. Finally, avoid the ridiculous bargain, unless you know antiques.

The shop owners had a reason for requesting anonymity. As one of them says with a grin, ''Look, I'm out there every weekend buying from those guys. Half of my stock comes from flea markets. I'm not about to kill the golden goose. Remember this, though -- I know what I'm looking for.''

You can have as much fun as the dealers and get the same bargains, if you obey the rules. If you don't, well -- the dealers would be happy to see you in their shops this season. It could be safer.

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