Searching for top bargains in today's antiques market

Some questions about antiques are eternal. They seem, like the dandelion, to pop up every spring. One of them is: Are there any bargains left? Answering that question depends a lot on how one defines bargain.m The antique dealer calls anything a bargain that he or she can buy and easily and quickly sell, after adding a markup for the cost of doing business plus a hefty profit.

The collector calls a piece a bargain when it's something he wants and it's available for less than its normal retail price. Collectors usually pay more than dealers. Most collectors aren't planning to resell their acquisitions immediately.

Remembering those distinctions, are there any bargains left?

The answer is yes, but it's a qualified yes.

The spring week of nationally advertised flea markets at Brimfield, Mass., is now history. The consensus of dealers who shopped there is that, while they made purchases, there were no great buys, no amazing bargains. Most of them believe the sellers at that huge affair knew what they had and what the potential retail price should be and adjusted their dealer prices accordingly. If the buyers needed the stock, they paid the price and added their normal markup.

This may be true of antique prices nationwide this year, whether at auction, flea market, or private sale. Most sellers are now aware of the value of the average antique.

The word averagem is the key to finding a bargain.

Example: A dealer in violins reports a customer bought a violin at the Brimfield market for $75 that is easily worth over $1,000. While an average student-model factory copy of a Stradivarius may sell for $75, this collector recognized a good European instrument and got a bargain.

Sometimes bargains show up in unlikely company. In April, at the Philadelphia auction house of Samuel T. Freeman & Co., a New York chair brought $24,200. A signed Wallace Nutting reproduction Colonial daybed slipped through the auction for $176. It costs more than that just to replace the rush seat. The daybed was a bargain.

Are bargains available among what dealers call ''smalls,'' the accessories that make up the majority of offerings at shows and auctions?

I recently spent a day in New Hampshire trying to answer that question.

I found two bargains. One was a porcelain hair receiver made by the Royal Bayreuth factory in Germany in the late 19th century in the Rose Tapestry pattern. The retail price for this piece runs from $135 to over $200. I bought it from a dealer for $15. Why? This particular dealer doesn't use price guides. He buys from private homes and simply adds a profit to his cost.

The other purchase was a tall pottery pitcher. For $8 the strikingly incised and painted piece covered with vines, leaves, and grapes was worth taking a chance on, even if I didn't recognize the incised markings on the base. It proved to be a creation of the Della Robbia Pottery of Cheshire, England, from between 1894 and 1906.

Both pieces illustrate the key to finding bargains, whether you're a dealer or a collector. Anyone seeking bargains must have some knowledge of current prices, know what styles or forms are in demand, know how to cipher marks and date pieces, and be able to tell the difference between good, better, and best.

For example, there are thousands of porcelain hair receivers on the market at prices from $15 to $30. The right mark and style lifts an example to an entirely different price range.

If that knowledge spells a bargain for the buyer, think what it represents to you as a seller.

A year ago I wrote about the dangers of selling your antiques at yard sales. That advice is more valid than ever. Find out what you own before you sell it. Read, ask, study. Hire an appraiser, if necessary. It's still true: The money you spend finding out about your antiques could be the best investment you'll ever make.

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