Browsing, especially in shops that feature antiques or collectibles, is irresistible entertainment for most automobile travelers. There is a special relaxation in browsing -- especially when it leads to discovering objects of the past and inspires the purchase of a unique item or two, or even the start of a collection. But when this is a first-time experience, there can be pitfalls, so it is wise to be forearmed with simple guidelines that will help identify dependable dealers and quality merchandise.
Howard Miller, an antiques shop owner in Mt. Holly Springs, Pa., offers these tips: ``Be on guard against shops that mix new gift items and collectibles. And don't tarry if the merchandise is not priced. A shop without visible pricing doesn't operate to the customer's advantage. Either the dealer doesn't know the true worth of what he has, or he is afraid an inflated price will scare customers away, or he sets the price on the appearance and attitude of the shopper.''
Because few travelers carry a lot of cash, Miller suggests telling the shop owner how you expect to pay before the sale is concluded. Many dealers do not accept personal checks from unknown shoppers. But travelers checks or bank letters of reference are usually good substitutes.
The president of the National Association of Dealers in Antiques, Rod Tinkler of Barrington, Ill., believes that when the NADA emblem is displayed at a shop, it is enough to assure high ethical standards. Points from NADA's code of ethics can also serve as sound clues for what to expect from any reliable dealer:
Personnel will not knowingly misrepresent any item as to condition, age, or authenticity.
NADA members agree to give a written memorandum on request that includes the selling price and a detailed description of the article.
Each member has agreed to price all items in dollars and cents.
It can be reassuring, too, to be aware of at least some of the basic quality factors of the older things you enjoy. Here are some pointers about ever-popular, easy-to-tote categories: china, jewelry, and old quilts and linens.
Bess Bay of the Rain Barrel Antiques Shop in Moorestown, N.J., urges anyone not too knowledgeable about how to handle an old quilt or coverlet to choose one ``in mint condition.'' Because of their age and because most were used, they can be fragile. ``A Victorian silk quilt, for one, cannot take changes in atmosphere, so it is possible the fabric will quickly deteriorate. This is why, unless it is to be displayed behind glass, it is best not to buy it,'' advises Ms. Bay. Any quilt or coverlet ``that shows signs of hard wear -- usually indicated by thinned fabric -- should also be ignored unless you feel you must have it and the price is low.''
Tiny brown spots on linens indicate ``the presence of a living organism that will spread and become a wide brown stain,'' says Bay. ``Buy the piece only if you know of an expert who can remove the damaging influence or can recommend what to do.''
A simple rule of thumb for recognizing the approximate age of china is provided by Dorothy Carter, a Massachusetts antiques dealer. It is that any item marked ``Made in [a named country]'' was made after 1890. This is when an international ruling went into effect requiring items to be marked with their country of origin before they could be exported to the United States.
Mrs. Carter also urges that china be ignored if it has a chip, if its glaze is finely cracked, or if there is an age line that seems to penetrate the piece. ``And don't buy if the color doesn't seem right,'' she cautions. Typically, if you are sure celadon is a certain shade of green and it is offered in another shade, it is almost positive some damage has occurred.''
A beautiful piece of jewelry can be tempting to buy for personal use and with the idea that it may be a good investment. Joyce Jonas, a New York City antique jewelry specialist, says condition is the most important criterion for this kind of purchase. Any alteration diminishes the perfect condition and, depending on the type of repair or change, can affect the value.
Study the back as carefully as the front, suggests Ms. Jonas. A gray mass of lead soldering on the back reveals that some kind of alteration has taken place. If the jewelry is gold, look for different colors. They can indicate a ``marriage'' of two pieces.
Put your fingers to work, Jonas advises. If your finger catches on something on the edge of the setting, it may mean there has been a replacement of either the stone or the setting. Fingers rubbed over old chains can often tell more than a jeweler's loupe by detecting a catch or roughness brought on by soldering.
``Above all, if you are not well educated about gems and the price tag is super-high -- don't buy!''
The fact is, it is as important to know how to recognize an ``honest'' shop as it is to be familiar with the aspects that determine the quality of old objects that appeal to you. The best way to learn about an antique or collectible is to look and compare. And where better than during a browsing spree? Try it and see.