The world of antiques can be surprisingly treacherous. With clever dealers out to sting you, and a very fine line between trash and treasure, it’s a tough place for a novice.
Turning a shop upside down won’t find you a hidden gem every time, but carefully inspecting chips, cracks, hallmarks, logos and cushions will help you avoid costly mistakes.
That’s the advice of Mark-Francis Vandelli, best known for his stints on Made In Chelsea and Celebs Go Dating, and the ideal expert guide.
With a degree in art history from University College London and penchant for the finer things, Mr Vandelli is now a representative of international auction house Christie’s.
We meet on a blustery day, ready to tackle the antique shops and market stalls in the tourist trap of Portobello Road to see what it really takes to find a genuine treasure among the chaff.
It’s possible, but there are some rules you’ll need to stick to.
Get ‘hands on’
Even with all the research possible, there’s no substitute, Mr Vandelli says, for being in the room with the object. Furniture collectors will immediately turn a prospective piece upside down and (if they’re allowed to) inside out to check its quality.
“Whenever you look at a dealer or a really good collector inspecting a piece of furniture, the first thing they do is turn it upside down. They look behind and they look underneath, because that’s where you are going to find all the clues that are going to tell you more about the piece,” he says.
“From the front, even a fake or a reproduction can look good.”
Potential amateur buyers shouldn’t be afraid to do the same if they’re really interested in a piece, but are not sure if it’s genuine.
When you’re examining something, no matter what it is, you should be as gentle as possible while still getting into every nook and cranny.
Logos and hallmarks give away genuine pieces almost immediately, but it can be necessary to check all over an item to find the tiny markings.
Sterling silver, for example, will be marked with the number “925”, and gold jewellery should be stamped with the carat amount – but you might need further tests to be carried out to determine where it was assayed and its quality.
If you’re looking at a piece of furniture that has been upholstered, take it apart as far as possible and check the bare bones.
If an item has had a bad paint job, it could be hiding other scars. Without scratching it, see if you can tell how many times it has been repainted (for instance, if there are a few different shades of paint visible), and how well it’s been done.
Other warning signs include cracks in wood, enamel or silver. If something could be an easy fix, it can still be a worthwhile purchase – especially if you get extra money off – but even simple breaks can become very expensive to have fixed professionally.
Glassware is a tricky choice if you are searching for the real deal. If you can, see if you can gather whether it has been machine cut or hand blown – if it’s been made by machine it is unlikely to be worth much.
High-quality makers, such as Depression Glass, Carnival Glass, Milk Glass, Moonstone, Hobnail Glass, and Jadeite, can sell well – but it is the art pieces, rather than glasses and vases, that hold their value best.
I see all this advice in action in the first shop we visit. Mr Vandelli immediately picks out what he thinks is an Indian dagger handle, and, admitting that he knows little about this type of object, we question the shop owner about its provenance – that is, its authenticity. His assurances about the piece’s worth are a bit unconvincing, so we take a closer look at the handle.
The joining, where it would be connected to a blade, looks “modern” to my untrained eye, and neither of us are sure about the quality of the stones. The seller quotes us £7,500, which is wildly over budget.
We carry out some further checks using Mr Vandelli’s phone, using his Google Lens to image search the item, but nothing specific comes up. In the end, we decide it is too risky to purchase.
But the owner isn’t ready to let us go yet, and drags us inside to show us a very pretty “French” cigarette case, with a black enamel cover.
When Mr Vandelli opens the case, we discover that it’s in fact an English Dunhill creation – not French at all. While it’s still a very pretty piece, it isn’t real gold, so we decide not to make an offer.
Ransacking a shop is not the only thing you must do to find hidden treasures. Mr Vandelli also emphasises the importance of doing research, questioning traders and haggling during our day at the shops.
Do your research
Doing your research, either online or in reference books, can help you avoid common pitfalls – such as falling for a cheap replica, or paying over the odds.
Mr Vandelli recommends the Christie’s catalogue, which has a database of the last 25 years of their sales, so you can gauge the kind of price you might expect to pay for different types of genuine items.
Mr Vandelli says it’s a good idea to stick with what you know best, to ensure you are getting a good deal. “It’s much easier to collect something that you understand,” he says.
It can pay to connect with experts here, he adds: “The beauty is to be next to someone who really does know, and then they teach you. Then you begin to appreciate something that you never really understood and that’s where you learn and fall in love with something.
“You understand the circumstances in which it was made, and what makes it rare and why it’s so valuable.”
Be prepared to quiz the trader
Anyone looking to buy should make sure to quiz the trader on where they bought the item, and to make sure they get every single detail they know about the object.
“You build a story, you try to find out where it has been before, where it was made, who might have owned it, the provenance,” Mr Vandelli explains.
Some antiques traders are more scrupulous than others, so it’s a good idea to put their knowledge and customer service to the test before you part with your money. Some key questions to ask include:
Do you have proof of the piece’s authenticity? This could include purchase receipts, historic records and certification from auction houses.
Has there been any damage or restoration work done? They should be able to point this out to you.
What’s your returns policy? If you find any issues with the item, ask whether you can bring it back for a full refund.
If the seller doesn’t have satisfactory answers to your questions, it might be best to move on.
Look for lesser-known brands
Throughout the day, he points out well-known creators, including some Meissen and Blue John urns (for the uninitiated, Meissen is Europe’s oldest porcelain and china manufacturer), but warns that there are unlikely to be any bargains with these kinds of products.
Dealers will also know the value of such collectibles, and will price them accordingly.
Instead, it is often branching out to look for brands that aren’t so well known – but can be just as valuable.
As part of the research step mentioned above, the Christie’s catalogue – or similar – can help here, and it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with common logos and labels used by popular makers, that way you can recognise them in the wild.
You can also increase your chances of finding a hidden gem for a good price if you interrogate some of the more damaged items, which other shoppers may have been put off by.
For example, in one shop Mr Vandelli found an item he had seen at auction before, which has been primped ready to sell.
“You are never going to find a hidden gem in a shop like this, because they’ve done everything for you,” he says.
“I like to find something really beautiful and maybe restore it myself and do all the hard work. You feel that you’ve done something really worthwhile.”
Standing in the crowded showrooms, I am not sure if I am brave enough to start upending the furniture, but as the day goes on, I am more confident in haggling with the sellers.
Even if I am not sure about buying something, we push back on prices to give us a better understanding of what a seller would be willing to take if we come back later.
To haggle effectively, you first need to know exactly what you are prepared to pay for the object. Think of an exact number, rather than being vague, and stick to it. If you can’t get the price down to that number, then be prepared to walk away.
Depending on how courageous you are, and where you are shopping, start off by making a first offer – usually around half of the initial price.
Don’t be perturbed when the dealers don’t accept your first bid. Up your offer steadily, rather than all at once, and avoid making big jumps.
Try to stay calm, and remember the number you set in your head at the start of the process. The party that stays calmest usually has the upper hand.
Once your bid is accepted, you can pay. Make sure to ask for a receipt and about the returns policy.
Haggling is a bit like asking someone out on a date – you have to remember that the worst thing they can do is say no. If they won’t come down to the number you want, leave it.
Accept that, sometimes, you might still overpay
One final lesson is that the value of antiques can be quite subjective; they are ultimately worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them, and opinions can be divided over what is trash and what is treasure.
Therefore, even after following all the right steps, some people may think you’ve overpaid.
In our case, I stumble across a set of antique brushes, complete with a handheld mirror. The box is slightly broken, but all the pieces are present, including an intact comb.
It’s unusual, and very different to everything else we’ve seen. I have a look, pick up the brushes and check their durability, inspecting the box carefully. It will be an easy fix with some superglue to return it to its previous glory – something even I could manage.
The seller tells us the price is £750, but we walk away with the set for £500.
The Telegraph Money team is bemused by my choice of antique when I return to the office. But I stuck to my guns, and took the set to be valued by an expert.
A silver expert from auctioneers Bonhams said that the set had been made by Birmingham-based jewellery maker Adie Brothers.
While the silversmith was founded in 1879, it wasn’t possible to age the hair brushes exactly, although a patent for applying enamel to hand brushes and mirrors was granted in 1923. The set was likely made some time after this.
But the auctioneer suggested the £500 might have been too steep; some of the hallmarks are eroded and there’s a crack in one piece of silver.
I guess you win some, you lose some.
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