December 14, 2012

Hard-Asset Investing: How to Buy Antiques Online

Experts share tips on embracing the latest technology to purchase much-loved, older items

You’re visiting a client’s home when UPS drops off a package. Your client excitedly unpacks it and removes an ornately designed jewelry box. It’s early 19th Century from Austria, she explains, and it was a steal for $5,000 at an online auction.

Collectors used to bid for auction items via telephone. Of course, the Internet has changed all that. All the major auction houses have online-bidding services and websites. Some websites, like 1stdibs.com and curatorseye.com, specialize in online sales of high-end items, including antiques.

Ed Beardsley, vice-president and managing director, Fine & Decorative Arts with Heritage Auctions in Dallas, estimates that over 50% of the company’s business is now done online.

Ed Beardsley“It allows the sophisticated collector to find pieces that they’ve been looking for throughout the world. I mean we do business with I think 182 countries or similar. And, that’s what we look for,” Beardsley (right) says. “The people who are serious collectors, who want to put something into their collection that they haven’t found. The Internet makes it a smaller world and, as such, they’re willing to look around online at the major sites and in fact ship it to wherever they are.”

That doesn’t mean all categories are drawing top prices, though. As in other collectibles markets, it appears that higher-priced items are drawing more attention than those with lower prices.

Karen Knapstein, editor of Antique Trader magazine in Iola, Wis., says some markets, like that for lower-quality furniture, continue to be soft. Beardsley says interest in 20th Century design is growing, and prices are strong at many of the major sites.

Nineteenth Century continental decorative art has some strong results, but it also has some niches that are “a little bit tricky,” he adds.

Smart Shopping

Just because an item’s available online doesn’t mean it’s a good deal, of course. As with any dealer-based market, an uninformed customer is at a serious disadvantage to industry insiders.

That means clients need to study the items and markets that interest them to better understand pricing and valuation trends.

Auction houses’ online databases of transactions are an excellent place to start the research, experts say.

Heritage Auction’s online archives, for instance, go back 30 years, notes Beardsley: “Look at the archives, look at similar items, see what we’ve gotten for them, look at what the estimate was and you get a feel if we’re getting between low and high, if we’re getting higher than high.”

Karen KnapsteinKnapstein (left) adds an important caveat: It’s not enough to just scratch the surface of a market. “Doing your homework is very, very important, not just by learning a little bit and then using that,” she says. “Just learning a little bit, you learn just enough to be dangerous. You get your confidence up and you think you know what you’re doing and then you might be more likely to get burned.”

Additionally, Knapstein stresses, part of the collector’s background research should consider the dealers whom they’re considering. This is critical in cases where an item is sold as-is and the buyer have limited recourse.

“Another pitfall of buying online is an item may not be represented as accurately as you would have liked,” she says. "Condition is king when you’re dealing with antiques and you see a lot of descriptions say, you know, it looks great for its age. Well, no, really not. When you’re looking at buying and investing it really does need to be – every scratch counts, I should say.”

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