15 things you must know before buying antiques abroad

Before you head overseas to rummage for unusual finds, make sure you've checked this list

About to jet off on holiday? Excited at the prospect of rummaging in markets, hunting for unusual trinkets and haggling with local sellers?

There's a certain satisfaction to making a cracking antique find abroad. In part because of the victory of having negotiated with the seller using your finest international sign language and a few words in the local lingo. There can be limitations though, so before you end up in a tussle with a dealer, customs or a shipping company, read our 15 must-know tips before you head off.

BEFORE YOU GO

1 Save the date

Scouring brocantes and antiques markets is a popular part of overseas travel these days and most tourist boards flag up the best places to hunt out new finds.

Many tourism websites have a dedicated section for markets, antiques dealers and local makers so you can do plenty of research before you hit the ground. In Europe, some smaller markets don’t take place during August, when locals traditionally go on holiday, so check first to avoid disappointment.

2 Go native

Even in far-flung countries, there’s rarely a language barrier when it comes to striking a deal. Even so, it helps to swot up on some basic vintage-themed vocabulary; this makes the experience more fun and your efforts will be appreciated by the vendor, who might look upon you favourably when agreeing a price.

If language isn’t your forte, don’t fret. Nic McElhatton, chairman of Christie’s South Kensington and veteran flea market aficionado, says: ‘When all else fails there’s always sign language or a pencil and paper. The willingness of a vendor to sell overrides all else!’

3 Take a tour

Ask at the local tourist office if there are guided visits to markets or antiques quarters, or look for a specialist tour company. Toma Clark Haines runs The Antiques Diva & Co, which leads personalised antiques tours in European cities. ‘A tour can be a fast track to otherwise hard-to-find places,’ she says. ‘You can meet dealers who know you are serious and can give you access to appointment-only warehouses.’

4 Customs conundrums

If you’re compiling a wish list, check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office advice (gov.uk) and the International Air Transport Association (iatatravelcentre.com) to find out if there are any national rules governing the export of antiques and cultural items in the country you’re travelling to. For example, in India it is illegal to take anything over 100 years old out of the country, while Australia has a list of items of cultural significance that are illegal to transport overseas.

5 Take your time

If you can, try not to buy on the first visit. George Bristow runs Artique in Tetbury and has been selling antique and new handmade items gleaned from his travels around Asia for 45 years. ‘I never buy on the first visit to a workshop,’ he says. ‘I like to get a feel for the dealer and the place first.’ In Asia, he advises against hiring a driver from your hotel. ‘They’re likely to be on a commission of up to 40 per cent,’ he says. ‘I always look for a young student with a set of wheels instead.’

 

THE PURCHASE

6 To haggle or not?

When you’re on holiday it’s easier to shake off the British reserve that surrounds negotiating. ‘Never pay the asking price,’ says Nic McElhatton. ‘You’d be a fool to do that. In the UK we’re very staid but on the continent people are different.’ There are no hard and fast rules so get a feel and go with the flow. Even within Europe customs vary: in Paris it’s not unusual to get up to 30 per cent off the price, while in Amsterdam you’ll be lucky for 15 per cent; on the other hand, you’ll need to build a rapport with an Italian dealer before a discount is on the cards.

7 Animal matters

Be aware that it’s not just an item’s age that can land you in hot water with customs. Under the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), there are complex rules governing the trade of items made from endangered species. ‘As a rule of thumb, I’d avoid buying anything that’s been alive,’ says Toma Clark Haines. ‘This includes items such as coral, ivory, tortoiseshell and taxidermy.’ Even if your shopping doesn’t look as though its constructed from an endangered material, quiz the dealer about the components before you part with your cash, as there may be small elements of banned or restricted materials within the piece.

8 Cash is king

Don’t assume your credit card will be welcomed everywhere – even in Europe cash is generally the preferred option when it comes to buying antiques.

If you would rather have a money trail, many dealers accept bank transfers, but make sure you ask for a receipt however you pay. If you’re spending money with different dealers in the same area and using a single shipping agent, check if they can transfer the money on your behalf, which will save you paying multiple transfer fees to your bank.

9 The real deal

Unfortunately fake goods are a reality of the antiques business wherever you go. Sometimes a dealer might not even be aware that what he or she is selling you isn’t the real thing. If you’re serious about provenance, obtaining paperwork is key.

It’s also essential for shipping and, with high-value items, sending to your insurance broker. ‘If you’re buying in a market, don’t expect to get any paperwork,’ says Nic McElhatton. ‘However, when you’re buying from an established antiques dealer, always ask for a written invoice detailing the provenance.’

10 Look for the less ordinary

Items particular to a region or country found at markets make great souvenirs but you may pay over the odds for them or, worse, end up with a worthless fake made for the tourist market. When travelling in Asia, for example, you should be wary of carpets and gemstones unless you really know what you’re looking for. Always try to look for something less ordinary and don’t jump at the first stand you see. Instead, wander through the market and see if the same item is repeated on more than one stand. Buying the less obvious pieces is good for the pocket too; less demand means you’re more likely to snap up a bargain.

 

GETTING IT HOME

11 By sea or air

Your transport options boil down to sending goods by air or sea freight, using a courier (great for single items that won’t fit in a suitcase) or carrying the items home yourself. If you’re taking a car across the Channel, you’ll have more flexibility about what you can bring back, but be aware that even ferry operators have rules governing the transportation of items such as antique knives and firearms, so do check with them in advance.

12 Papers, please

Ask the dealer you buy from if they can recommend shipping companies they work with and then contact each of them personally to get a quote and ask questions. It’s also a good chance to get a feel for who you’ll be dealing with if there’s a problem. Your shipper will take care of any paperwork. According to Keith Wakefield, packing and shipping manager at Forship, a freight-forwarding group that deals with art and antiques, transporting items within the European Union is currently uncomplicated as no customs documentation is required. Even so, it’s best to have as much paperwork as you can muster.

13 Carry on antiquing

If it’s your first foray into overseas antiquing, to simplify things, consider buying only those items you can easily pack in your luggage. You’ll need to make sure you don’t go over your luggage allowance or break any rules, so check with your airline or other transport provider well before you turn up at the airport. Some airlines will require you to carry antiques as hand luggage but if your purchase happens to be a sharp object or another restricted item, you may need to rethink your options.

14 Taxing matters

HM Revenue & Customs imposes VAT on any antiques over 100 years old coming into the UK from outside the EU. Most are eligible for a reduced rate of five per cent so it’s important to have the right paperwork, otherwise you may be liable for the standard 20 per cent VAT. When bought for personal enjoyment, most antiques are not subject to customs or excise duty. However, there are a few exceptions, including wine, unused postage stamps, pearls, semi-precious stones and original paintings, sculptures, engravings and prints. The rules are complex, so if in doubt seek advice on the government website gov.uk.

15 Cover yourself

If you’re buying high value items while you’re away, be aware that your new purchases won’t be covered by your travel insurance. Amelia Hunton of insurance broker Bluefin explains, ‘Whether you carry them home personally or ship via a courier, new high value purchases should be covered by a new acquisitions section under your household insurance policy. However, the value of cover is proportionate to your current policy so it’s always best to contact your insurer before you go to check your cover. You’ll then need to declare those items within 60 days of returning home so your cover can be increased.’

This feature was first published in the August 2016 issue of Homes & Antiques. Back issues are still available. To buy a copy, click here

Not going on holiday any time soon? Don't despair, here's where to buy great antiques online.

Illustrations: Polly Fern

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