Must-know tips for buying antiques

The experts from the Decorative Fair in Battersea pass on 20 top tips for buying standout antiques

In the three decades that the Decorative Fair has been running, the dealers that sell at it have offered visitors a wealth of antiques-hunting insight. Now, more than ever, antiques are being mixed into chic modern interiors, as well as to add authenticity to period homes.

Here, the dealers that know the market best offer H&A their insider tips for buying and decorating with unique finds.

Read on to become an antiques-hunting expert...

Top 20 tips for buying antiques

1. Dealers are always generous with their knowledge – use it, it’s free.  Get to know a dealer who has stock you like, and who is comfortable with their subject but not complacent. Good dealers are always learning and will say so.

2. Reinvent and recycle objects that have outgrown their original use. For example, you could use exterior ironwork or stone finials as lamp bases. When you are out and about at fairs, look for unusual things you can use in a new way.

3. Textiles can be used to fill large wall spaces and bring colour to a room at a relatively small expense compared to paintings.  Hangings work well with both antique and contemporary furniture, as you can see from the antique suzanis hung in the image below. Look at dealers' stands and get ideas at the fair as to how to display textiles in decorative ways.

4. Use mirrors to enlarge a space. Collect and group together smaller mirrors themed either by shape (such as starbursts or circles), colour or material of frame.

5. Be brave. Don’t buy to follow fashion, follow your own likes and tastes.  Invariably they will work well in your home environment because they are pleasing to you, not what others dictate.

6. Whether you paid a few pounds or several thousand, money spent on something unique will maintain value much better than a brand new item that is available on the mass market.

7. Buy practical pieces, such as the beautiful pewter plates pictured below, so that you enjoy their use as well as their looks.

8. An important decorating trend is to use strong colour selectively.  Just one piece added to a neutral room will revive character and ambience.

9. Have confidence in who you are buying from: always go to reputable dealers, members of trade associations or those at a vetted fair.  Draw on their knowledge to help you make the right choice, especially if you are concerned about buying items in their original condition that have not undergone major restoration.

10. Use decorative lighting to add glamour.  Even if your home is decorated from head to toe in new, production-line furniture, you can make it unique and uplift the setting by choosing period lighting such as chandeliers or 1950s glass wall lights.

11. If you like a piece of upholstered furniture but the colour or textile is not to your taste, don’t be afraid to ask the dealer if they will consider recovering within the asking price. If it’s a valuable piece, they often will.  Dealers really don’t want to sell you something you won’t enjoy.

12. It is often preferable to buy items in their original state as they retain their value for longer, unless you are going for a certain ‘look’.  Decide before you buy which you intend to do.  For example, painted furniture retaining its original paint finish carries a higher price tag than a utility piece that has been painted again over the years. 

13. Less is more. The same is true whether furnishing your home with antique, 20th-century or contemporary furniture.  You can go for a streamlined look using unembellished furniture if you want a more contemporary feel.  Owning antiques doesn’t equal clutter!

14. Whatever period you are interested in, look for quality of manufacture. And ask the dealer if you are not sure.

15. If you are collecting in fairly up-and-coming areas, for example Scandinavian ceramics or glass, choose major factories over minor ones, as their work will always be in demand.

16. If you become interested in a specialist field, it’s worth investing in one or two well-regarded books on the subject.  There are dealers in new and second-hand collectors’ and design books who are worth consulting. Don Kelly is an example and he regularly exhibits at the Decorative Fair.

17.  Do use magazines to get inspiration for using antiques and period pieces.  Magazine stylists have a good eye, and often put unusual and striking combinations together. Take a look at the feature on fruit and vegetable ceramics in the current issue of Homes & Antiques for example.

18. Check a piece of furniture before you buy it. Don’t be afraid to open drawers or cupboards to check that the age of lining and interior woods corresponds to the exterior surface. Check for modern screws or nails.  Older pieces should have wooden fixings as a general rule.  English painted furniture originates from the late 18th century and would have used light, inexpensive woods such as pine or beech, not mahogany or more expensive hardwoods.  And remember to measure doors and stairs before buying: ensure your chair, sofa or cupboard fits through the front door as well as into its intended room.

19. Tone is important – you can combine a number of colours as long as they are of similar hue. Contrast – don’t put brown on brown, else you will find antiques look rather old-fashioned.  Again, dealers will inspire you with their mix of stock and periods, using colour as well as easy-to-live-with neutrals.

20. Antiques and vintage items are unique, create an atmosphere of their own and express individuality.  Unlike new furniture, which usually has to be ordered and waited on for weeks, you can take an antique home with you, or have it delivered right away.  Follow your gut instinct when buying and you will be rewarded.

Battersea Decorative Fair, Battersea Evolution, Battersea Park, London runs from 29th September to 4th October. Buy Homes & Antiques' October issue to get two tickets (normally £20 for a pair) for the price of one.

020 7616 9327; decorativefair.com

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