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Negotiating antiques prices Purchase:
How To Get Inside a Dealers Head

(the article was removed from the internet in 1999 but I found it back in the Archives and republish it because the content is so valuable. David Norden)

No matter how many pointers you receive on how to shop for antiques and collectibles, the real secret lies in getting inside a dealer's head and using it to your advantage. After speaking with numerous dealers (and drawing upon my own experiences as a dealer), I've compiled a list of hints and tips. More will appear in later issues.


by Lee Bernstein (Ms)219-322-4272 found at THE ATTIC MUSE, Volume 2, No. 1. Winter Edition: January, 1999 

Treat A Dealer's Space Like A Home

Whether you're shopping at an elite antique emporium or standing at a flea market table, one of the best ways to get on a dealer's good side is to behave as though you just entered the living room of a new friend.

Smile. Say hello. Instead of assuming it's okay to handle the open goods, politely ask, "Is it okay to touch?" Most dealers feel (and show) appreciation when people care.

Be Prepared To Double-Check A Dealer's Accuracy

Keep collectors books and reference guides with you. Shove one or two into a shopping bag or keep the books in your car. Should you prefer library books, borrow the latest editions. If you collect one thing (banks, bar ware, pottery) or one style (motion banks, beer mugs, Roseville pottery), it's fine to bring speciality books, but always carry a general price guide, too. You never know when something not on your list will attract your attention. (A link to an article about book price follows this newsletter).

Use Honesty As Your Secret Weapon.

Some collectors believe trickery creates greater bargaining power (some dealer's too, unfortunately). I strongly disagree. Take for example, experienced collectors who love to play dumb or new collectors who pretend as though they know more than they do. Most dealers see through the guise, although they don't always show it. Worse yet, pretense causes immediate dealer distrust, which means a dealer won't trust the shopper during the negotiating process, either something a collector wants to avoid at all cost. If you hope to negotiate a better deal, use honesty, wit and common sense.

If you're an expert, admit it . . . just don't go overboard.

If you see something that impresses you, say so. Dealers love when their acquisitions meet with praise. Reputable dealers consider working with an experienced collector a blessing since it's easier to exchange information on the value and authenticity of a particularly wonderful or rare piece.

Better yet, when it comes to heavy negotiating, most dealers are more open to deep discounts with honest, experienced collectors. Let's say an uncultivated collector (or a buyer who pretends to be new) sees a $1,000 vase priced at a fair and reasonable $800 yet offers $600. Unless the dealer is particularly eager to make the sale (in which case you should wonder why), the dealer may think, "Is this a joke? Doesn't this person know the value or beauty of this piece? There's no way I'm coming down in price."

Yet if an experienced collector offers the same $600 along with an honest explanation as to why $600 seems fair, the dealer may not agree, but he will listen. Listening leads to contemplation; contemplation leads to consideration. The odds of getting a good deal are far better if you're honest about what you want. In addition, if a dealer knows you're an educated, passionate collector, he'll probably want to win you as a customer yet another reason why he may consider meeting your offer (or meeting you half way).

There's a place to draw the line, however. Too much bragging, too much bargaining or too much manipulation (asking for a ridiculously low price) works against a shopper. A dealer likes to feel as though he's getting a good deal, too, so offer a price that's intelligent and fair. It can be a little lower than what you hope to pay, just not so low that it's an insult.

Here's a negotiation tip: If you've offered what you know is a very fair price and a dealer seems hesitant, stay cool and put courtesy first. Rather than push the offer, change the subject and make friendly small talk instead if the dealer has time, of course. This gives the dealer time to think about selling without being put on the spot. Later, after you've both had the chance to relax, the dealer will probably mention the item again, usually in a casual way: "Yeah, this vase sure is a beauty . . ." Unless his words restate an unwillingness to bend, take this as an invitation for further negotiation. NOW is the best time to negotiate. Try to wait for the dealer to mention price first, but if not, politely ask what price makes him comfortable and take it from there.

Of course, once in a while you're going to run into a dealer who won't leave you alone. He'll follow you like a puppy, whining or barking "Buy!"

Last year, such a dealer hounded me. Being a dealer myself, I had a particularly hard time putting up with such behavior, but I tried to be patient. As I browsed, everything I spied became the means by which the dealer lectured why I should buy. I remember picking up a piece of pottery not a particularly old piece and definitely not a scarce one. It had a chip on it almost as large as the one that had been developing on my shoulder. I assumed the dealer was unaware of the damage since the price was high even for the same piece in perfect condition. When I mentioned the chip, the dealer said, "So? Haven't you ever been to a museum? Don't you know how many imperfect pieces they have on display? Why, if curators had your attitude, they'd never make it!"

I didn't know whether to scream or laugh, but I kept my cool and assumed he knew his reply was absurd. Rather than argue, I smiled and kept looking. My attitude paid when I found a dusty and forgotten majolica dish hiding under a table. Before I had the chance to ask for the dealer's best price, he offered to reduce it to a very fair price. He was happy, I was happy, and both of us will probably do business again. (Next time I'll bring earplugs.)

If you're new, admit that, too . . . just don't believe everything you hear.

Most dealers care about responsibility and excellence, yet if you're unaccustomed to buying antiques and collectibles or find a piece outside your area of expertise, you may worry about a dealer taking advantage of your lack of knowledge. While a fair and reputable dealer won�t try to deceive you, how can you tell the good from the not-so-good? Or what if you're at a show or flea market with here today gone tomorrow vendors?

Here's another secret: It's extremely difficult for a seller to deceive if you are honest, ask questions, take notes and double check the answers.

By being frank about your inability to tell real from reproductions or a bargains from something overblown, you'll learn about the item and test the dealer at the same time. Simply say, "I really love this piece, but I don't know (or remember) much about it. Would you please tell me its history, how you arrived at the price and what you did to determined the age and authenticity?" Always ask if a dealer offers a guarantee of authenticity. If yes, ask for the terms of sale.


With these simple yet honest questions, you've thrown yourself into wheat from chaff territory, and you've done it with more power than a John Deere. Now it's the dealer's turn to prove honesty, so listen carefully to the answers.

If the dealer says, "I know from experience," use the answer to your advantage. Half the fun of collecting is to learn, so question the dealer some more. Smile and ask for particulars How does he tell a real from a fake? What books or experience did he draw upon? What clues did he use to determine the age? How does he know the item is priced fairly?

As you ask, reach into a pocket or purse and pull out a notebook. If you love to learn, you'll do this with all the energy and enthusiasm of a toddler touching Play-Doh for the first time (and not as though you're testing the dealer). That's good, because if your heart is in it, it will show.

Love has a way of earning bargaining power for new collectors. Dealers at least the ones who love the business as much as you love to collect will pick up on your enthusiasm and almost always respond with equal pleasure. If a dealer doesn't share your excitement or care enough to answer your questions, it may be because he doesn't know as much as he claims, so use the exchange to look for clues as well as add to your knowledge. If the dealer is the owner of a consignment shop or a mall, leave your questions on file or ask if the seller can be reached by phone.

Appreciate a dealer who has the honesty to say "I don't know." He may be the most honest dealer around.

Few dealers are absolute experts and few experts are expert in more than one area. If a dealer says common sense tells him an item is genuine and priced fairly, he's probably telling the truth, but try to research further before buying. Many dealers use instinct AND expertise when they price an item, yet some use the former more than the latter. For experienced buyers, this type of off-the-cuff pricing can make for wonderful bargain hunting, especially if a dealer misjudges a rare or unusual piece. Nonetheless, if you don't know what you're buying and the dealer cannot offer facts about authenticity or price, you will be taking a risk if you buy. Stick to things you know or buy from a dealer who researches stock and satisfies your questions. While seasoned buyers take risks and often do well, new buyers usually do better if they safeguard their purchases.

Should you gamble?

This is where people love to ask: "But what about all those folks I see on television those lucky collectors who appear on appraisal shows? They took chances and bought all kinds of crazy stuff and made a fortune!"

Yes, sometimes a buyer does indeed get lucky. Half the fun of collecting is to buy something you love and later discover it was a better find than you realized. Yet if you watch appraisal shows carefully, you'll see the lucky ones are usually long time owners or educated buyers:

Long time owners: Those who inherited an item or decided to investigate a piece that's been in the family for years.

Educated buyers: Those who at least know a little about what they are doing. These collectors aren't necessarily highly educated, but they have enough experience to "kind of know" when something is valuable, even if it's valuable only to them. These collectors may not fully realize the excellence of their find, but they aren't lost in the aisles, either. It's also interesting to note that this type of collector will often buy for love above all. When the appraiser asks "What attracted you to this piece?" You'll hear, "I fell in love with it and had to have it."

The point, of course: there's nothing wrong with buying on instinct, but it helps if you've had a little practice and buy for love first. No collectible comes with a guarantee of value.

As for those uneducated few who get lucky: Have you ever been in the lobby of a casino with photos of big winners? Those photos seem to go on forever, yet for every big winner there are millions of losers. The same is true for new collectors. For every lucky buyer who made a fortune without having the slightest experience, there are countless newcomers who have lost. It's always better to learn the game before playing and then pick the table uh, the collectible with the best odds. (Hint: the item you LOVE is the one with the best odds . . . that way, you're always a winner.)

Let's quickly discuss appraisal shows and buyers who bought a reproduction, fake or fantasy item. More often than not, they're the victims of unsubstantiated stories: "But the dealer swore this belonged to George Washington!" or "But my Grandmother said this was a rare piece." Ouch! My heart sinks when I see such appraisals, yet I'm thankful for them there but for grace, as they say. Let's face it: Everyone has, at one time or another, become overly enthusiastic about something and made a mistake, whether it's with a collectible or otherwise. Those who have the guts to admit their mistakes on national television deserve praise and thanks. They've helped all of us learn more about being cautious dealers and collectors alike.

Back to buying your treasure . . .

Let's say you've fallen in love with a piece. Once you get answers the ones you were careful to record in your notebook, ask yourself if you're satisfied with the authenticity & condition. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself if you're satisfied with the price. If the answer is no, then ask the dealer for his best price.

Dealers respond best to questions, not demands.

A seller who complains about price or dictates how much an item should cost creates a disadvantage. Most dealers hate dictators. The best approach is to politely ask "Is this your best price?" or "Are you open to negotiation?"

All dealers are different. Many allow for discounts on items over a certain dollar amount. Others will deal no matter what. Some will discount select items or cash purchases only. A few never budge. Some play hard to get an inferior ploy. I seldom buy from dealers who would rather bluff than deal. All dealers, however, are used to being asked for their best price, so ask! If the dealer won't negotiate, just remember it's nothing personal and not a game you have lost. You might also try the "small talk" negotiating tip mentioned earlier.

If you can afford the piece and still want it, you will not look weak if you go ahead and buy despite the dealer's refusal to negotiate. You also won't look weak if you decide the price is too high and walk away. You will, however, feel horrible if you do one when you really want to do the other. Now's the time to take a research break.

A dealer will often hold a piece as a courtesy. Ask the dealer to give you a few hours or a day. If you're at a flea market or show, ask for no more than an hour and say you don't mind if the piece stays on display as long as it has a temporary hold sign put on it. If it's during the opening hours of a show (the HOT time when most items sell), you might offer to leave a small deposit as a show of good faith. Get a card or receipt with the dealer's name, address and telephone number on it. Note the booth number and location and make sure you return within the given time.

Now find a comfortable spot, grab your notes and browse through your reference books. Take some time and think about your purchase while you investigate as much as you can. Look closely at the photos and read every word of text you can find. Jot down additional questions.

Many shops and malls offer lay-away with a low down payment. This is a good way to buy a little extra time if you want to investigate further or are unsure about a large purchase. Ask for the lay-away terms before you give a deposit. Most lay-away rules force you to lose your deposit if you change your mind or neglect payments. Regardless, it's best to leave only the minimum deposit required.

This next step is important: Research the item as quickly as possible, preferably within a few days. If you decide not to buy, call the dealer immediately and explain why. If you've changed your mind because the item was misrepresented (a reproduction selling as an original, for example) site your source and politely but firmly ask for your money back.

If you've changed your mind for other reasons, then the responsibility is yours. Tell the dealer you've had a change of heart but called as a courtesy so he could put the piece back on the floor. If the terms force a loss of deposit, here's a tip: Remind the dealer that it's been only a couple days since you were in. Explain that while most buyers ignore calling, you believe in being as fair and honest as possible. Apologize for changing your mind and say that you would still like to purchase something from the shop. Ask if you can have your deposit back if you come in and apply the deposit to a different item, which you will pay for in full, that day. When you arrive, look for something affordable that you'll enjoy owning no matter what.

Most dealers appreciate customer courtesy, but if the dealer says no and insists on keeping your deposit, that's fair if those were the terms. Remember, your lay-away was really just a way to buy time, which you bought.

When it comes to buying antiques and collectibles, courtesy and honesty are valuable tools. Combine them with wit and common sense, and you'll do fine. Perhaps the best advice comes from Mark Twain: Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember anything ' wise advice for collectors, dealers . . . anyone.


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