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The ABC’s of Antiquing

By Darin Lowery

Call it retro, vintage or junk— though many items with finer pedigrees have earned the distinctive appellation known as ‘an antique’. Much of what is sold in antiques shops and malls have value to many and will be cherished for years; other folks would rather pursue new, owning something unowned before. Still other ‘collectibles’ one will drive by, literally— they’re called yard sales, and if you like Beanie Babies and Jane Fonda workout books, have at it. The junk at the very bottom, the flotsam and jetsam of life, is found on television shows like ‘HOARDING: Buried Alive’. These are folks who just can’t say no to a bargain, or to anything else either.


By whatever name the rose goes, there has been an explosion across the planet over the last forty years for anything that’s even slightly older than we are. That’s the point— we’re fixated on finding and owning the things our families threw out years ago. You should hear the grannies laugh when they see pastel plastic party sets and faded boxes of LUX detergent on the shelves where I’ve worked.


After thirty-plus years in this business I can say I know a little bit about a lot of things, and have some stories to show for it. One day I sold twelve 1950’s dinette sets– a Technicolor nightmare of aqua and pink— and customers who browsed the showroom later in the day, after the deal was done, thought I’d put ‘SOLD’ tags on everything to goose sales. ‘It was the Japanese!’, I whooped, delirious because it was my second day on the job. ‘They love these things in Tokyo!’ And in my earlier days, employed at a shop specializing in Victorian artifacts, a stylishly dressed lady asked if she could see my epergne. Blushing, I bolted from the room. Later, when the shop owner explained the woman had simply wanted to see a set of fluted ruby glass vases, I was unmasked as an idiot.

Over the course of the next year— four issues in total, as this is a quarterly publication— we’ll cover the ABC’s of antiquing: tips, observations and personal reflections:


‘A’ is for ‘antique’.  For years, the true definition of the term ‘antique’ has been that of an object which has survived, intact or otherwise, for over one hundred years. This means that even if your Star Trek action figures are in perfect condition, with no bite marks or burned body parts, they’re still only thirty years old. A fine old humidor from the Titanic, on the other hand— the ship went down in 1912, exactly a century ago— well, you can give that man a cigar. Your father’s Betamax tapes, a fabulous collection of ‘Golfing Greats’, doesn’t qualify. Ditto on Aunt Rita’s collection of Pyrex mixing bowls— but we sure do love those patterns! Neither one are antiques. You can toss Daddy’s tapes— or burn them– and whip up some potato salad with Auntie. The winner here is the Titanic cigar canister. Other things to look for: if it has a UPC code, the item, at its oldest, is from the mid-Eighties. Another good dating tool is a zip code: they were introduced in 1964.


Barb‘B’ is for ‘Barbie’, the collectible doll with perfect dimensions and an unlimited wardrobe, or ‘Bakelite’— stacks of plastic baubles with ridiculous prices which normally sane people obsess over. ‘B’ is also for ‘beware’, as in ‘buyer beware’. Do your homework— it’s so easy to research items nowadays. You can look stuff up on your phone  now, for goodness sake. Know what you’re buying, whether it’s vintage Roseville or the Chinese lookalike knock-offs from a decade ago. If it’s too good to be true, it’s usually too good to be true.


‘C’ is for ‘collectible’. Believe me, anything and everything is collectible. I’ve known folks who collect casino ashtrays, vintage hubcaps and 1960’s Vera headscarves. A man I knew in Chicago bought every old wooden ruler he could find. A woman in Seattle has 300 vintage aprons and is still on the lookout. See what I mean? Whether it’s postcards, dice, keychains or aged photographs with scalloped edges, someone is out there scouting around.   

‘D’ is for ‘deal’, as in, ‘Wow! I got a great deal on these retro windshield wipers!’ If the ticket says $89 and you think offering thirty bucks is going to win you friends, think again. A dealer has overhead like anyone else. He may work a deal for you; he may not. Cash is king: credit cards come with charges both parties pay for. Come up with an appropriate offer in an appropriate way. ‘How much do you want for this reeking piece of garbage’ never works, but ‘Is this your best price’ will at least earn you some respect.

‘E’ is for ‘elephant’, as in ‘white elephant’, also known as THE ITEM THAT HAS NEVER SOLD. Every shop has at least one piece of merchandise like this, so buried in dust as to be unrecognizable at first glance. The price tag might be seven years old; if you’re interested in the item, go ahead and ask for the best price.  Even if they tell you ‘stock just flies off the floor’, it doesn’t hurt to inquire. But be prepared for the possibility that the item just arrived; maybe it’s a Mayan fertility goddess that hasn’t been vacuumed yet. If the dealer won’t budge, be gracious. No one likes a bully or a whiner. Or a sore loser.

‘F’ is for ‘Fiesta’ or ‘Frankoma’: two dinnerware lines, as different as night and day. The former, colorful and happy; the latter, rustic and muted. Both have their aficionados, and while prices have fluctuated over the years, they’re still very popular lines. One word, though: there is original  Fiesta and then there’s new Fiesta. Know the difference, or the sugar bowl you snagged for Cousin Bobby might be under-appreciated, depending on which colors he collects.Frankom

We’ll do the second quarter of the guide next issue. In the meantime, venture forth and have fun. While there are still rabid collectors out there, a new ‘downsizing’ trend seems to be emerging. This is good and bad news: on one hand, lots of great merchandise is showing up on vendors’ shelves. On the other, many formerly fascinating and eclectic people who lived in formerly fascinating and eclectic homes have now become Ikea-ized, living in a minimalistic wasteland filled with cheap reproductions of classic furniture and objet d’art.

Which, at some point in the future, will become collectible.

As we say in the business, ‘bye-buy!

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