Unearthing rough diamonds: 6 tips for antiques shopping

Vintage Japanese Oriental Barbie ZoeAtHome.com

Japanese Barbie was a difficult model to work with! ($15)

My mother has an uncanny ability to walk into a junk shop and pick out the one beautiful item amongst a sea of ‘bric-à-brac‘. How does she do it? Does she just have an eye for it, or is this something you can learn?

In my mother’s case, her skill comes from years of running her own business handcrafting items to sell in galleries. She has also designed and built two houses from scratch, and renovated another to sell for a profit. Her many artist friends have taught her about their own skills and artistic sensibilities. For my Mum, buying and collecting beautiful objects (even if they were found in junk shops) is all part of her design process.

I became interested in second-hand items when we spent a year living off a very limited income. We had to furnish a house with very little money, so we started to look on Ebay and in the opportunity shops (op-shops for short). In those days, it was a necessity not a hobby. Then, after downsizing to this small home I spent the first year trying very hard to be a minimalist. But recently I needed some things for the house, so I went op-shopping with my Mum. Here are some things we learned:

  • Avoid buying at the big established antiques shops, where prices are high. Those shops are still fun to visit, and they are a good way of educating yourself about your chosen niche. But to buy items, it’s better to stick to the little church and charity shops staffed by volunteers, preferably outside the city. Case in point:

I bought this lamp base at a shop in the antiques district in the city, surrounded by many other shops just like it. I like the wood grain, but I’m looking for a new shade for it. Cost: $30.

Vintage teak lamp base

We found this bowl in a hidden corner of a dusty charity shop in a country town. It was really dirty, but the octagonal shape appealed to me. We think it is made from a single piece of teak and is hand-finished. You can see the rings of the tree on the sides of the bowl. Cost: $4.

Retro teak bowl ZoeAtHome.com

  • Think outside the square. Some of the best things I have were never bought in an antiques shop. My bureau desk was found on Ebay, but the seller had listed it in the ‘office furniture’ category, rather than the ‘vintage retro’ one (Cost: $40). My dressing table was found on a tip (Cost: free). My father-in-law made a new drawer for it by matching the colour of the timber. I’m still looking for a mirror for for it, so hopefully I can share some pictures in the future. I have a lovely little magazine rack which I bought from a artist who sells her own op-shop finds from her front room for extra income (Cost: $15, see below). And I have found some great things on the side of the road too. Part of the joy you get from having these items in your home is knowing that you picked them up for next to nothing.
  • Look for quality, in materials and design. Things don’t have to be really old and expensive to be nice to look at and use. Items that are well-made in real wood or glass or ceramic are much nicer than plastic, melamine or wood veneer. Try to find items with nice shapes that are in good condition. My kids use Bunnykins ceramic bowls from the 1970s. They weren’t expensive or very collectable, but they are lovely.
  • Go early and go often. At one antique furniture shop we went to, many of the better pieces were marked with a SOLD sticker. Someone had obviously been through earlier in the day and had their pick of the best stock. I think a good strategy would be to go to the same shop once a month to get to know the dealers. Once you know when they are likely to get new stock in, you can get there early to have a first look at everything.
  • Want less clutter? Then only buy items you will actually use, rather than nick-nacks that will sit on a shelf and gather dust. I can proudly say that all the items we bought were things we actually needed for our house (well, except Japanese Barbie, but who could resist her?). You can sterilise ceramics by putting them through a dishwasher, plastics by soaking in Milton’s solution and wood by rubbing with methylated spirits.
  • Set limits on what you collect. You can’t buy everything, because then your house will end up looking like an op-shop! Instead, focus on one maker, or one era or one material or colour. For my home, I’m only interested in mid-century pieces locally made from teak, preferably with round handles and tapered legs.

Furnishing a house with vintage items is like building a great wardrobe. It’s all in the way you put it all together.

If you’d like some more inspiration, have a look at the home that interior designer Kathryn Tyler designed and furnished with vintage items. Kathryn’s home shows how beautiful vintage items can look when they are thoughtfully selected and displayed. She has been featured on Grand Designs too. (If you are in the UK and you have 4oD you can watch the episode online).

I thought I’d finish this post with a round-up of the vintage items that have already appeared on the blog. I’d love to know your tips too.

What kind of vintage items do you like?


2 thoughts on “Unearthing rough diamonds: 6 tips for antiques shopping

  1. You are so right! Only today I was admiring my old table on the back porch. We’d looked at expensive new ones and couldn’t quite decide. Then I saw the old oak one for $20. and bought it and refinished it with spar varnish. Now when there’s company, everyone requests to sit outside for meals.

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