Secrets for Finding Bargain Antiques and Collectibles

Shopping for "Sleepers"

Yard Sale Shopping in Monroe, New York
Yard Sale Shopping in Monroe, New York. Waring Abbott / Getty Images

Bargains aren’t as plentiful as they used to be in the antiques realm, but with some diligence you can still find undervalued treasures to add to a collection, decorate your home, or sell for a profit. In the antiques biz, these buys are referenced as "sleepers," since they're laying there inconspicuously for ardent bargain hunters to find them. Keep these secrets for finding bargain antiques and collectibles in mind when you're out combing your favorite haunts. 

  • 01 of 08

    Persistence Pays Off

    The most successful bargain antique hunters shop with frequency. Know when your local thrift stores restock. Head out on Friday and Saturday mornings to hit the estate and garage sales. Scour every flea market and antique mall you run across. Peruse online auctions regularly. It’s like fishing. The more often you cast bait, the more likely you are to reel in a whale of a deal.

  • 02 of 08

    Shop Early and Shop Late

    It’s true that the early bird often gets the worm when it comes to antiques shopping, but don’t forget to drop by late in a sale to see what’s left, too. Many times items priced too high initially will be dirt cheap toward the end of an estate sale. The same goes for flea market and antique show shopping. Dealers will often make much better deals late in a show, especially for their good customers, rather than haul yet another load of stuff back home.

  • 03 of 08

    Do Your Homework

    Being able to recognize a good deal requires lots of studying before you shop. Whether you’re perusing eBay in your pajamas or schlepping across a flea market field with a flashlight, boning up on values in your specialty areas makes good sense. This includes having a rough idea about how much the item you’re contemplating sells for in different venues. Some harder to find antiques and collectibles bring higher prices online, and other more common items attract buyers when they can be examined in person.

  • 04 of 08

    Develop an Eye for Quality

    You don’t need to know everything about every antiques genre to discover a bargain if you hone your eye for quality. Learn the feel of fine glass and porcelain in comparison to lesser quality pieces. Look for nicely detailed hand painting on ceramics, and fine stitching in textiles. Study the signs of quality craftsmanship and extraordinary design in furniture and jewelry. Sleuth for marks and labels previously overlooked by sellers. And especially in your strong areas of interest, be sure you know how to categorize good, better, and best in terms of materials, workmanship, and design so you can look for unmarked pieces that are way undervalued.

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  • 05 of 08

    Phone a Friend

    If you’re out in the field shopping and just don’t know whether or not something you’re contemplating is a bargain, use your phone to access the Internet or call a friend and ask them to price similar items for you online. Be prepared to walk them through completed item searches on eBay or browsing a favorite online dealer if need be.

  • 06 of 08

    Travel with Some References

    Especially at garage sales, don’t be shy about asking a seller to hold something for you while you “go to your car for a minute.” Look up a piece in a reference book stowed in your auto or glance at your smartphone to refresh your memory on subtleties that add value to an ordinary piece or look up a rough estimate price. Be courteous, and don't leave them hanging more than a few minutes. If you decide the item isn’t what you thought it was, tell the seller you changed your mind so they can put it back out for sale as soon as you make that determination.

  • 07 of 08

    Watch Other Buyers

    If you’ve picked up an item and suddenly feel as if you’re being stalked around a garage sale, you may have a sleeper in hand. It’s likely another shopper has recognized your find, and hopes you’ll put the item back so they can snatch it up. 

  • 08 of 08

    A Few Shopping Cautions to Consider

    Now that you're armed with secrets employed by antiques shopping pros, keep these cautions in mind as you practice the craft:

    • Don’t be seduced by a bargain price. It’s not a bargain if condition issues diminish the value of the piece.
    • Watch for reproductions. Sometimes a “too good to be true” deal is just that, even at garage sales. “It belonged to my grandmother” might be a true statement, but did grandma buy it at the gift shop down the block a few months ago?
    • Don’t let it get away. If you even think you’re interested in a piece, pick it up and hold it while you shop. You can always put it back if you change your mind.