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Top 10 Tips when visiting an antiques fair

| Julia Gibbs

I thought I would share with you our top 10 tips on how to buy vintage items at an antiques market, along with some photos from our recent buying trip!

One of our favourite pastimes is wandering around an antiques market, car boot sale or (if we are lucky enough to be in France) a brocante. It’s something we have been doing for our own pleasure, for inspiration and to furnish our home & studio, for nearly 30 years!

Recently, we headed out to one of our favourite spots  - Ardingly Antiques Market in West Sussex, held every other month or so at the South of England Showground.

Tip 1 – Measure up

Is there something specific that you will be looking for? If so, take measurements before you go (and take your tape measure with you!). Of course, there are going to be spur of the moment purchases as well (one of the joys of browsing!), but if you are looking for a larger item such as a desk to fit in an alcove, a fireplace surround, a bathroom mirror or that perfect coffee table its important to have your measurements to hand. Its often very difficult to gauge the size of a piece of furniture if it’s sitting on a tarp in a field.  Knowing that the item will fit will help you make a better buying decision.

Tip 2 – Get some cash, and more cash!

While some stalls do take credit cards, and there are often cash machines on site, nothing beats having a wad of cash in your pocket. Card reader signals can be patchy and there are often long queues for the cash machines – that also charge a hefty transaction fee. Having cash to hand will save you time and probably also help get a better deal. Take more than you think you will need; you can always bring it home with you (not likely if you are anything like us!!)

Tip 3 – Get there early

Obvious, but you are going to miss out on the best items if you rock up at 10am.  If the fair opens at 8am make sure you are there before the gates open, there might even be a bit of a queue. This is especially important if you are looking for the ‘specific thing’ as those 1960’s Eames chairs are going to be snapped up as soon as they are unloaded from the van. In our experience, a seller may have a whole set of chairs for example and there may well be one left at 10am but it’s going to be the most damaged item that no one else wanted.  To get the best items you need to get in early.

Tip 4 – Bring a trolley

Game changer! We bought a sturdy camping trolley and I can’t tell you the number of times we have been stopped to ask where we got it from – because it’s so useful! In fact, I have thought we’d probably make a killing if we set up a stall on site just selling these things!

Tip 5 – Dress for the occasion

I mean, trainers & sun cream for the summer, thick warm coat, hat, gloves & WELLIES for the winter (or possibly summer too!). Unless we are having a heatwave it’s going to be colder than you anticipated at 8am and being freezing can take the edge off the enjoyment. Also, if you’re in the United Kingdom the likelihood is that it will rain at some point and those fields get extremely muddy. While I am mentioning muddy fields, don’t make the mistake of parking in the middle of one in winter unless you have a 4x4. We did and had to be towed out by a tractor – not the ideal end to the day!

Tip 6 – If you see something you love, buy it!

If you come across the perfect ‘specific thing’ or fall in love with something for no particular reason and its within budget – then just buy it! There’s no room for procrastination at the antiques market (see tip 2 – having cash ready) because by the time you have walked a few metres away to think it through, someone else would have snapped it up. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see if a deal can be done, but if it’s a fair price and it’s what you want, just buy it!

Tip 7– You can negotiate on price, but be respectful

If you want to get something there’s no harm in asking for the best price. Maybe an interesting little paint box has caught your eye – you didn’t know you wanted it, but you think to yourself – I’ll take it if its £20. You ask the price and its £25. Nothing wrong in asking if the trader would take £20 for it – they either will or they won’t. But be respectful, these guys are trying to make a living, have probably travelled across the country, and possibly camped out at the fair for a few days. Don’t try and haggle them down just for the sake of it, and don’t make silly offers. If their final price on the paintbox is £25 and you think that’s fair and you can afford it, then pay the £25! Or, maybe they will do a bit of a deal if you’re buying other items from their stall.

Tip 8 – Talk to the stallholder

There’s something for everyone at the antiques fair, but not everything is an antique, or vintage.  There are always quite a few stalls selling new goods that have a ‘vintage look’ and most are obvious to spot. That’s fine if its what you are after, but just make sure you know what you are getting. Engage with the stall holder, and if you ask about the item they will usually be very open about where its from. Often you also get a fascinating story behind a genuine vintage item.

Tip 9 – Make sure the item is in working order, or that you can fix it

Especially important if you are buying something such as a guillotine, hole punch or printing press, as we often do. We always carry a few sheets of paper with us for the purpose of testing blades – very simple but incredibly useful. Test the hinges on boxes and that there are no screws missing – if these things aren’t working its usually reflected in the price and if you have a few skills you might be able to fix it.


Tip 10– Stay until the end, or at least until the afternoon

As important as it is to arrive early to get the best pieces, there is also something to be said for seeing what’s left at the end of a show, and getting some bargains. Often stallholders would rather not have to pack everything back in the van if they can help it and are more likely to make a deal on a bulky item, or you may find they have reduced their prices. Sometimes they have a rummage around and bring out a few extra things, this might be exactly what you were looking for!

So, these are my top ten tips for having a great antique fair experience!

Make a day or it, bring a flask of tea, and a picnic. Or, many of the bigger markets have a choice of food and drink stalls, you can treat yourself throughout the day to see you though from that early start to having the stamina to stay for the bargains at the end. Happy browsing!


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