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Antiques: Telling treasures from trash


Bad deals--including fakes--are rampant. Here&s how to avoid costly mistakes.


Antiques: Telling treasures from trash

Jump to:
Choose article section...Learn about the category you're interested inBe wary of things you can't returnBuy through reputable dealersWatch for warning signsTake extra precautions when buying over the InternetGet a complete sales receiptConsider having your purchase appraised

Bad deals—including fakes—are rampant. Here's how to avoid costly mistakes.

By Leslie Kane
Senior Editor

Thanks to Web sites like eBay and TV programs like Antiques Roadshow, acquiring antiques has grown in popularity—and so have the opportunities for collectors to get taken.

"Some people go to great lengths to deceive buyers," says Mark Chervenka, editor of Antique & Collectors Reproduction News, a newsletter published in Des Moines, IA. "We've seen manufacturers purchase original molds to produce porcelain pieces that look identical to those created a century ago. They also reproduce artists' signatures and factory marks, imitate period furniture styles, and represent new items as antiques." In one instance, dealers bought India-made replicas of antique scientific equipment, marked them as being made in London, and baked them in an oven to give them an aged look.

"A former executive bought an old barn in Virginia, filled it with reproductions of antique furniture, kept the place dusty, and threw dirt around so everything looked old," says Chervenka. "He's making plenty of money selling junk to tourists who think they're getting antiques."

Internet auctions have made selling questionable items even easier. According to the National Consumers League, an advocacy organization in Washington, DC, problematic transactions arising from online auctions topped the list of Internet fraud complaints in 2000.

"On most Internet auction sites, sellers know you've got little recourse if problems of authenticity occur," says Kyle Husfloen, editor-at-large for Antique Trader Publications in Dubuque, IA. "Since the sales don't technically involve mail fraud, getting restitution can be tricky. The auction houses aren't liable, and there's no supervision mechanism."

Still, collectors bear some blame for getting duped. Many don't know what a bona fide antique is, or what determines its value. "To the public, the term 'antiques' has lost its meaning," says Chervenka. "Shop owners call used items antiques to make them sound more valuable."

Husfloen adds: "Many consumers think that age automatically makes something valuable. But a high-quality, desirable 60-year-old piece can be more valuable than a widely available 100-year-old piece in poor condition." Handmade items that show superior workmanship generally fetch more than those produced in a factory.

Even if you plan to amass a serious collection, don't purchase antiques solely as an investment. Husfloen estimates that you must hold your purchases for 10 to 25 years before you'll see significant price escalation. If an item's popularity ebbs, its value could remain flat or decline.

"Buy an antique because you'll enjoy it, and consider any monetary appreciation a bonus," advises Ron Zoglin, an antiques dealer in Kansas City, MO, and co-author of Antiquing for Dummies (IDG Books, 1999).

Here's how to make sure you get the antique you think you're buying:

Learn about the category you're interested in

Join collector clubs, go to seminars, and read about the subject. An Internet search will probably turn up a hobby group or like-minded souls with whom you can discuss potential purchases.

Read pricing guides before shopping. If you don't know values before you buy, you won't know whether you're overpaying or getting a bargain.

Become familiar with signs that differentiate real antiques from fakes. For example, factory markings, type of dowels, kind of wood, and adherence to period style can reveal the age or pedigree of furniture. Check Antique & Collectors Reproduction News (, which publishes photos of replicas side by side with the real antiques and describes how to tell them apart.

Be wary of things you can't return

In some cases, such as at a mall closeout, an estate sale, or a no-recourse auction, you may not be able to return the piece, says Zoglin. Still, the shows and auctions are useful for learning about antiques, even if you don't buy, he says.

Walter I. Hofman, a pathologist in Philadelphia who collects antique clocks, makes sure he can stop payment if he spots a fraud. "I always take an expert along and buy the clock by either credit card or check—never cash," says Hofman. "Within 48 hours, I can determine if there's any chance that the clock is a fake. One dealer tried to sell me an antique clock in a newer case, but I pointed this out to him and bought it at a reduced price."

Buy through reputable dealers

You're more likely to get genuine items if you patronize dealers known for their honesty and for dealing fairly with other collectors. To find appropriate dealers, look in targeted journals and talk to other collectors. Try to get a sense of pricing from other buyers. Some sellers charge a premium to subsidize their ritzy shops or high rents.

"Ask a dealer how long he has been in business and what his area of expertise is," advises Zoglin. "Find out what certifications he has, whether he belongs to a major appraisal organization, whether he sells reproductions and marks them as such, and what his return policy is if something is inadvertently misrepresented. No one's knowledgeable in all areas."

Watch for warning signs

If you're drooling over a piece, don't act in haste. Search auction sites and antique shops for similar articles. If you see identical merchandise, chances are your find isn't rare or unique. It may not even be old.

A sudden abundance of purple Lalique glass was the tip-off to one recent fraud, says Chervenka. "Purple Lalique is very rare, and is worth far more than the other colors," he says. "All at once, it flooded the market. We investigated and found that the seller had irradiated clear Lalique glass, which changed its atomic structure and made it appear purple. Those pieces were worth only a fraction of the asking price."

Lack of utility is another giveaway. Make sure the item can function as it was originally intended. "We've seen fake tilt-top tables that don't tilt correctly or lie flat as they should, and replica cut-glass pitchers that can't pour. The cuts were made so that the water dribbled out to the side," says Chervenka.

Take extra precautions when buying over the Internet

Make sure that photos show the item from all angles. The side facing away from the camera may have damage or a defect. Even if you can view every side, it's often wise to e-mail or call the seller, ask about damage or defects, and get the answers in writing.

Before you buy, get the seller's name, phone number, street address, and his store's name, if he has one. Don't do business with anyone who refuses to give you this information. Then, check for complaints with the local consumer protection agency and Better Business Bureau. Think twice about dealing with sellers in other countries; the distance and difference in legal systems could make disputes difficult to resolve.

At some auction sites, such as eBay, you can review a feedback area where buyers and sellers post comments about their experiences with other dealers. For added safety, consider buying through eBay's Premier site ( ), which requires sellers to guarantee each item's authenticity. You can return any purchase acquired on eBay Premier for a full refund from the seller if the piece isn't as it was represented.

Get a complete sales receipt

Have the seller write the item's approximate age or production date on the bill of sale—for example, "circa 1900." The receipt should also state the kind of merchandise and its condition—not just "antique chair." That way, if you discover the item's not what the seller claimed, you have a better case for getting your money back.

Read the dealer's terms of sale before buying, so you're aware of any time limits or other restraints on returns. If you want a refund and a dealer won't comply, head for small-claims court (for merchandise worth up to about $7,500, depending on your state), or register a complaint with the local Better Business Bureau.

Consider having your purchase appraised

That way, you'll have a second opinion on its authenticity, condition, and value. Contact a national appraisal organization and ask for a specialist near you. The leading groups are the American Society of Appraisers (, 800-ASA-VALU (272-8258); the International Society of Appraisers ( ), 888-472-4732; and the Appraisers Association of America (, 212-889-5404. Only the American Society of Appraisers, headquartered in Herndon, VA, requires members to pass a test to attain Accredited Senior Appraiser status.

"Appraisal fees depend on the type, size, and uniqueness of an item, and can potentially be hundreds of dollars, although they're often much less," says Zoglin. "Look for an appraiser who charges on an hourly or per-piece basis, rather than a percentage of the appraised value, and make sure he or she has expertise with the types of items you need to have appraised."


Leslie Kane. Antiques: Telling treasures from trash. Medical Economics 2001;22:75.

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