The Ups and Downs of Buying Antiques

I am a big believer in everyone buying antiques and vintage, but sometimes I forget how intimidating it can be to make a purchase when you’re out of your comfort zone. I have my background growing up in the business, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to uncertainty and faults in my own judgement. It can be scary so I thought it might help other new collectors if I shared a recent buying story. It turned out great in the end, but I went a little wacky before I found my happy place.

A few weeks ago Anson (my husband) and I went to the Sunday Antique Market in Toronto. It’s a large market with dealers set up inside and out. The packed area offers a great assortment of decorative and housewares items, jewelery, collectibles, art and small antique furniture. Anson and I had each happily bought small items and we were getting ready to leave when I spied a round bamboo shelf near the doors. My first reaction was to smile because the shelf looked to me like pure vintage Tiki. Round with asymmetrical platforms, sitting around 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide, it felt like something out of the 1960s or 70s. I could see it gracing a rec room along with a couch in a tropical print and a hifi stereo. This is what happens when you buy old stuff, by the way, your imagination takes over. Removed from a defined setting, antiques become curiosities in themselves, and you fill in the blanks (right or wrong) of the item’s story.

Anyway, to my surprise Anson was not opposed to checking out the shelf in more detail. So we went up and took a closer look. The price was $125. Hmm. Not an easy bit of cash to drop on something I wasn’t sure about. A man approached us and began to tell us about the piece. He told us the shelf was not from the mid 20th century, but much earlier. He though it was Victorian (late 1800s) and he made reference to the burnt finish as proof. He said the shelf was all notched construction without the use of nails. Finally, he lowered the price to $110. Now, all of a sudden, it was exciting to think we could own this marvelous piece. Victorian bamboo! Isn’t that really collectible? The rush of emotion was saying “I must have this” and it felt good. Looking at Anson, I could see he felt the same way. We paid the man, shook his hand, and carried the shelf to our car.

In the ten minutes it took to carry the shelf to the car I experienced my first taste of bitter suspicion. The shelf was solid, yes, but some of the bamboo was cracked. Why hadn’t I seen that? There were not nails but large screws helping hold the bottom construction together. And what about the style? I knew this looked a lot more 1960s than Victorian. Or did I know that? My mood crashed as I tried to reconcile what I was now suspecting with what I had believed only moments earlier. Was it even old? I did a Google search on my phone and found a warning about fake and newly made bamboo being sold as Victorian.

Had I been bamboozled?!

Even thinking of that pun could not lift my spirits! The money wasn’t even the point – my pride was hurt. I was certain the man who sold me the shelf thought he was telling us the truth. But was it the truth? The whole ride home I was voicing my concerns and bouncing between opinions. I decided the shelf was not new – it was too well made and the finish looked old. But questions remained. After much comforting Anson finally asked “do you still like it?”. Yes, I answered. “Then it’s worth it!” he said. Anson had a clarity I lacked. Yes, I did like it. Yes, I liked it even if it wasn’t Victorian. Yes. Okay.

When I got home I took a few photos and phoned my parents for some quick feedback. They liked the shelf although it was not really to their taste. They thought it probably wasn’t Victorian but maybe from the 1940s to coincide with that time’s heightened interest in “Oriental” design. I confirmed it was solid and not missing any pieces that I could see. Finally we agreed it was just my style and really, what can you buy nowadays with $100? They thought it was a good buy, Anson thought it was a good buy, and now I did too.

I put the shelf on an antique cupboard in our dining room and put some of my McCoy pottery on it. I had bought the piece specifically to display the pottery and I was happy to see it suited my vintage planters nicely. So in the space of a few hours the saga of the bamboo shelf had finally come to an end. In that time I had gone from the rush of love at first sight, to the lows of suspicion and fear, and then back up to contentment. Kind of a crazy amount of emotion for a shopping trip, but also probably normal for a less experienced buyer like me. I still don’t know for sure when the shelf was made, but that’s sometimes the reality of buying antiques. I know it’s well made, and most importantly I know I like it. Every buyer has to take a leap of faith sometimes (no one – buyer or seller – can be an expert on everything), but if you buy what you love you will not regret it.

Now to see what all the fuss was about! Here’s the shelf:

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bamboo2

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