Tips for Buying Antiques Online

by John Werry on March 31, 2008

Not everyone has dipped their toes into the murky pool of buying antiques online. I wrote the following list of tips in the forum and thought I’d clean it up and post it on the main blog for a wider audience. Hopefully, some of these tips will aid the journey.

Tips for buying on Ebay or other online Antique Merchants:

1. All too often the pictures that accompany an online sale item don’t do the piece justice or just don’t “disclose” enough about the item’s condition. In general, merchants who have been in the business for many years do much, much better with photos than the average Joe tossing an attic item up for sale on Ebay. If you aren’t happy with the quality or quantity of images provided online, ask the seller to send you more of them and be specific about any focus areas that you’d like them to be sure and photograph.

2. Often these photos are darker than we would like for providing detail, so buy a tool like Adobe Photoshop Elements or a similar photo touch up tool that provides a brightness or shadow/highlight adjustment feature. You’d be amazed at how you can lighten almost any photo to allow you to see more detail. I took the following image and adjusted it in about 2 seconds in Photoshop, allowing me to see more detail than in the original photo.

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meeks0578 1 lg 750306 Tips for Buying Antiques Online
3. Condition, color, and patina surprises are inversely proportional to the number of photos an item listing provides. The more angles, perspectives and lighting changes that the pictures convey, the less chance for an “I wasn’t aware of that…”. For example, on this lamp I am about to sell. If I didn’t provide you with the second, unlit photo, would you realize that the top and bottom slag panels are different colors? If I didn’t bother to include the second photo you might not have known until you received the lamp. In this case, I feel the two colors would be a welcome surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.

IMG 1048 777898 Tips for Buying Antiques Online
IMG 1077 743998 Tips for Buying Antiques Online
4. Ask the seller for information on condition, repairs, breaks, scratches and “anything else I should know” and get it via email. You now have a permanent record of their portrayal of the item.

5. Save the online listing description text and images for later reference in case you have a problem upon receipt of the item. Do not bookmark the listing in your browser. Instead copy/paste to a file or save via the browser save feature. Their listing may disappear some time after the sale so you can’t count on it as a permanent record. I had purchased a parlor set and when I received it the upholstery was punctured and a leg was broken. I was not present upon delivery due to being out of town, but spoke to the auctioneer and referenced the photos of the items that they provided during the sale as evidence that it was not received as expected.

6. Check the shipping cost beforehand to prevent heart-attacks. One of the biggest surprises to buyers buying items online for the first time is how expensive it is to ship that 133 lb marble table to Tuscon. Sometimes sellers will ship small items themselves but will not ship large items. Read the terms and conditions to see what the shipping policy is. Ask the seller for recommended shippers to contact for quotes. You may also ask Rare Victorian readers via this forum for recommended shippers. Try to use one that others have used previously before you experiment.

7. Realize that you may not receive your item for several months after winning. Ask the shipper what the shipping schedule would be when you request quotes. Shippers need to consolidate multiple shipments by region to make it economical and this can cause a delay.

8. Pay by credit card when possible so that you have another safety net in case you need to dispute a problem with the item. Paypal allows you to pay via your credit card at the time of payment if you so specify.

Tips for buying items sold on Ebay Live Auctions:

1. Ebay frequently runs online auctions for items simultaneously as the items are being sold in a conventional live auction house environment via their Ebay Live Auctions site. In this case, you will be bidding against other online and in-person bidders in real time. Bids for these items are either taken as absentee bids via the Ebay interface in the days leading up to the auction or live during the auction. You will not know the current bid price for these items until the lot is being sold live since absentee bids are kept secret until it hits the block.

2. Absentee bidding for an item is disabled shortly before the live auction on the day of the event. If you really want an item, leave an absentee bid at least a day in advance so you don’t miss it. There have been many times that I intended to watch the event live to bid on an item and a change in my personal obligations wouldn’t permit me to attend when the auction came around so I missed it.

3. You must register in the days leading up to the event to be assured that you get approved to participate. You cannot just attend an Ebay Live auction at the last minute and bid without registering, though you can watch with bidding disabled. The turnaround on registration approvals can vary from immediate acknowledgment to days.

4. If you’re bidding live via Ebay’s bidding console, you’ll never know when the item will be auctioned off timing-wise, so you may be leaving the browser window open and checking back over the course of the day for your specific item to hit the lineup. You may find yourself blocking off the better part of a day to wait for it to come up for bid.

5. Pay attention to the progression of items being sold over time. If the same item appears to be up for sale for 20 minutes with no change in the bids, your browser may have frozen and you need to restart it.

6. Check the auction description to see if items are auctioned in numeric lot order. Some auctioneers clearly state that they do not sell in order (lot #32, then item 18, then 156, then 7…). These are very frustrating since you need to sit in front of the window all day waiting for your specific item of interest to come up for sale or provide an absentee bid in advance.

7. There is normally a buyer’s premium charged to the buyer when buying via the Ebay Live Auction format. An auctioneer may have a 15% buyers premium when bidding in person but 22% when you buy via Ebay Live Auctions. Read the auction terms for details.

8. Realize that there is a time lapse between submitting a bid via the live console and when it is registered by the auction house as a bid. Live in-person bidders’ bids are being submitt
ed at the speed of light to the auctioneer (a wave of a hand in the audience). When bidding online, you’re limited by the speed of your typing skills, your Internet connection and all points between you and the auction house personnel monitoring the online bids. You will need to be alert, type fast and submit the bids quickly so that they do not close bidding before you hit the enter key.

Yes, There is More Risk Buying Online

Realize that even with all of the above followed, you may get surprised when you finally receive the item. In the end, you are buying something you’ve never seen or touched in person. For the convenience of not having to be there live, you are taking a risk that it will be to your liking. Start with less expensive items until you feel comfortable with the world of buying this way.

There are many more tips to be conveyed but that is a reasonable starting point. I welcome other tips from you in the comments section.

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