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Negotiating the Price of an Antique

You've been reading your price guides, your auction catalogues, and your antique trade journals. You've driven down long country roads to find auctions and tiptoed through antique malls, sniffing out sleepers. You've asked questions and handled several dozen antiques. You are ready to buy, so you need to be ready to negotiate.

The manners approach

Be polite and discreet. Wait until the dealer is not surrounded by people. Have the piece in hand and quietly ask "Is this the best price?" If you can't pick up the piece, or if there are people all around, say to the dealer, "I'd like you to look at a piece and tell me if that is your best price."

Walk over to the piece. The dealer may then slip you a piece of paper with a new and improved price.

Good better best

If you know the price is good and you simply want to try for a better price, put on a deadpan face. You are holding a poker hand you don't want anyone to get too curious about. Ask, "Would you be willing to do any better on this piece?" After you consider the answer you might gently ask, "Is this your best price?" Or "Would you be willing to take. . . ." Or, "May I make an offer?"

Then give a specific price. Now the dealer knows you are a serious buyer; he's been offered a deal, and he may be willing to take it.

Or he may answer, "I can't sell it for $500, but I could let it go for $600."

He's telling you he wants to sell the piece. At that point you can go comfortably back and forth and settle on a price.

The two-fer approach

Negotiate on more than one piece — "Can we make a package deal on these pieces?"

Now you've given the dealer an excuse to give you a discount, because you're buying quantity. Dealers prefer to bargain on several pieces. But sometimes, you can make a package out of two pieces.

The two-fer approach can motivate the dealer to work on a closer markup with you. Dealers appreciate having the chance to do a good day's business with one wonderful customer (you). Plus, they see that you may become an ongoing customer.

The flawed finder

Who put the chip in the Chippendale? Who put the tiff in the Tiffany? Who put the cut in the cut glass? Mimic the great writer Flaw-Bert and find a flaw the dealer didn't mention.

Perhaps there's a break in a table leg or a nick on a cut glass vase that the dealer didn't even know about. Subtly remind the dealer that having the piece repaired will cost you. No dealer enjoys finding out he has inadvertently purchased damaged goods.

This bargaining tool is often worth 10 percent off or more (depending on the nature of the flaw). Once the dealer realizes the piece is damaged, he really wants to sell it. It's not worth as much and he'll have to explain the flaw and apologize for it to future customers.

Selling Uncle Stu and the crew

Remember the time your Uncle Stu came and stayed with you for two whole weeks? Remember how happy you were to see him go, even if you did have to loan him train money to get him out of there? Every dealer has his antique Uncle Stu. (Some dealers have whole families.) These are pieces that the dealer mistakenly invited into his shop, and they've been hanging around, taking up space for way too long. He would love to sell such pieces, even if he has to throw in a little traveling money.

You may totally love the dealer's Uncle Stu. You may have been looking for such a piece for months. So how do you uncover the dealer's unwelcome relatives and make them part of your antique family?

Look for odd jobs

Look for pieces that are unusual, that don't blend into the overall ambience. When you find one, see if you really like it.

Ask the dealer for the history of the piece. This opens the way for finding out how long the piece has been lurking in his shop. Of course, even if the piece has been in the shop since prehistoric times, a smart dealer might say, "Antiques get better with age. The value of this is greater than when I priced it four years ago."

Assuming the dealer is right, you have to decide if you love the piece enough to pay that price. Use your knowledge and intuition: If the dealer overpaid in the first place, you may not want to be the one who bails him out.

The big picture

"Size up" the situation and examine pieces that are oversized. Notice the giant painting in the corner. Look at the huge canopy bed that would be great for you, because you wouldn't have to buy any more bedroom furniture (you wouldn't have room). These pieces may be just right for you but wrong for most everyone else — including the dealer.

Naked women and dead animals

Antiques with challenging subject matter often are hard to sell. Erotic pieces, hunting pictures, bronzes that feature dead animals, devils, or blood — even when the art is great and the craftsmanship superb, the market prefers charming children or beautiful, clothed, women. Hunt around for something that may be on the road less traveled and see where you can go with negotiating.

Throw it in

Even if you weren't born with that silver spoon, here is your chance to get one "thrown in." Suppose that you are interested in several items, and one of them, the spoon for example, is substantially less in price. Calculate to see if getting the spoon free would be a better deal than getting a discount. Or maybe you can have both.

If it feels comfortable, at the end of the negotiation, say, "I'd like to buy the vase, the gateleg table, and the cameo pin. How about throwing in those three spoons?"

If the dealer has a sufficient markup on the other pieces, he may be pleased to offer you this little bonus. If not, he will tell you so and — assuming that you have not been too aggressive in your other negotiations — there will have been no harm in the asking. Use this negotiating strategy sparingly and judiciously.

Adding to the package

You have just put together the ideal package and agreed on a good price. You're looking around while the dealer wraps everything up and you see something else you like. You are in a glorious negotiating position. The dealer is already thrilled with you. Show the dealer the piece and say, "In light of what I've just purchased, can you make me a really great price on this?"

In this situation, you can sometimes get a much larger discount on this item than on the entire rest of the package!

In the interest of interest free

Ask if the dealer has layaway. Layaway is usually an interest free payment plan. Many dealers prefer layaway, because it promotes an ongoing relationship. Every time you write a check, you think of that antique shop. If the dealer is strapped for cash, he may prefer an outright sale. Ask, "If I pay in full right now, would you be able to do a little better?"

Other stuff to negotiate for

  • Free delivery
  • Repairs that might need to be made
  • Having the piece cleaned or polished
  • Installations, such as a chandelier, painting, or mirror
  • Additional research or documentation, when applicable

When bargaining doesn't work

You've just seen the most stunning spectacular piece. It's in mint condition and your heart beats faster just looking at it. When the dealer has a piece that's totally unusual and unique — or if the dealer has priced it in close to start with — he may not give a discount at all. If it is well-priced and stunning, follow your heart and pay the full price.

Don't push the dealer to his discomfort level. If he says, "This is my best," and holds firm, don't press, with "What is your very best price?" You're trying to build a relationship with the dealer.

When you develop that relationship, hopefully the day will come when the dealer offers you a discount without you even asking.

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