Finding Hidden Treasures


Everybody knows the feeling of going to a flea market or garage sale and having the thought that they may just stumble upon something valuable for pennies. It’s not all that rare of an occurrence (better odds than winning the lottery). But it’s also something that you can gain a little bit of skill in so that you can know what you’re looking for to quickly spot those diamonds in the rough.

Over at there is a great little guide to finding valuables at flea markets and these types of situations:

1. Early bird gets the worm.

This adage really applies in the antiques/flea market culture. Some dealers peruse newspaper classified ads for yard sales and will then knock on a seller’s door the night before the sale. (I’m not advocating this — it can annoy the homeowners, but sometimes they’re happy for the early sales.) At flea markets and antique shows, a lot of the action happens in the parking lot during the setup before the show opens. It’s still fun to go to flea markets any time of the day, and there is always the chance that everyone will have missed the prize on the field, or a dealer will pull something out of a box later in the day that she or he had forgotten to unload in the morning. But if you are serious about finding a treasure, try getting up and being the first one at the flea market.

2. Get some gear — a loupe, a small flashlight, magnet, a note pad, cell phone or smartphone.

A few simple tools will help you find the treasure and prevent mistakes. If you love antique jewelry like I do, then a loupe or small magnifying lens is critical for seeing the tiny “sterling” or “925” mark (which indicates the silver content). A magnet can help you detect real silver, which will not cling to the magnet as steel and iron do. A loupe is also useful for looking for maker’s marks, signatures and, importantly, wear patterns. A pen flashlight can help to see these distinguishing marks as well, and for indoor flea markets or antique shows, helps to see details when the lighting is poor. With a notepad, you can write down information about an object and research it when you get home. Also, for very large flea markets and shows, it helps to jot down the booth number or vendor’s name and the quoted price if you want to think about an object, or peruse the show for a similar one that might be priced lower or in better condition. With a cell phone, you can send a photo to someone who can do a bit of quick research for information not easily found on Google, or take a picture for later study. With a smartphone, you can check the latest values for some things through searching eBay or other auction sites.

3. Look for signs of age.

If you are hunting for antiques or vintage items, first look for signs of authentic age. There are many reproductions of antiques that look old because they are made to look old — depression glass, old apothecary jars, wrought iron furniture or baskets, sconces, decrepit-looking boxes or shelves, spice cabinets, beaded objects and tribal arts. As dealer Jimmy Desjardins said in Killer Stuff, “Glass has been faked for seventy years so even some of the fakes are almost antique now.”

Perhaps the single best way to detect “repros” and fakes — or at least your first line of defense — is to examine the object carefully for wear. This is where the loupe and flashlight come in handy. Dirt in crevasses that builds up over decades or even centuries, rust from nails that bleeds into the surrounding wood, dull spots on the rims or bottoms of glass objects, “crazing” or fine crackle lines in the glaze of pottery — these can reveal age. But be aware that “wear” can be faked, too. If you want to buy an expensive antique, your best bet is to talk to the dealer, get background on the object and ask if you can return the object to the dealer if you later see a flaw, crack, repair or other mark that indicates it’s not real.

4. Talk to dealers — your local experts.

Antique dealers — the best ones — are also enthusiastic teachers. They love the objects, and they love to share that passion and appreciation with people who are sincerely interested in learning. Good dealers are connoisseurs and will happily teach you about how to find good examples and what to avoid. Even if you are not buying anything from them at that moment, you may become an enthusiast and buy something later from them or from another dealer, which helps the trade overall.

By talking to dealers, you can find out where they procured the object, which gives you some background (has it been hiding in an attic for decades?), and how much they know about it. Once you find a knowledgeable, trustworthy dealer, stick with him or her. The person can be on the lookout for objects that interest you for your collection or your home decorating.

5. Develop your eye — and your ears and nose, too.

There are ways to assess an object beyond just looking at it. Use all your senses. For example, pinging or tapping glass or ceramics can reveal nearly invisible hairline cracks, which resonate a certain tone, or composite materials that sound “off” and indicate a repair. By carefully feeling the surface of crockery, you can detect subtle differences in temperature where patches have been added to hide a crack or break. Your nose can alert you to wood that has been “smoked” to add age, and by rubbing your fingers over Bakelite, you can tell if it’s real because it exudes an oily smell when slightly warmed by friction, unlike newer plastics. I’ve watched Curt Avery (or other dealers in his booth) smell rugs and old crocks, caress the surface of glassware, press a fingernail into wood, knock on stoneware to listen for cracks, hold objects up against sunlight to check for crizzling and run his hands around the legs of chairs to see if they are “out of round,” which usually indicates authenticity.

Obviously you need to study up on the types of things you are interested in buying so that you can make the best estimations and have a feel for the value of things. You can check out the rest of the guide here.