Hunting for Vintage Treasures

Frances Johnson

Posted on February 25 2014

Vintage shopping is what I like to call a high-risk, high-reward activity. You can spend hours digging through musty, dusty piles and come away with nothing but allergies, or you can find the treasure of your life. Because we care about you (and your sinuses), here are some tips to keep you in the high-reward column. 

Location, location, location.

If you’re looking for upscale brands, head to consignment stores in the ritzier part of town. But be prepared to spend more than you would at, say, Goodwill. Vintage doesn’t always mean cheap! I’ve found estate sales are best for dishes, furniture and the types of things I would want to inherit from my grandmother. If you have a little more time on your hands, and some cash in your pocket, fairs and markets can give you a lot of variety in one location. Try to get there early and check out all the stalls before you decide where to commit your time. I like markets and fairs for more off-beat finds like old maps and records. If you’re looking for clothes at an outdoor market be sure there is a place to try things on before you buy. And a big upshot? You can get your barter on! The point is, what you’re looking for should help you decide where to look.

Decide before you go.

Sometimes what you’re looking for might be nothing more than a fun day of browsing unique stores and stalls, in which case it’s best to go with an open mind and no agenda. But if your time is short, or you are looking for something specific, decide before you go and save yourself the inevitable distraction. When I step into a vintage store with nothing to guide me, I am basically paralyzed by all my choices and I feel like I have no choice but to buy everything I want and decide how to use it or what to do with it later. This is not a good system. And I think it’s how hoarders are born. The fact of the matter is, I don’t need a bunch of old canning jars or bird cages or disintegrating copies of LIFE Magazine. So I tell myself before I go that I am not even going to look at those things, and make sure I know what I do want to spend my time looking for, and looking at.

Narrow your options, narrow your search.

Especially if you’re starting a collection, it’s best to give yourself some boundaries that keep you out of hoarder territory. My mother, for example, collects vintage McCoy pottery, but she only buys pieces in green and yellow. If vintage jewelry is your thing, maybe settle on just brooches, or necklaces and earrings. If it’s clothes you’re after, maybe settle on a decade, or go for all dresses, or shoes or jackets. For larger vintage finds like art or furniture, pick a spot in your house and then decide what you want to go there. Is it a print or painting you’re after? Maybe a credenza or an end table? Or perhaps you’re on an event-oriented treasure hunt. So if you need a dress for a wedding, don’t spend time looking at old Doc Martens. Visualizing with too many specifics can mean that you’re never satisfied with anything you see, but having a sense of what you want for a specific purpose or place in your home will help you quickly eliminate things that just won’t work.

Get brand-wise.

Especially if you are looking at your vintage collection as an investment, it helps to know what is really worth something so do a little research on the types of pieces you are looking for. For clothes, what labels were most popular or chic in the era you’re looking at? For pottery, what are the rare pieces in each make? A set of Desert Rose plates might be a dime a dozen, but a set of salt and pepper shakers could be a real coup. If you’ve really narrowed down what you’d like to collect, it might be worth investing in a book that will tell you what to look for and how much good quality pieces are worth today. For the more casual shopper, don’t be afraid to draw on the expertise of shop owners and other collectors. Ask them lots of questions about the pieces, including where they got them, if they’re been repaired and where there might be more. If you’re really serious, you can hook up with a vintage dealer who can help you build a collection much like an art dealer would.

Quality matters.

Sometimes we’re just in the vintage shopping for fun: a wild 1970s caftan for a party, or an over-the-top 1920s hat for a fancy dinner. But most of the time, whether it’s clothes, collectibles or furniture, we want things that will continue to stand the test of time so quality really does matter. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it should be in shambles. Whatever it is, you want to be able to use it and enjoy it without worrying it will fall apart! For clothes, that means checking seams and zippers and sticking it higher-quality, more durable fabrics. If something needs repairing and you just can’t leave without it, make sure you know whether it can actually be fixed and how much it would cost before you leave the store with it. For jewelry, check the clasps, links, prongs and settings. My heart has been broken more than once by jewelry that lost stones after just a few wearings. For dishes and other collectibles, be sure to ask the shop owner or dealer if the piece has ever been repaired, and looks for chips and seams that indicate something has been glued together.

And, most important, have fun.

Happy hunting!


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