How to Shop for Art at Antique Stores, According to Experts

guinevere's antique shop
How to Shop for Art at Antique StoresAndreas von Einsiedel - Getty Images

“Antique art is inherently imbued with a sense of mystery.”

That’s what Rob Delamater, co-founder of San Francisco’s Lost Art Salon says when asked about antique art’s continuing draw and relevance in the current era. When looking at an antique piece of art, it’s easy to imagine the stories that might come with it, the people who have owned it, the homes it has decorated. What journey has it taken to get to this point?

“Our world is so devoid of the unknown, but antique art offers a portal into a seductive past,” Delamater reflects.

Antique art also affords an opportunity to collect pieces of the past and allow your personal preferences to shine. Bene Raia, auctioneer and appraiser at Raia Auctioneers, believes that someone can be drawn to a piece of art for several reasons, including the color, size, genre, subject matter, or medium. Do you love the fact that it’s an oil or watercolor? Do your eyes linger over how the paint was applied?

Raia says that the art you display in your home speaks “to you” and “about you,” making them automatic conversation pieces whenever people come to visit.

Why Should You Shop for Art at Antique Stores?

a series of antique nature prints hangs above a buffet with a pair of mercury glass lamps
Alison Gootee

At antique stores, you can discover a mix of antique art, which is generally understood to be over a century old, and vintage art, “newer” pieces that are typically around 50 years of age, as Raia details. And there are reasons why you should shop in-person at an antique store or gallery rather than online.

“You have to look at the way the medium falls on the paper, board, or canvas,” Raia says. “You have to look at the depth, which you don’t get from looking at a screen.”

While you may be someone who is hoping to discover a long-lost Van Gogh or Picasso at your local antique shop, at the end of the day, Raia says that the most important thing is to simply have fun and love what you buy. Signed or unsigned, created by a professional artist or layperson, what matters is that you enjoy it.

“Don't think about making an investment,” she says. “Let the piece of art talk to you and let it draw an emotion from you. If this happens, then you've found your piece.”

How to Shop for Art at Antique Stores

pink walls and leopard print carpet in a room with a floral tufted sofa

Kelly Marshall

Make sure the store or gallery is trustworthy.

Let’s say that you’re perfectly fine with purchasing a $5 piece of art at a thrift store. We think that’s great! But perhaps you’re someone who’s after special pieces crafted by well-regarded artists. In this case, Raia recommends only buying from reputable galleries or antique stores. Do your homework and read online reviews. Ask friends with enviable art collections where they shop.

Scope out framed pieces.

Delamater makes a very good point. Since framing can be quite expensive, “finding a piece in a quality frame that you already love is twice the deal.” Don’t just keep your eyes peeled for antique art that stirs your soul. To save money, make sure that art also has an eye-pleasing frame so that you won’t have to take it to a professional.

Confirm it’s right for your home.

While going in with the, “If I love it, I’ll make it work,” philosophy is admirable, it doesn’t always work when it comes to bygone art. For instance, at the very least, make sure you have the space for a piece of art, or a gallery wall if that’s what you’re envisioning. For this, Delamater suggests bringing along a tape measure to your shopping excursions.

Raia also notes that if you’re buying a painting, confirm that it can be hung appropriately in your home.

She says, “For example, if the piece is heavy, make sure your walls can support it or get a professional to hang it for you.”

Ask questions.

Ask questions, and lots of them, especially if the art is high-priced or very collectible. Delamater says that instead of Googling answers while standing in the antique store, simply talk to the proprietor.

Raia shares some helpful questions you can ask if you’re interested in a piece of art:

  • Who is the artist?

  • Do you know any history/background of this piece?

  • Can you tell me a bit about the provenance?

  • How did you acquire the artwork, and why did you acquire it?

  • Is there a return policy?

Shop according to your current budget.

“Buy the best quality you can afford, and if you need to, save up do so,” says Raia. This means that the budget-busting piece you love at the antique store might not be the best choice for your collection right now, but keep the piece, or pieces from the same artist, in mind if you’d like to save up for it in the future, making it a solid investment for your collection.

See if you can receive pricing for multiple items.

Delamater advises waiting until you’ve selected everything you’re interested in and then asking for a price “for the whole group.”

“This is a much better negotiating strategy versus asking for each piece to be priced individually,” he says.

Use manners when negotiating.

This should go without saying, but it’s always essential to use kindness and good manners when negotiating.

“Always be courteous in any price negotiation,” Delamater says. “Ask, ‘What is the best price you feel comfortable offering?’ rather than, ‘Can you go lower?’ This considerate approach will almost always produce a better and more enjoyable result.”

Check the back.

Everything that’s out on the antique store floor? Well, it might not be everything that’s in stock. Delamater says that it can be worth it to ask the owner if there is anything else they think you should see. “The hope is for an invitation to look around the backroom,” he adds.

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