A-hunting we will go…

Now we’re all able to get out and about more, and vintage fairs, markets and car boot sales have opened up again, it’s time to set your alarm clocks for silly hour, get out there and experience the addictive thrill of treasure-hunting…  

Some of the markets and car boot fairs are so huge, you will need to get your bearings before you begin. For starters, and I know it’s obvious, but do remember where you parked your car (I speak from experience)! Look out for landmarks close to any stalls you need to return to later on, to collect your spoils. (Stallholders are always happy to hold on to items for their customers.) If there are two or more of you, it will make sense to split up, as there is more chance of finding what you want before someone else gets to it. Mobile phones are, of course, an essential – great for sending pics on the spot, to alert each other of possible finds.  

Be prepared. Always carry a blanket or two in the car, to wrap things in that may need protecting, spare bags of varying sizes and strengths, as the dealers don’t always have them (the IKEA blue ones are brilliant, I have found; a useful size and so strong) and also a good length of rope for tying the boot down in case you end up buying a larger piece of furniture.  Don’t think that this won’t happen (see my next point)! It would be a crying shame to pass up on something you have fallen in love with, just because you haven’t the means to get it home safely. It’s not always possible for dealers to deliver, and paying a company to do this for you could negate any deals you have already struck with the seller.

So, if you are driving, it makes sense to empty the boot and back seat before you leave home, just in case. This came in handy for us when we once travelled all the way back from Sussex to Surrey (out on a day trip) in heavy, torrential rain with an old French rustic pine kitchen table sticking out of our (roped-down) boot. It was too good a bargain to leave behind!  It survived the journey intact, we dried it off and gave it a light polish, and it’s now in use as a desk in our spare bedroom.

However, never say never! Before we had a car, we would bring things home on the train or bus, including bookcases, trunks, chairs, small tables and cupboards, trollies and shelves. It didn’t put us off, although we got some very odd looks and comments. Armed with plenty of sturdy bags, something to tie things together with and a set of luggage wheels, you won’t have to leave anything behind, within reason, ever again. 

Think outside the box.  We bought a vintage American chrome unit of four office drawers, great for storage and a bit of a talking point as it is so unexpected where we have placed it – in our open-plan kitchen with a plant in a large pot on the top.   Old packing crates and their ilk make great shelves or bedside tables, painted or unpainted.  In our spare bedroom, we have an old painted continental dough bin as a side table and very useful storage. A vintage French baker’s trolley is our towels and linens unit in the bathroom and another, this time an American one from a shoe factory, is out on our landing, holding all our shoes.  A coat stand, American again and from a school, is also on our landing and holds our joint hat collection. Yet another trolley is downstairs and used as a magazine rack and bookcase. An old American porch rocker graces our living room, alongside a large factory spool from the Midlands, used as a side table.  We have vintage metal and pine factory and post office shelves and pigeonholes holding books, cds and dvds, a low wooden American industrial factory trolley with cast-iron wheels and trimmings is our coffee table and a vintage pine folding New York hotel linen trolley on castors is our TV stand.  Why not?  There are no rules.

The one that got away.  Only say you will “think about it” if you don’t mind the risk of missing out on something.  If you have fallen in love, buy, buy, buy!  Don’t think about where it’s going to go – just go for it, and worry about that once you’ve got it home.  You will never regret it; only if you leave it behind.  And if you are prepared to walk away from something, then you don’t love it enough and can move on to the next thing. 

There’s an old saying in the trade: “The time to buy an antique is when you see it.” There is every likelihood that it won’t still be there the next time you go.  If you like it enough, there will be others who do, too.  I have missed buying some gorgeous things in that way in the past, and now don’t even think twice – within reason, of course!  You have to walk away if you really can’t afford it, and the dealer isn’t playing ball with the price. If you keep seeing the same piece every time you go back, you can keep trying, though they still may not want to come down in price for you – this has happened to me as well.  But whatever you may think of their selling tactics, never, ever be rude to them!  See my next point.

Buying etiquette. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, so don’t be afraid to make a reasonable offer for something that catches your eye.  But don’t get carried away and get up the dealers’ noses by thinking you are on one of “those” television programmes. They will soon send you packing. Dealers have to make a living like everyone else, but are usually happy to haggle a little, depending on what they paid for the piece and how long they have had it.  You can generally strike better deals if you are paying in cash, too, so make sure you have plenty on you before you start off.  

Years ago, at a big local fair, I bought a pair of pretty pine chairs at a hefty discount, as the couple running the stand needed the space in their van going home, because they had been buying from other stands, and it meant that one of them was going to have to take the train home otherwise.  So, my discount effectively cancelled out the price of the train ticket, not to mention all the aggravation for them. This was towards the end of the day, as well, and you can often get better discounts if you leave it until quite late – but then, of course, you run the risk of missing out on the best buys, which will all have been snapped up first thing.  

Be polite at all times.  Engage with people, show a friendly interest (I always like to know a bit about the piece I’m buying; especially where it’s come from, if possible) and they will remember you favourably when it comes to making a purchase on another occasion.  Most dealers are happy to look out for specific items for you, as well. Go with a rough price bracket in mind and take measurements for much larger items. Years ago, I bought a pretty little drop-arm Victorian sofa without first checking to see if it could get through my front door.  It couldn’t, so in the middle of winter, in the pouring rain, cold and dark, we had to take our front door off its hinges. That was fun.

Once you have the collecting bug, it makes going out and about so much more fun.  Items can turn up anywhere: charity shops, car boot sales and smaller local markets and fairs are often good sources.  Of course, there’s online, too, but I much prefer getting out and seeing pieces, and people, in the flesh. (Though for the dealers, during the pandemic, social media sites such as Instagram proved a real life-saver for their businesses.) When you have amassed so much of whatever it is you enjoy collecting, you may find yourself starting to hone and refine your collection; even ending up selling some of it back to the dealers. That’s when you know it’s serious!

Talking of which, you might want to think about stalling out yourself, to offload any surplus. We have done this several times and it’s great fun, although the very early starts can be a bit of a killer. Be organised with your stock, sort out the pricing upfront (with a bit of “wiggle room”, as they say), take along plenty of bags and plenty of change, something to eat and drink and some means of protection from the weather – be it rain or sun. If it becomes a regular event, investing in a sturdy, good-quality awning might be a good idea, but bear in mind it will probably need two of you to put it up!

Take time to look carefully around stalls and stands at fairs and shops, within reason. Not everything is immediately visible; ie, at the front or on top of the stand, and these other areas can often be a rich source of treasures.  I have found a lovely old terracotta pot for the garden in this way (tucked under a table) and an advertising print worth at least three times what I paid for it, stacked amongst a lot of other, not so interesting or valuable prints, casually propped up against a stand at a market. I have also heard of someone who found a Bernard Leach (famous St Ives potter) platter at a stand at a large London antiques fair, under a table, in a box with other random pieces of pottery. Clearly, the stallholder didn’t know what they had, and the very happy buyer wasn’t about to enlighten them.  And that’s another thing.  Not everyone is an expert on what they are selling and even the experts don’t know it all.

It’s not always about the value, though.  Unless you are into buying and selling yourself, you should only ever buy what you love and will enjoy living with and looking at every day. In our house, few things match, but it all goes together, was bought with love and is linked to a happy memory of fun times and meeting interesting people, and that’s all that matters.

Author: Hampton Caught

The rants and ramblings of an ex Deputy Fiction Editor of Woman's Weekly magazine.

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