I need help!

Mark HillAntiques & Collectables Expert ~ Author & Publisher Mark Hill

It’s a thorny one, this. I might not make many new friends, but dealers, auction house specialists and other ‘experts’ (if you really want to use that word) will undoubtedly nod knowingly. They may even sigh in agreement.

 Let me start this off by saying that, like any normal, adjusted and sociable human being, most people who work in antiques, collectables and 20thC design are happy to help. They count themselves lucky to be working in the area they do, they enjoy it, and they’re keen to encourage others to find the magic they did. Thinking commercially, they may even gain a new client in the future. A rich seam of passion ready for mining runs through. But the problem comes when this help, be it a value, more information or advice on places to sell, is perceived as a free public service.

Take a fair, any antiques fair. A dealer is behind his or her stand, eagerly checking out the passing crowd around it for potential. Someone approaches with an item they own, a photograph or question about something they have at home that they may have recognised on the dealer’s stand. If it’s quiet, and there’s not much of a crowd directly around the stand, then it’s a good time to ask politely if you can pick their brains. Small groups chatting with a dealer around a stand can help to make it look popular – people see people and wonder what’s going on, so go over to see. It’s human nature. Many antiques people also have a little of the showman in them, and answering a question allows them to work with a crowd as well as the person they’re helping. This usually works – the dealer is using their brain and expertise, possibly attracting a crowd, and is helping someone with their object. They may even get a sale or purchase out of it. Perhaps even to or from the person they’re helping. If the object in question is unusual and new to their eyes, then it can be exciting and helpful for the expert too. In this business, we’re all learning all the time.


On the other side, the fair is busy. There’s a stream of people looking at the objects for sale and some are clearly considering making a purchase. The dealer is making decisions about who to serve first, and is observing what they are looking at for future reference. The same person approaches them with the object, photograph or questions. This does not work. Major fairs and can cost thousands of pounds – just for the space alone. Electricity, travel, and hotels add to the bill. Even smaller, regional fairs can still cost hundreds. That means a dealer has to make that money back via their ‘dreaded’ margin. And also regain the costs of the stock that they’ve sold. Every hour and every potential client counts. And unless you buy something, however small, you’re not one of them. Yes, you may think that you’re making an exclusive offer for sale but, in many cases, you’re really just checking out the lie of the land.

The question that should be asked before both options is down to simple politeness and common sense – ask the dealer if it’s a convenient time and DO take no for an answer. Use your eyes and brain. Even if they are sitting in a chair staring into space, you don’t know what they are thinking about. It might be the sale or purchase that pays for their fair. You may sincerely intend to sell them your object but think sensibly, especially if you want to maximise the results of your potential sale.

And it’s not just fairs or events either. It’s all too easy to fire off an email to a dealer or auction house specialist asking a question about something you own. Believe me, it’s typically not as quick and easy to answer. Let’s consider time here. On the odd occasion, the answer is simple and the expert knows it off the top of their head. It still takes 5-10 minutes to type and re-read an email and send it. It needs to be polite, helpful and concise. It needs rereading because the expert wants to avoid ambiguity, errors and negative feedback (to use an eBay term) if they got something slightly inaccurate. Some double-checking may be needed, potentially adding another 10-20 minutes. Grey cells aren’t always 100% reliable on the spot are they? And it’s more dangerous when you’re writing it.

If the question isn’t one that trips off the top of their head, then the reference library or the internet comes into play. And, usually, also some research into possible avenues of sale which can take in the geographical location, abilities and wishes of the seller. That can take anything from 20 minutes to over an hour, or far more. Then the email needs to be typed. And reread. Once or twice a week or so may be fine especially if, as I say, it’s enjoyable for the expert asked. But when someone ends up spending hours a day ploughing through mountains of emails they feel obliged to answer, that’s not really fair is it? You may think you’re the only one with a question, but I can guarantee you’re not. Dealers, auction house specialists and related people are often not paid as much as you think. They often work long hours in unfriendly conditions with no guarantee of success and every guarantee of cost. Even if they are commercially successful, then in addition to the hard work put in to make that happen they have lives outside of work too, just like we all do. Why should they spend it answering questions…..for nothing?

And that’s the nub of this thorny issue. Whenever you ask a question, either in person or by email, you’re getting free advice. Yes, FREE advice. You wouldn’t expect that from a plumber, solicitor or accountant, would you? So why is an antiques expert any different? They’ve studied and worked hard to gain experience over years, just like those other noble professionals have. Who gets the upside in all this? You, and only you.

Unless you hand over money or a similar reward for their work and expertise, you’re getting something for nothing. You’re dining on the proverbial non-existent free lunch. If you’re ever confused about your entitlement to this, because you paid an entrance fee or bought a catalogue or whatever, just consider your reaction if your manager asked you to undertake a task or do your normal job and said you wouldn’t get paid for it.

I reiterate the fact that most people are happy to help, but think about what really happens at the other end of your question. Remember that what you’re getting is truly is free, and purely a result of the kindness and enthusiasm of the person you choose to ask.


11 thoughts on “I need help!

  1. I really go with what you’re saying.. however, is there a place where we can get an item valued, in order to know if it’s worth selling? The internet can be very confusing when looking for values because we’re not sure if our item is exactly the same – age, maker, origin etc. We can’t all go to ‘Flog It’!! (I have a Chinese vase identical to one on an advert for an auction house, travelled all the way to see them and was told it’s a 20th C copy) We just don’t know. TV doesn’t help because it’s the latest fad now to sell belongings just in case they’re worth millions 😉 Thanks so much.

    • Yes, most auction houses will be prepared to help give you a valuation with a view to selling with them. You can also go to someone like valuemystuff.com, where you pay a small fee to have your item appraised and valued professionally.

  2. Hi Mark.
    I have found this happens to me, with the public – or friends, – distant relations, – people who only know me a little! They are all on a day out! They want to chat for hours!
    They all seem to gather around my stall and ask some cheeky questions, such ” can you make a living at this”? or “would you sell a couple of items for me, and take a couple of pounds for yourself”
    “Have you sold much” – They are oblivious to the fact that the stall is my work place, my clients may be listening, they are stopping any potential customers getting any where near to look at the stock. (they all seem to choose the spot, (dead centre’ to my table)
    As you say, you only have one chance on the day to cover a whole weeks work of buying, cleaning-polishing, listing, driving miles, lugging, setting out the stall., and working a 12 hour day!
    I still feel ‘chuffed’ though, when someone ‘seeks me out’ for my opinion of some little treasure they have bought.
    We are all seeking the holy grail, it’s human nature,

  3. Jenny!
    I love how you used the ‘reply’ function to do exactly what the original post is referring to, ie. picking the brain of someone else.
    Basically you’re asking how you can get free expert advice, with minimal effort that you could benefit from.
    You say that you had to travel to establish the value (or lack of) of your vase.
    But just as Mark is saying, you’re the only one that would potentially benefit from that valuation, so why resent the fact you had to put effort into it?

    • Hi Jenny, We value all comments by both dealers and those looking to buy/sell on a more personal level. Your opinion is more than welcome as is Steve’s. Please don’t feel the need to not visit us in the future or comment, it is discussion like this that hopefully allows everyone to find a common ground.

  4. I’m sorry Jenny, I wasn’t trying to be mean, its was just the irony of it that amused me.
    I do understand what you’re saying because I spend hours researching things online.
    You’re quite right, its not necessarily easy to discover information, but I find that the very act of searching is a huge learning experience and I might not come away with the answer I was looking for, but I always come away knowing more than I did at the start.
    Thats how experts build up a knowledge base and become ‘experts’.

    I’m much more of a visual person and I find doing image searches much more beneficial.
    I don’t know if you’re aware, but you can use your own image of something to search for similar ones through Google.

    I hope this helps.

    • Any used item, antique or collectable, is only ever truly worth the amount a buyer is willing to pay on the day of sale. Buyers will pay more in different seasons, like Christmas.
      An item can at first seem rare until it’s documented or shown on television.. Then everyone remembers they have one in the loft. We are then all of a sudden flooded with them. (Eg natwest pigs). Supply and demand,
      Checking prices on eBay is not always the right way to go. An item can be listed for £300 on a buy it now, but if you check the sold items you can see the true value as the same item has been sold a lot cheaper.
      Dealing in antiques and collectables a is a job, you only get better with experience, and knowledge which takes time, an it’s not an easy living at that. Time is money and precious.
      Personally I enjoy the history in an items I purchase. I feel people who are emotionally attached to items they are selling will never be happy with what grandmas treasures are really worth. If selling have a price in mind you are happy with. If you get offered that amount then sell, if not, simply don’t and move on.
      All a trader can go by is there own personal experience of what u can sell it for. It’s business not personal

  5. The point you make is ‘fair comment’ , but I would like to add that most people ask questions either because they wish to be polite – but feel awkward .. or actually wish to know the answer ! People go to Antique Fairs and the like because this is the current trend. Be thankful that you are asked about antiques , for which you obviously have a passion !
    Imagine, if you were a NURSE , and were asked about a BOWEL problem , whilst out at a restaurant , eating Sunday Lunch or doing the weekly shop ! ( I HAVE been ) 2 points – 1) I would not DREAM of charging for advice given …. firstly because I feel that if people ask me a question , it has taken them a long time to ‘pluck up the courage’ and 2) who the hell am I to think that I am ‘above’ answering questions put to me ? I feel that you should realise people respect the knowledge you have , and learn to either cascade it freely , or be rude enough to point out ,in advance, when asked a question , that you expect to be PAID FOR YOUR ADVICE ! Please bear in mind, that in future , you may actually have very few friends or ever be asked for advice again . A reputation for ‘rudeness ‘ and being ‘obviously unhelpful’ travels FAR faster than any knowledge you may have .

    • j rogers,

      I think you entirely missed the point of the article.
      It didn’t say DON”T EVER ASK QUESTIONS, nor did it say YOU SHOULD PAY FOR ANY ADVICE.
      It merely said that its only polite to be aware of the seller’s circumstances & surroundings and to be considerate WHEN asking for that advice.
      It was asking for some understanding before possibly taking offence (not unlike you have done) when the circumstances aren’t conducive for such an intercourse.

      Its basically asking people to use common sense & manners, which sadly is often found lacking in all aspects of life.

  6. I read Marks article at the weekend and strangely enough had at least four emails arrive asking for advice on peoples bears for example ,make ,value and where to find another similar one etc . Many of the other teddy bear websites actually state on their websites we don not give advice or valuations which I do not as I like to try and help whenever I can although in some cases I may be having to do some research too for them so may not always be able to answer with a reply straight away. I tend to put myself in the customers shoes and think how I would like to be treated and hopefully helped if possible. However this weekend after sending back some emails replies to my latest batch of enquiries I was a little dismayed that not one of these people had at least replied and thanked me for my time help and spent in providing them with the information this then made me think is this why others put up a statement on their website saying no valuations or advice given?

    • I spend several hours of every week answering questions (on 20th century Dutch and Flemish Glass) and it doesn’t do much to advance my own sales, but that’s not really what I expect from my ‘investment’ of time and typing.

      What it DOES do is
      a) Help establish my good name as an expert in the field (I know Mark is past this stage, but some of us are still climbing the ladder)
      b) Provide new contacts to which I will send mailings (and which may lead to something in the future)
      c) Further the ‘mission statement’ of our business which is ‘to create new collectors and stimulate new interests among existing collectors’.

      Okay! I admit to flashes of irritation e.g. the visitor to our gallery last week who asked questions for well over an hour and got extensive answers from me, admired everything and talked about all the things she was collecting, but then left without buying a single thing!
      On the other hand I know that every ‘salesman’ has to invest in ‘pitching’ without any guarantee of success!

      P.S. The Dutch have a rather hackneyed but useful answer to people who ask for the value of an item (as opposed to the price of an item that’s for sale). “The value is as much as a mad collector will pay for it!”

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