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Fair Game: Big antiques fairs can be fun and befuddle.

Veteran collector Michael Flanigan has some choice advice on how to play the game to your best advantage.

by Dennis Gaffney

Michael Flanigan and furniture dealer at Brimfield Fair
Caption: Michael Flanigan talks business with a furniture dealer at the Brimfield Fair.

J. Michael Flanigan, a Baltimore dealer, has visited his share of antiques fairs, and he says the events elicit a certain excitement among antiques hunters that a trip to the local antiques dealer usually doesn't inspire.

"The classic antiques fair is the old farmers' market where the farmers brought their freshly harvested goods to market," he said. "You had great merchandise from people who didn't have their own shop and the shopper got access to the produce in bulk. It's like getting your produce fresh rather than going to a Safeway or an A&P. People are often chomping at the bit to get to the stuff."

Flanigan was talking about the Brimfield Fair, the country's largest outdoor antiques market, held in Brimfield, Massachusetts. The fair draws 130,000 visitors and over 5,000 dealers during its six-day runs in May, July, and September each year. We asked Flanigan how he approaches these fairs — whether it's Antiques Week in Manchester, New Hampshire, or the Scott Antique Market held in Atlanta, Georgia — figuring his approach might prove useful to novice and even experienced antiques fairgoers.

Do Your Homework ... Oh, and Try Not to Wander

Flanigan never simply wanders a fair and he recommends you avoid the temptation. "The good news about the Brimfield Fair is that there's tons of merchandise," he says, adding, "The bad news is that there's tons of merchandise." The biggest mistake people make is thinking that they can educate themselves on the ground. "A fair, like an auction, is the worst time to educate yourself about spending your money," Flanigan says. "Without a plan, you're lost. You won't get beyond the first field."

Michael Flanigan at Brimfield Fair
Caption: Because there's so much merchandise, Michael recommends going to fairs with a plan in mind.

To show you the hazards of just showing up blind at a fair, Michael gives the example of a fairgoer who does just that, stumbling upon a stained glass window she likes that looks magnificent in the early morning light. "You see a stained glass window for $250," Michael says. "You don't know if it's a good price or a bad price."

Should you bargain the dealer down, or accept the sticker price as fair? If you walk away, you might be leaving behind a masterpiece that a better-educated buyer might pounce on before you return. But if you buy it, you might find out at the next booth — or at the end of the day, after examining a dozen more booths — that the price was too high, or that you just purchased a newly made Chinese import rather than the American antique window that you thought you had. At a fair, ignorance is far from bliss, Michael says. It makes most potential buyers anxious and often leads to uninformed purchases.

So the golden rule is to do your homework about what you want to buy. When at a fair, Michael usually hunts for the merchandise he knows well: silver, furniture, and images of Baltimore — one of his low-cost collecting passions.

"I know everybody hates homework," he says, "but in this case you need to do it. You need to go cruise online auctions, go to shows, talk to other dealers, talk to other collectors. Because if you go to a fair, and you know what you're looking for, and you know what a piece is worth, you're going to have a successful experience."

Be Early and Inquisitive

Once you've done your homework, it doesn't hurt to get to the fair early, something Michael routinely does. When you find a piece you're interested in, he suggests you begin asking the dealer questions, something the old pro also does.

"Sometimes the hardest thing is approaching the owner," Michael says. "You think it's worse than asking a girl out on a first date. That fact is, the simplest questions are often the easiest. What is the piece? When was it made? Where was it made? Has it been repaired? Most important, how much is it? When a dealer doesn't want to answer those questions for you, you don't want to do business with them." By asking a few questions you might also discover that you know more about the piece under discussion than the seller does, and that gives you the upper hand.

Furniture detail
Caption: Don't be afraid to ask dealers direct questions about what they're selling.

If It Isn't on the Receipt ...

But the final step — the transfer of money — is the most crucial. Whether you decide to buy with cash, credit card, or check, it's always mandatory to get an annotated receipt. "Whatever you negotiate when the money changes hands is what you've negotiated," he says, period. "If the dealer says the chair was owned by George Washington, it should be on the receipt." The receipt should also make clear whether a piece can be returned, by when, and under what conditions. "If it isn't on the receipt, it isn't part of the deal."

Michael says there's one more thing you should expect at fairs that you won't find in the "civilized" world of a dealer's shop, and that's a rough-and-tumble competitive spirit. "Courtesy goes right out the window at fairs," Michael says. "People don't say, 'You first.' They will shove you and it's a free-for-all and they'll knock you over to get what they want. Think of it as Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve." And good luck.

posted on 01.18.05

Check our "FYI" section for a list and schedule of other major antiques fairs across the country.

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