Antiquing tops the to-do list of many visitors to the American Southwest. The region’s rich melting pot of Hispanic, Native American, and Western cultures, as well as its colorful history, makes hunting for old-fashioned treasures one of the Southwest’s most enjoyable pastimes. Treasure-hunters can become overwhelmed quickly though by the sheer number of choices in the shops and markets, from Spanish Colonial furniture and Western apparel to Native American pottery and rugs.
These tried-and-true tactics will help you go home with a piece you’ll prize for many years, whether your antiquing goals are to buy a quality souvenir, start a collection, or hunt for an investment-grade treasure that will gain value over time…
Tips for successful treasure-hunting
- Focus on one type of antique. What sparks your imagination? A Spanish Colonial bench? A Navajo rug? A Hopi kachina? An engraved sterling silver belt buckle? It’s best to focus on one category of goods to educate yourself to the highest level, locate the best quality, and find the best values. Choose something that speaks to you personally and brings you pleasure when you look at it, display it, and handle it.
- Take it slow. Many first-time collectors are hungry to buy but end up regretting a purchase made early in their research, before they’ve spent the necessary time educating themselves. Take the time to learn about the techniques, construction, history, form, values, and other aspects of your chosen piece.
- Train your eye. Visit museums with good collections. If you’re in the market for a quality antique santo, for example, visit the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe (750 Camino Lejo, 505/982-2226, spanishcolonial.org) or the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos (1504 Millicent Rogers Road, 575/758-2462, millicentrogers.org). If you’re seeking Native American pottery, visit the Heard Museum in Phoenix (2301 North Central Avenue, 602/252-8848, heard.org). Read museum pieces’ descriptions, and peruse publications and exhibition catalogs in the museum library and store. Once you’ve filled your mind with these examples, you’ll be better prepared to locate authentic antiques. Take advantage of focused exhibitions to hone your ability to recognize traditional forms, shapes, colors, and materials.
- Do your research. Amazon.com lists more than 180,000 books in its antiques category, with specialties from glass to globes. Of particular use to buyers and collectors are exhibition and auction catalogs. Both are excellent sources for learning the connoisseurial aspects of antiques such as firearms, jewelry, porcelain, or paintings, including what makes them special and valuable.
- Shop till you drop. Don’t be intimidated to walk into the highest-end boutique, but don’t neglect the junk market, either. Hit them all: exclusive dealers, flea markets, and everything in between. Before buying, spend time browsing many pieces. If you closely examine three dozen Spanish Colonial benches from different places, you’ll be far along in your education of what makes for a quality, authentic antique.
- Locate modern-day masters. If artisans are still creating pieces similar to the one you’d like to collect, visit them. Talking to people with intimate knowledge of the materials, techniques, details, and special touches that can make their works a valuable antique in the future will provide an invaluable compass for your decisions.
- Develop a relationship with dealers. One of the most valuable—and most frequently overlooked—tools for successful antiquing is developing a rapport with antiques dealers. Most dealers share your enthusiasm and appreciate detailed questions, not to mention welcome the opportunity to build a relationship with a customer who has the potential to bring repeat business. They can give you important pieces of information and steer you toward interesting finds. They can also help you evaluate potential purchases you may make from other places.
Before You Buy
There’s no substitute for good old-fashioned library research, but knowing what to ask dealers and appraisers will give you a leg up in making sound decisions and locating great values on quality antiques. The key is knowing what affects value for your particular piece, and it’s all in the questions you ask.
For example, if you’re shopping for furniture, you should know to look for drips on the underside, a telltale sign of refinishing, which may diminish the piece’s value. What techniques were used in its construction? Has it been repaired or restored? You should also be familiar with the types of locks and joinery that were used during the period. If you’re shopping for turquoise jewelry, you should know about the different ways turquoise stones are treated (and nearly all of them are).
When it comes to Native American antiques, questions about the provenance—where the object came from, who owned it in the past, and how it was acquired—are particularly important, given the stringent laws protecting Native American material culture and its creators. Buying a piece with a well-documented history will help protect you, as well. If your dealer can’t tell you where it came from and how they got it, don’t buy it.
Where to Buy
When buying an antique, especially an expensive one, purchasing from a reputable dealer is of paramount importance. A reputable dealer will document information in writing, guarantee authenticity, and outline a clear return policy. Work with someone who will answer your questions and educate you about the history, techniques, and provenance of your purchase.
Many reputable dealers have developed specialties, such as Native American beadwork, Navajo rugs, Hispanic wrought iron, or Western apparel. Professional organizations, from the most established like the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America (adadealers.com) to the more obscure like the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors (fohbc.com), can lead you to traders with a passion for particular items. Those who specialize can guide you on the finer points that distinguish antiques, reproductions, and even fakes.
In addition to dealers and shops, some of the most fun places to buy are antiques shows and markets, where you can mingle with dealers who may not run a retail space of their own and whose work you might not find elsewhere. In New Mexico, check out the Great Southwestern Antique Show (greatsouthwesternantiqueshow.com), held in August in Albuquerque. The Antiquities Shows (antiquities-shows.com), which produce the Santa Fe Winter Show and Summer Show, both held at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, have a reputation for quality antiques dealers.
Whitehawk Antique Shows (whitehawkshows.com) organize Santa Fe events hosting antiques dealers specializing in Native American and ethnographic works. In Phoenix, Arizona, the Fine Art + Design Show (antiquities-shows.com), produced in connection with the Phoenix Art Museum, is a good bet for quality finds from furniture to paintings. The Cody Old West Show & Auction (codyoldwest.com) in Denver, Colorado, focuses on quality antiques from the Old West.
How Much to Pay
Many factors can influence the price tag attached to an antique. However, in general, the closer an antique is to its original state, the more valuable it is. If a Spanish Colonial chest retains its original varnish and has not been refinished, for instance, it will fetch a higher price. Alterations of any kind may diminish a piece’s value. Has a piece of pottery been broken and glued? Have brass door locks been replaced? This does not mean you should never buy an antique that’s been altered, but it does mean you shouldn’t pay as much as you would for an unaltered item.
Objects with documented provenance usually claim a higher price. Always ask for any bills of sale, photographs documenting the location of the object at a particular time and place, written correspondence, estimates, insurance records, or previous appraisals.
You can get a ballpark estimate of an item’s value by consulting one of the excellent price guides under brand names like Miller’s, Kovels’, or Schroeder’s, which have photographs, descriptions, references, and average retail prices for particular pieces. Auction catalogs also offer suggested or expected prices. After an auction takes place, you can request a “prices realized” list, which documents the selling price of particular lots.
No matter what your level of knowledge, you may want to hire a professional appraisal by a specialist. A local appraiser certified by the American Society of Appraisers (appraisers.org) or the International Society of Appraisers (isa-appraisers.org) can help guide you on what to pay for a specific piece. An appraisal is particularly worthwhile if the object is very valuable or if some aspect of the piece is in question.
Finally, make sure that once you find your treasure, you know how to care for it. The American Southwest’s arid climate can inflict damage on certain antiques, so consult your dealer. Do you need to run a humidifier? Apply beeswax? Clean it with a damp or dry rag? You’ll enjoy your find even more if you act as a good steward by properly caring for your antique.
This piece originally appeared in Su Casa Magazine.
Have you discovered a treasure in the American Southwest? Drop a comment in the box below. I love to hear your stories!