Antiques: Where Do You Find All This Stuff?

Where to Buy Collectibles and Other Old Things for Resale

Antiques at a Denmark flea market
Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images

It might seem like a silly question: where do you find all this stuff? But there’s not an antique dealer who ever set up at a show or opened a shop that hasn’t had this query from novice shoppers. They wander into a booth mesmerized by the treasures within, and can’t help but wonder how such an impressive collection of items came together.

The answer most dealers will give you? Everywhere. So if you’re thinking you might want to start a part-time antiques business or develop a sideline selling collectibles to supplement your retirement income, be prepared to work hard finding quality merchandise to buy at prices reasonable enough to turn a profit and keep the business going.

These are some of the venues where you’ll compete with others to find the goods required to replenish your inventory and make some decent money:

Estate Sales

The estate sales holding the most potential are those run by family members as opposed to estate-liquidation companies. For one thing, these companies know a lot more about the merchandise they’re selling than the average family does and they hate to get "picked." In fact, they tend to price the merchandise higher than most dealers would in a traditional shop. That said, prices do tend to fall as the sale lingers on to the second or third day.

Although making the effort to stand in line on the first day the sale will ensure that you get first look at the goods, you’ll tend to get better deals on the second and third days. Check your local newspaper’s estate sale list in the classified advertising section each Thursday and Friday to locate venues in your town and consult online listings as well.

Better yet, if the operators of the estate sales you attend offer notices of upcoming sales, whether through email or snail mail, sign up to receive them. That way you’ll learn about local sales even before they’re announced in the newspaper or through online ads. Some even have preview sales for their regular customers.

More on Shopping at Estate Sales:

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Garage Sales

It’s gotten really hard to find older things at random garage sales anymore, but you may have more luck at neighborhood sales where several households stage garage sales on the same day. To that end, try to get a sense of which neighborhoods in your area are more upscale; that way, you increase your chances of finding nice things you might be able to resell even if they aren’t extremely old. Luxury goods, for example, offer potential for profit even if they aren't of the vintage variety.

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Flea Markets

Many flea markets these days are actually outlets for new and imported goods, which means that finding antiques can be challenging—but it’s not impossible. One of the best ways to find out about flea markets (not to mention antiques shows, crafts fairs, and the like) in your area that sell mainly antiques is to check online event calendars provided by a variety of antiques publications.

Don’t forget to check the calendar when you travel, too, to find out which markets to hit while you’re on the road.

More on Shopping at Flea Markets:

How to Bargain at Flea Markets

Live Auctions

General auctions used to hold more potential for resellers than they do now, at least in many areas. But you can still hit a good one every now and then, especially when they’re estate auctions. The trick is to arrive early to inspect the goods you might be interested in bidding on to make sure the pieces are authentic (nothing stings like buying a reproduction at an auction) and in good condition. Take notes of lot numbers, and determine how much you can reasonably pay for a piece and still turn a decent profit. Use your list to make sure you don’t get caught up in the action and pay way more than an item’s worth. Also, refrain from bidding on pieces you didn’t get to inspect if they are selling low. This rarely works in your favor since auctioneers tend to embellish items and don’t always describe flaws accurately on the fly. To locate auctions in your area, check your local newspaper or consult a service like liveauctioneers.com or invaluable.com. You’ll not only learn where upcoming auctions are taking place, but you can sign up to bid online there as well.

More on Shopping at Live Auctions:

How to Bid at a Live Auction

Thirft Stores

Some people have great luck shopping at thrift stores for antiques and collectibles. Those who swear by them say to find out the day of the week they stock new merchandise and hit them then. It may also pay off to establish a rapport with the employees at your local thrift stores. Be extra friendly when you drop in, and make sure they have some idea about the types of pieces you’re looking to find. Then, leave your card with them so they can call you in the event items that might interest you are stocked.

More on Thrift Store Shopping:

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Antiques Shops and Malls

These days brick and mortar antiques shops and malls can be hit or miss when it comes to finding old goods priced reasonably enough for resale. Unfortunately, some are filled with garage sale junk and not much else. But when you do hit a nice one filled with genuine antiques and older collectibles, there’s a good chance you can find some items to work with if you shop wisely. Some people even swear there’s a sleeper hidden in every shop, you just have to know it when you see it. One tip seasoned buyers offer is to walk every aisle in an antiques mall in one direction, and then turn around and walk it in the opposite direction to get a different perspective. Not a bad idea if you have the time.

More on Shopping at Antique Shops and Malls:

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Antiques Shows

Many novice sellers avoid antiques shows because they assume everything’s going to be priced too high for resale. In some instances, this is true. But when sellers run across items outside their area of expertise, they sometimes put them up for sale at fairly reasonable prices. It never hurts to take a pass through even the high-end shows to see what you can find. The same goes for specialty shows featuring glass, dolls, ephemera, and other collectibles. Plus, antiques shows can be great places to learn from other dealers, do market research, and see things you won’t run across every day.

More on Shopping at Antique Shows:

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Online Antique Malls and Shops

Many people buy from online malls and shops for their own collections rather than for resale. Occasionally, though, you may run across sellers with great prices so it’s a good idea to browse them for resale pieces from time to time. That said, always take a look when some of the online antique networkers you know advertise a sale, especially going-out-of-business sales. The items will generally be 40-60 percent off and you may have a knack for marketing what they haven’t had success selling at full price. Try to get first pick, if you can, and always act quickly when you see liquidation announcements. You won’t be the only one anxious to see what’s up for sale at bargain prices.

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Online Auctions

In many instances now online auctions provide a wholesale marketplace for more average antiques, and the rarities are snapped up by eager collectors who will pay top dollar. But sometimes you’ll find a great sleeper if you shop diligently. In fact, in her book Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, author Maureen Stanton writes of one seller she knows who makes a living finding undervalued and misidentified wares on eBay.com and then turns around to sell them in the same venue. You can even search on eBay using misspelled words to find things other buyers won’t tend to notice. Be aware, however, that this is a time-consuming proposition and you really need to be well-versed in the genres of antiques you’re “working” to make any money. But if you have the background, time and inclination, you can indeed score some great finds this way. Consider using a sniping service to get better deals if you're bidding for an item, and be sure to snag a "buy it now" bargain quickly before the competition sees the item. 

More on Shopping Online Auctions:

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New Old Stock or Dead Stock

Sometimes you'll hear an antiques dealer refer to an item as "new old stock" or "dead stock," or you might run across the term in an online auction description. But what does it really mean?

Lots of things can qualify as new old stock, but what the term boils down to is stock produced many years ago that was never sold on the open market. It could have been stored in a retail shop or country store long out of business, warehoused in a factory boarded up decades ago, or housed in the garage of a distributor who's been retired since the 1960s.

To qualify as new old stock, the items are usually in the original packaging or boxes and sometimes have the original price tags in place (if found in an abandoned retail store). Most of all, they're "new" in terms of never having been sold in a retail environment as they were intended (or made into a finished product), but "old" because they are antiques or collectibles produced many years ago.

Some examples of new old stock as discovered by actual antiquers include:

  • A box of original 1960s no-feet Pez dispensers found in the attic of a former candy distributor's home.
  • A bevy of antique hats with original price tags found in a country store out of business since the Great Depression.
  • Packages of unused vintage Swarovski rhinestones found in a long-abandoned factory where costume jewelry was once produced.

New old stock items are usually in like new condition if not mint, so that's a definite plus for both the seller and buyer. Most antiques and collectibles fall short of mint condition so they're more valuable, in general, if they're genuinely old yet pristine.

There's also the novelty of knowing exactly where an item originated. It may not add value to the piece as provenance unless the person holding the stock prior to it entering the marketplace happened to be famous in some way, but does make it attractive to buyers nonetheless.

Are items ever advertised as new old stock when they shouldn't be? The short answer: yes. Sometimes items found in an estate or someone's home have been around for years and were never used. They're still in the original packaging or bearing the original price tag, and will be referred to as new old stock by a seller. Technically this isn't correct given that the item was sold to someone in the retail marketplace and is actually pre-owned or "used" whether or not the package was opened or the tag was removed.