Useful antiques are still a good buy


Many of us have been forced to cut back on our collecting activities. It’s just too expensive to drive to distant antique shows and malls.

Postage has gone up, so even buying online is too costly for many. With the price of so many things increasing, many of us don’t have the funds to even make a purchase at the local antique shop. Antiques may seem like an extravagance at this time, but useful antiques are still a good buy. They may even be less costly than their modern counterparts.

What do I mean by “useful antiques”? Simply put, it’s any antique that can be put to a useful, practical purpose. Maybe antiques, such as tables, bookcases, kitchenware, and tools can be used for their intended purpose. Others can be adapted to a new use—a stoneware jar can make a good wastebasket, old fruit crates can become shelves, a chicken coup can become a coffee table. Some antiques and collectibles are merely for looks, but others can be put to work. It is these useful antiques and collectibles that are the best buy when cash is in short supply. The money what would have been used to buy a modern piece can be used to purchase an antique instead.
I’ve written about the desirability of useful antiques before. They are a good investment as they tend to hold their value well. Useful antiques are also a great way to squeeze a collection into a limited space. Even those in the smallest apartments can collect antiques by using antique furniture instead of modern. My goal in this column is to point out that useful antiques are still a good buy in these difficult financial times.

How can this be true? How can a costly antique be a better buy than a cheaper, modern piece? Right away, we need to get rid of the notion that all antiques are costly. Yes, there are a lot of pieces out there with prices big enough to cause sticker shock, but there are plenty of antiques that won’t break even an ailing bank account. I often find that an antique table, dresser, or bed is actually less expensive than a modern version. Several years ago, I felt a bit guilty for paying $625 for a large, poplar step-back cupboard. I knew it was a good price, but did I really need to spend all that money? My guilt was assuaged when I looked at the cost of modern cupboard. My antique cupboard was actually less expensive! My cupboard has increased in value over the years, too. I wouldn’t sell it for twice what I paid. If I’d spent my money on a modern piece, I’d be lucky to get half of what I paid for it.

Quality is a major factor in making useful antiques a good buy. While there is some quality furniture being produced today, much of it isn’t even made out of real wood. Many pieces of modern furniture are slapped together with glue and look as if they could fall apart at any minute. Such a piece may well fail to last 10 years. Compare my circa 1860 step-back cupboard to some of the furniture found today. I’ve seen bookcases made from laminated fiberboard less than an inch thick. My cupboard was constructed with solid poplar some two inches thick. Some of the popular used in the construction is over four feet wide! My cupboard has already stood up to over a century of use and will likely still be in use long after I’m gone. Quality applies not only to furniture, but to other antiques as well. There were items that were poorly made a hundred and more years ago, but generally one can expect an antique to be of higher quality than most pieces made today. When the quality of the piece is considered, even an antique that is higher priced than its modern counterpart is the better buy.

All this is well and good, but even an antique that is a good buy can be beyond the means of a collector. What does one do then? I’ve written before about using credit cards to purchase antiques, but if you’re having financial difficulties taking on debt for even a wise purchase is not a good idea. An alternative is layaway. Many antique shops and malls will allow customers to pay for an item over a period of 90 days or so. This will make the purchase of many items possible. If you have pieces you don’t need, consider selling them to raise cash for something you do. The items you sell need not be antique either. Have a yard sale, get rid of your unwanted junk, and put the money toward the purchase of the antique of your dreams.

It’s difficult to purchase antiques when cash is in short supply, but it can be done. I know. I’ve purchased nearly every antique I own under such conditions. There have been rare times when I’ve been able to buy a nice piece without considering the cost, but such times are the exception and not the rule. I can remember paying for my Victorian cylinder desk in installments. I remember, too, borrowing money from my parents to purchase an extraordinary Victorian parlor set. I put a trunk once owned by Mrs. U.S. Grant on layaway at an antique mall and paid for it bit by bit. I put an autographed letter signed by T.E. Lawrence on my credit card. Just about every major piece I’ve ever owned was purchased when I really couldn’t afford it. Now, I’m very pleased with the purchases I made in the past. Some of the antiques I purchased 10, 20, or more years ago are difficult to find now at any price. Others have increased so much in value I couldn’t begin to afford them now. My antique purchases often cause financial strain, but they are well worth it. I can’t think of a purchase I regret.

When funds are short, keep useful antiques in mind. When your kitchen table is about to collapse, head to the antique store instead of the furniture store. Better yet, go to both and compare prices. You’ll probably find that the antique is more affordable after all. Even if the cost of an antique is more, consider what you’re buying. How long will the antique last compared to a new piece? A new table may have to be replaced in five or 10 years. Chances are than an antique table will never have to be replaced at all. Focus what funds you have on antiques you can actually use. Buy pieces that are not only for display, but also for everyday use. Use the money you would have spent on everyday items to purchase useful antiques instead. Buying smart will go a long way toward making up for lack of funds.

Useful antiques are still a good buy.

More Images:

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Example of a "useful" antique. Brass lamp from the original Brown Derby restaurant, 1926. Photo courtesy Bonhams Auctions

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