Very old does not always mean very expensive

There’s a special, nostalgic feeling that comes from holding a piece of glass from the 1930s, a vase from the reign of Queen Victoria, or a coin that was in circulation when Lincoln was president. But many collectors are surprised to learn that it’s possible to purchase inexpensive antiques that pre-date the era of Abraham Lincoln, or even George Washington. As any collector of antiquities will tell you, there is something truly intoxicating about owning an object that is hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Some years ago I attended the auction of an old German estate in southern Indiana. It will filled with good old primitives, but I was more interested in books at the time and purchased a box lot for the great sum of $1. I knew there were some old books in that box, but at the bottom I found a special treasure. I knew it was old as I opened it, but I never suspected how old. Opening the book, I knew I had a find—the pages were printed in German with Gothic lettering. When I looked at the bottom of the title page my eyes grew wide. There, clearly printed, was the publication date—1760. My discovery turned out to be a German Bible, printed before the American Revolution. At the time, I thought this piece was ancient, but I discovered later that it was practically new compared with some of the antiquities that could be had for very reasonable prices. That 1760 Bible was only the beginning.

Most collectors believe that anything hundreds or thousands of years old will be found only in museums or the collections of the very wealthy. Antiquities certainly are found in these places, but they can also be a part of the collections of individuals like you and me. One of my special finds was discovered in the pages of a dealers catalog. As I read about the different items for sale, one in particular caught my eye. The listing was for a group of pottery shards (broken pieces of pottery) from the Native American culture known as the Mississippians (A.D. 1200-1450). The price was $35. I probably paid a bit too much for the shards, but as I had a special interest in the Mississippian culture, they were well worth the cost to me.

The same dealer offered a Palestinian stone spindle-whorl (a stone weight used on a spinning mechanism that pre-dates the spinning wheel), circa 700 B.C., for less than $10. One item that I’ve found in many locations is a small pottery oil lamp. The one I purchased was about 4 inches long and dated to about 200 A.D. It is a simple, but beautiful little piece. One might think that such an item would be quite expensive, but they can be found without too much difficulty for $40-$100.

Why is something so old so inexpensive? In the case of oil lamps, they are affordable now because they were so widely used in the ancient world. For centuries, these little lamps were the most commonly used means of lighting. Hundreds of thousands of them were made. They are not easily broken and a great number of them have survived into the present.

Ancient coins are among the easiest antiquities to locate. A bronze coin of Constantine the Great, 307-337 A.D., in very fine condition, can be purchased for about $20. My most expensive coin purchase was a silver denarius, a coin a little larger than a dime, of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, A.D. 193-211. The cost for this coin was $64. Though it looks like it was just minted, it is more than 17 centuries old. The most inexpensive coin I have purchased is a bronze AE4 of the Roman Emperor Arcadius, A.D. 383-408. This coin is somewhat smaller than a dime. While it is not in excellent condition, I bought it for only $2.25. How’s that for very old and very cheap?
Where does one find inexpensive antiquities? Antique shops, malls, and auctions have little if anything to offer. Finding such a piece at a flea market, garage or yard sale is almost an impossibility. The best way to find such pieces is through the catalogs of dealers who specialize in antiquities or on eBay. Antiquities dealers are best located in coin collecting publications. Take a look in the classifieds and you’ll come up with at least a few dealers in ancient coins, and artifacts.

The well-known auction site, eBay, offers an incredible selection of antiquities, but beware—many of the “antiquities” offered for sale on eBay, are fakes. There are legitimate antiquities offered on eBay. I’ve purchased some there myself. Be warned, however, that fakes are common on the site. Before bidding on antiquities on eBay, I suggest one take a look at the Yahoo group, Several legitimate antiquities dealers and experts are members of the group and members have access to lists of known dealers of fakes.

Condition is very important with all antiques. Some of you may be wondering what I’m doing buying broken pieces of pottery when I often tout the dangers of the smallest chip on a piece of glass. While condition is important with antiquities, wear and even damage is to be expected. Any piece that has been around for centuries has most likely taken a few knocks. I chip in a 2,000 year old pot does not affect value as seriously as a chip on a depression glass cookie jar. Items in excellent condition are a wiser buy, but in the field of antiquities, there may not be any examples of a given object in excellent condition. Do keep damage in mind when making a purchase. Damaged pieces are worth less than those in excellent condition and one should not pay as much for them.

Books, pottery, and coins are three major areas of antiquities, but there are others. Glassware is a popular item, especially Roman glassware. I wouldn’t call the values of Roman glassware cheap, but the prices aren’t out of reason. Many collectors happily pay $200 or more for a Roseville vase, so spending $100-$300 on a piece of Roman glass hardly seems extravagant. If one is searching for cheap, however, one will have to stick with the other areas we’ve discussed.

Finding an antique that was made when George Washington was president, or when Alexander The Great ruled the world, is not as difficult, or expensive, as you might think. There are dozens of very nice items that are available for under $25. If you’re willing to spend a little extra, there are even more. For a tiny amount of cash any collector can have their very own piece of the distant past.

Mark A. Roeder is the author of two nationally syndicated columns on antiques, Successful Antiques Collecting and Spotlight on Antiques & Collectibles. His expertise comes not only from researching antiques, but from collecting, buying, and selling them for more than three decades.