Treasure Quest

updated 03/20/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/2000 01:00AM

Judging by the popularity of online auction houses such as eBay and by public television's top-rated Antiques Roadshow, America has gone crazy over antiques and collectibles. Experts estimate that annual online-auction spending in these categories will grow to $6.5 billion by 2001 (up from $2.9 billion in 1999). No wonder everyone seems to be combing attics for heirlooms. "Yes," says Carol Prisant, 61, author of the Antiques Roadshow Primer, a new book spun off from the series, and a fine-arts appraiser, "there's always something of unexpected value the heirs were prepared to toss." One woman showed up at a Roadshow taping in Secaucus, N.J., with a card table she had found at a yard sale for $25. The work of a Boston cabinetmaker ca. 1797, it later sold at Sotheby's for $490,000.

Prisant herself, a former antiques dealer born in Pittsburgh, once sold a painting for which she paid $10 for $25,000 to the National Portrait Gallery in London. Yet even she gets outsmarted. "Just last week I spent $700 on a pin," says Prisant, who lives in a 138-year-old Victorian mansion on the North Shore of Long Island she restored with her husband, Millard, 64, an aircraft-parts manufacturer. "When I got home and put my glasses on, I discovered the pin part had been added later." The piece was worthless as a collectible.

Prisant spoke with contributor Jennifer Prey about the pleasures and pitfalls of hunting for old-fashioned bargains.

What's the first tip you would give a beginner rummaging through the attic?

Look for things that are signed or labeled, whether they're paintings or dolls. There are certain names such as Tiffany in silver or Lalique and Steuben in glass that everybody knows and values. Others you might have to research.

Where are good places to hunt?

Tag sales, garage sales and flea markets are best. Stay away from multiple-dealer antique shops. Generally speaking, the other dealers have already had a look, so it's not likely you'll find a treasure.

How about buying antiques on the Web?

I like it. You can shop for hours and not tire yourself out or upset your spouse. It does take away some of the fun, though. Some of us are touchers and turners-over—I like it when you turn a piece over and it drops dust on your coat. But I'm from the old guard. As long as there are rules of conduct about return policies and telling the truth, I think the Net can be a great thing.

What kind of antiques are best for novices?

A beginner can buy a painting probably easier than furniture. You can see what a painting is right away. It's on a canvas or it's on a board, it's signed or not signed. And if it's a subject you like, that probably means others will like it. With furniture, you need much more knowledge. You need to know how to identify different woods and about manufacturing techniques.

Are there any rules of thumb about authenticity?

Yes. Stay away from buying things in the middle price range. Let's say you're looking at an item that ordinarily would be very expensive, such as a sapphire ring just like one you saw selling for $25,000 in a jewelry store. If you see it marked $9,000 elsewhere, that's not something you want to buy. It should either be $100, which means the seller doesn't know what he has, or $25,000. If it's $9,000, he may be trying to catch you. There's a problem with it.

What about collectibles like Beanie Babies?

I think they're cute. However, everybody knows they're collectibles. To be valuable, a thing also has to be rare, and Beanies aren't. That makes me wonder if somewhere that really hot collectible is hiding, and it isn't a Beanie Baby.

How about celebrity mementos?

It depends. Some names, like Jack Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe, are golden. Others aren't, such as Brigitte Bardot and Farrah Fawcett.

Is this a pursuit best left to the wealthy?

No, you don't need a lot of money. But it will take some time. Half the fun is the search, going out there and getting your hands dirty.

What would you say to a novice wondering whether to pay a lot for an item?

When I had a shop, I'd tell people that if they loved something, they should buy it. There's nothing so painful as the one that got away; you can never replace it. You should go for it if your heart tells you to.

And if something is a good buy but you don't really like it?

Never buy anything you don't love.

Why has collecting become so popular?

The sudden growth of a collectibles market has made the field less elitist. Whether it's swizzle sticks or barbed wire, anyone can have a little specialty to be proud of. And anyone can make a little money.

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