How to Buy Antiques

Vienna is teeming with ancient goodies and there are plenty of experts to help distinguish the Wedgwood from the deadwood

In a shop called Dead People’s Stuff, I reveled in rummaging through the old costume jewelry, clocks and knick-knacks that vied for space with end tables and old sofas. It was the closest thing to an antiques store in the small community where I grew up. I later learned it was more correctly called a “vintage shop” – so not an antiques store at all. That, I guess, was lesson number one.

Vienna, of course, is on a whole different plane. The city is brimming with objets d’art – from Roman-era vases to Biedermeier glassware, from bent wood chairs made in Austria to luxuriously upholstered furniture from the Rococo period, from small decorative objects by Jugendstil artists to classical scientific instruments. Without a little bit of help, it can be hard to pick the jewels from the paste.

It’s all about you

“You get something that you like; something that you have feelings for,” says Alexander Doczy, the furniture and interior expert at the Dorotheum, Vienna’s largest and oldest auction house. “You will see and use this piece every day and so it must be something that you love,” Doczy adds, sipping his hot chocolate in the Dorotheum’s café, where you can rest after a morning perusing the collections and auction floor.

There are “waves of taste”, Doris Krumpl, Dorotheum’s press officer, points out. Things come in and out of fashion, even antiques, and so you must consult your personal preferences and needs for decorating your home. After all, furniture is both decorative and functional, she adds.  It is worth noting that fashion always dictates prices.  “A few years ago, Biedermeier cabinets were the height of style and now they do not command as high a price on the market,”  Doczy says.

Watch out for big brands

Once a year, the Hofburg Palace hosts the Vienna Art and Antiques fair, when dealers get together to show off museum quality antiques – with price tags to match.

But buyers beware! Just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. Gallery owner Susanne Bauer, one of the dealers at the fair, gestures to a cabinet carved with Art Nouveau motifs: “If you were looking for an investment piece, you would not buy this one.”

She explains that it might be the work of Josef Hoffmann, a highly collectible architect who founded the early 20th century design cooperative Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna’s Workshops).  But then again, it might not be. “He used this design frequently, but there is no evidence that he made the cabinet. This is relatively inexpensive and will never increase in value.”

Placed enticingly next to the cabinet is a lavishly upholstered club chair, the orange velvet and dark wood gleam under the spotlights. “The chair, on the other hand, is definitely a Hoffmann,” says Bauer. “We have the design sketches and all the records for the piece. It will command a higher price, now and over time.”

A desk is a desk is a desk – but certainly not when it comes to antiques. Whether found in a pile of junk, or neatly displayed, as at the Dorotheum above, treasures can be hidden in many places. // © Dorotheum

The name of the craftsman, the history, and the records of sale and repair all form the “provenance” of a piece. Items with good provenance, created by famous artists, are the most likely to fetch high prices and, while it’s not guaranteed, to increase in value.

But it’s not just the artist’s name you need to watch out for. A piece’s saleability can be boosted just by passing through the hands of a famous collector.

One of the most intriguing auctions this year featured the possessions of Reinhold Hofstätter, a famous Viennese collector who died in 2013.

Browsing the catalog of the sale, it becomes clear how collectors can become a part of the story of the piece. So an iron-banded chest from the 16th century – the kind of object that has fallen out of fashion in recent years – suddenly gains cachet from its association with Hofstätter. The fact that it was owned by someone who “had a good eye” piques the interest of buyers. And bingo! The bids will come flooding in.

Educate your eye

“Learning about antiques is a very enriching experience and a bit of a luxury on its own,” Andrea Jungmann of Sotheby’s Vienna says. She recommends frequent museum visits to see the best quality pieces. Accompany this with a good dose of reading about artistic techniques and specific time periods, and then speak to curators and dealers who specialize in the area you’re interested in. “One advantage to buying at an auction house is that you can have a tailored service. We can have a conversation about your needs and what might be the best fit.”

After a whirlwind tour of Vienna’s antiques emporiums, I landed back at the Dorotheum’s café for a chat with Simon Weber-Unger, an expert in antique scientific instruments among other curios. He suggests speaking to collectors, dealers and restorers in pursuit of learning and emphasizes that this is very much a social business: “There is a lot of exchange that happens here; it is a melting pot for everyone and people come from all over.”

And the more you speak to people, the more you will learn.

Expert Tips

Wander around museums and auction floors. Browse through catalogues, online and in print. Speak to curators at museums. This will help you learn to spot an actual antique over a reproduction.

Look for things that catch your eye and match your individual tastes. This piece of furniture or decorative object will become part of the fabric of your home for years to come and so you should enjoy looking at it.

Buy the best quality pieces you can afford in excellent condition with good provenance (record of ownership).

Make sure that your new piece has a clean provenance, especially from the years 1938-1945.

Restoration can affect the value of the antique, so make sure to hire a professional restorer, the dealer or auction house can help with this.

If you are buying antiques with animal parts check to make sure it is compliant with the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

When buying antiques abroad be sure to check with your insurance provider to ensure that you have coverage for transporting your new treasures home.

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