Wow, its been over two years since my last blog post. In that time my business model - and the way I source antiques to support it - has radically changed. I switched from outright sales to selling almost all of my wares auction style in a weekly online auction at MHV.live. This means every week I've got to come up with a fresh slate of finds that can gross enough money to support my business, my lifestyle, and my bills - no easy task.
Nothing will ever beat shopping for antiques in person, and I don't mean at the antique store. The place you really want to be sourcing your antiques is on the ground at flea markets. This is where you're going to find the deals and the really unique items before they hit the retail market and inflate in price as they pass from dealer to dealer.
But whether its that there isn't a good flea market circuit in your area, or maybe that you're confined to your home due to illness or disability, sometimes we need to source online. Here are five of the best places to do that - and not all of them are obvious.
#5 - eBay
Ok, this one is obvious, and its also my least favorite. But I have a couple tips and tricks that can help you better use it to your advantage. On the whole, eBay is a retail site - items on this best-known auction and Buy-It-Now platform have typically reached the end of the dealer cycle and are ready to hit end of the line buyers. But there are ways to catch some deals before they get sold off.
One way is to look for items with misspelled listing titles. Misspelled titles can sometimes cause items to not come up in most users searches for that specific item, so these can fall through the cracks and lay undiscovered. This is really only useful if you're looking for something specific. If you're looking for daguerreotypes, for instance, (and who among us has never misspelled that?) it can be beneficial to search different spellings of the word to find hidden posts. This could also work if you're looking for prints or art work by specific artists, or items of obscure topics, like tattooing and folk art.
Another tip for searching for items on eBay is to look for Buy-It-Now items that have been newly listed. A lot of times dealers are looking for a quick sale, so they'll list an item well below market price to attract buyers soon after posting. Others may be ignorant to the value of their item, and may post a below market price because they didn't do their research. Additionally, some unique one-of-a-kind treasures might not have an obvious market price, so you can find some cool stuff where there's room to make some money. Still, you'll need to know what to search for, what you're personally looking to deal in.
One last tip is to search for auction items ending soon.eBay is notorious for its snipers. Because eBay auctions have a hard close, people who wait until the very last second to make a bid can defeat bidders who left bids earlier in an auction. Well... if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Its a good strategy and can get you some great items at great prices. Many people will watch items on eBay intending to bid or snipe, but get distracted and forget. One tip for sniping - if the bid is at $175 and your max bid is $200, it can sometimes be advantageous to bid a dollar or five over instead. This way if someone else bids $200, you'll beat them out by a couple bucks.
Bonus tip - If you're trying to use eBay to value an item you have, be sure that when you do your search you're looking at SOLD listings under the filter menu. Anybody can list anything for any price on eBay - asking prices are not always reflective of value. Seeing what an item actually sold for can give you a good idea about what kinds of prices the market will bare. Even still, this isn't always reliable - just because one person was willing to spend up for an item doesn't mean that there's another close behind. When I price stuff for outright sale, I typically try to price below the lowest sold price on eBay.
#4 - Instagram
Getting into social media is tricky, but its a powerful tool, both for buying and selling. Instagram is where I've carved out space for myself and gained a following, which is invaluable for selling my goods and honing my curation.
It can also be a great place to shop. There are tons and tons of dealers selling on Instagram - everything from fine antiques, to cheap vintage wears and tchockes. These sellers often price out their items - they'll look at an eBay price (maybe even eBay listed prices) and price their items over market value. But just like eBay, there are some occasions where you can snag something nice or unusual at a below market price if the dealer is looking for a quick sale, or doesn't value their item in the same way that you or your clientele do.
It takes a lot of scrolling through people's posts to make this happen, but it can pay off well. Just recently I picked up a postcard from a friend's Instagram account that I paid $23 for, including shipping. This might seem like a lot for a single postcard, but because I have a good understanding of what my clientele are looking for, I knew the subject matter would make it a home run. Surely enough, the postcard sold for over $100 in my auction at MHV.live.
I suggest making an account that is solely for shopping on Instagram and following every dealer in your niche, as broad or narrow as that might be. You'll uncover all kinds of pockets of connected communities of dealers who share each others posts and can widen the scope of your search. You'll also discover communities of people doing live sales.
Live sales on Instagram are where I really started to post some big numbers selling my antiques online. I've since moved off platform and now host my live auctions on MHV.live. There are tons and tons of sellers still selling on Instagram, auction style and other ways, and you can get some real good deals in these sales. You have to wade through lots of items you may not be interested in - but that's true of any live sale - and Instagram's lag can make it sometimes unbearably slow. But there are great items to be had at great prices. Casting a wide net and following a variety of sellers in your niche will help you find the best shows and get hooked up with the best communities.
#3 - Facebook
I know we all hate Facebook. Actually I think most of us hate Instagram too. And with both platforms under Mark Zuckerberg's Meta umbrella, it can feel like we're stuck in a dystopian void when we flip between the two apps. Alright you get it, I don't like social media. But its essential to what I do, and can be really helpful if you want to be an antique dealer in the 2020s. And I'm not talking about Facebook Marketplace - read on.
Facebook's groups can be a powerful tool for buying and selling antiques online. There are an overwhelming number of groups of dealers trading antiques in almost every niche imaginable. I haven't dove that deep into the different communities, but I belong to several oddities groups and several more ephemera groups that I find useful for buying, and for researching my own pieces.
The ephemera groups are especially good for finding really unique paper items including photographs, often at really great prices. Many of these groups use a format called DOND, which stands for "Deal or No Deal." I don't personally like this format, but sometimes it can land you with great items you can really make some money on. In DOND posts, prospective buyers shout out a price they are willing to pay and the dealer can say "Deal" and accept the price, or "No Deal" (often abbreviated to ND), and seek other offers. The game continues until the dealer accepts a price. The format annoys me because its an essentially an auction where the dealer can end bidding at any time, or choose not to sell the item at all. This can be an advantage - a dealer may sell to you before a higher offer comes in - or a disadvantage - the dealer accepts no offers and takes the item elsewhere to command a higher price.
Some of these groups also utilize timed auctions. This means that an item is posted and there is a specific amount of time - usually 24 hours from the time of posting - that prospective buyers may comment with their bids. This can be tough because most of them have a hard close, and its easy to get sniped at the last minute, just like on eBay (its happened to me oh-so many times).
And still other groups will post stuff for outright sale, and there are some very fine deals on unique items to be had. Most people in ephemera groups aren't going to take the time to post run-of-the-mill paper and photos, they'll save the interesting stuff for the groups. Lots of sideshow ephemera, interesting photography including postmortems, and more.
I recently bought a lithographed plate of different bat species from one of these eBay groups for $60. It seemed like a lot of money for a piece of paper, but I know my audience, and knew that if I framed it up nice, it had some potential. Sure enough, it sold for over $300 in my auction on MHV.live.
If your niche is oddities, there is no shortage of groups to join on Facebook, though a word of caution - lots of these groups are packed with modern oddities, not the antiques that I personally find worthwhile. You'll see lots of arts and crafts projects with spooky themes, true crime memorabilia and serial killer letters, mass produced modern taxidermy exports, and more. My recommendation is to look for oddities groups that specifically deal in antique oddities - this is where the real unique gems are to be found. That's just my personal opinion - lots of people might enjoy the other side of the hobby.
Like Instagram, Facebook also has tons of live sellers - if not more. There are dealers selling goods of all kinds, and just like Instagram, sometimes there are some deals to be had, especially when dealers are selling auction style. Many of these live sellers can be found in the various groups for your niche. Be on the lookout for them. If you want to see a real professional example of a Facebook live auction, there's no better place to turn than KJK Antiques, especially when they team up with Mike Zohn (of the TV show "Oddities" fame) for an Oddities auction.
#2 - HiBid
There is no shortage of online auction platforms. Unlike eBay, the platforms I am talking about hook you up with real-life auction houses throughout the country that can offer up an incredible variety of items. Auctions are a huge part of buying and selling antiques, and you'd be surprised at the deals you can get.
HiBid is my go-to online auction platform if I am looking for specific items in my niche at prices with some meat left on the bone. The website and app have their short comings - they're not the prettiest, the UI can be a little funky and buggy, and some of the navigation is counter intuitive. However, I find that winning items at bargain prices on HiBid is significantly more likely when compared to its competitors, like auction sites Live Auctioneers, Invaluable, and AuctionZip. Granted these sites have better web-design and usability, but maybe the improved user experience, and improved ease of bidding, is leading to higher traffic and higher bids.
You need to be patient on HiBid, because you're going to have to wade through a whoooole lotta crap. One of my frequent searches on the app is "Devil" and I have to wade through a ton of Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners before I actually find something cool. Refining my search to "antique devil" sometimes helps.
One thing to be weary of on HiBid, and most auction sites, is that each auction house is independent, and they all have their own terms and conditions, shipping policies, and of course, the dreaded buyer's premium. A buyer's premium is a percentage fee charged by an auction house on top of the hammer price, or the price the item sells for. Its essentially a fee you pay for bidding in the auction. Fees of 15% to 25% are pretty typical. Be sure to check an auction's BP before bidding, as this can really add up and eat into your profit. Fortunately, most of the buyer's premiums on HiBid are much lower than those on sites like Live Auctioneers, which can sometimes get as high as 30%.
You'll also have to pay attention to each auction house's shipping policies. Some auction houses won't ship at all, but in these cases you may be able to have someone from a local UPS or other Pack-N-Ship store come to the auction house and pickup and ship your items on your behalf - be careful, this can get expensive. Many auction houses selling on HiBid will have their own in-house shipping department. But again, be careful, because nobody gouges you on shipping prices like an auction house. I just bought a brooch the other day, a small piece of jewelry, and I was quoted a $25 handling fee plus $10 just to ship it to me. After a brief back and fourth, I was able to get the $25 handling fee waived, but I'm not always so lucky. Shipping will quickly eat into potential profits.
One last note about HiBid - their auctions typically have what are called
"soft closings." This means that more time is added if a bid is placed as the clock is winding down on a lot. This is to prevent sniping. It has its advantages - you won't get sniped - and its disadvantages - you can't snipe.
And just one more tip about buying from auctions. You'll want to contact your home state to a get resale certificate if you want to get serious about buying. This is a document that says that you are buying merchandise to be resold, and that you will collect sales tax in your jurisdiction when you ultimately sell the item. Therefore, you are not charged sales tax at the time of purchase. Its a kind of sales tax exemption for goods you're buying to re-sell. Many states will honor out-of-state resale certificates, and others accept a boiler plate certificate used by many states. Consult your home state's laws. Be sure to have your resale number ready at the time of purchase, so you don't have hefty sales tax eating away at your profit.
If you're looking for something similar to HiBid, Auction Ninja is another good alternative that I'll grant "honorable mention" status to.
#1 - AuctionZip
I know I mentioned AuctionZip in my previous point, and that HiBid got my rec for go-to online auction platform, but no site is more integral to my sourcing than AuctionZip.
I don't particularly recommend this platform for buying items online. You'll find lots of items listed that you can bid on right from the platform, but bidding can get very competitive, and those nasty buyer's premiums tend to be steep here due to what the site charges the sellers.
AuctionZip, however, is the best for finding in-person auctions in your area. When I use AuctionZip, I input my zip code, set a 100 or 150 mile radius, and click search. It shoots back a calendar of all of the in-person auctions in my radius. From there I can look at all the photos of goods to be offered in upcoming auctions, and plan out my week's shopping. I spend the beginning of every week scouring each listing in my area looking at hundreds and hundreds of photos to see if an auction is going to be worth me taking a whole day to go and join the bidding frenzy. If I go to an in-person auction, there's got to be a lot there that I hope to walk away with, or my time may be better spent elsewhere.
When using this platform I highly recommend looking for auctions that have in-person bidding only. If you find one that is in-person and online, you're going to be really disappointed when all of the online bidders from all over the world outbid you and everyone else who traveled to sit there all day and bid in-person. Its incredibly frustrating.
Don't be intimidated by in-person auctions. Most of your local auctions are very casual and laid back, full of working class antique dealers looking for a bargain, not the high-class royalty of famous movie portrayals, like in North by Northwest. Sure, there will be the occasional Chinese vase that sells for $10,000, but for the most part, its very chill and no one will notice you.
I mentioned earlier that part of my motivation for making this blog post is so people who are confined to their homes can source antiques. Well, you can still do that with in-person auctions without being there. If you see pictures of items that you are interested in in the listing, you can call the auction house and leave an absentee bid, also known as a left-bid. Most auctioneers will be more than happy to accept your bid over the phone, as well as answer any questions you might have, and send you more photos if need be. If you want to more actively participate, you can also ask to be a phone-bidder when your items come up across the block. This means that the auction house will call you at the time of bidding and you will bid with a member of auction staff working as your proxy. This too, is very common and something most auction houses offer.
There you have it. My personal five favorite places online to source antiques for resale. This ended up being a longer post than I expected, and its now 2am, and I had an auction on MHV.live tonight, so I am tired.
I am going to wrap it up short and sweet. Know your niche, know market prices, and know your customers. With these three bits of knowledge, and some tools online, you can be a successful antique dealer from your very own home in the 2020s.