Not everyone goes to a flea market or an estate sale for the same reasons: for some, such as antique professionals, there is undeniably the lure of profit, as they have to make a living from their professional activity. On the other hand, most of the average consumers are more interested in the treasure hunting aspect and the possibility to find a vintage item that will leave their home looking unique. Finally, a trip to a flea market or an estate sale does not necessarily imply the intention to buy something and is still a pleasant moment to spend among old things that sometimes remind us a little of our childhood.
I spent several years working in the high-end antique market with a renowned antique dealer from whom I learned a lot. I have also spent my weekends going to flea markets of all kinds and visiting estate sales. These experiences have undeniably sharpened my eye. They also allowed me to develop certain good practices and use tools that still help me today make sensational discoveries even in the most unexpected places.
The secret to making unique finds at an unbeatable price: knowledge, dedication, and a dash of luck
People often ask me “Nicolas, what is your secret to making unique finds at an unbeatable price?” My answer is invariable: knowledge, dedication, and a dash of luck too.
Knowledge obviously involves doing research on the topics that interest you. Reading dedicated books, getting information on the Internet, talking to experts in the field. And the wider the spectrum of knowledge, the greater the probability of identifying a valuable object in a flea market or estate sale. Knowledge is (literally) gold. Online marketplaces dedicated to antiques and vintage, like Ruby Lane, 1stdibs or eBay are also good sources of information. By spending a few hours every week, you can learn relatively quickly to identify the types of objects that collectors and vintage enthusiasts are looking for.
Assiduity or diligence means putting theory into practice and doing so on a regular basis to increase your chances of finding valuable items. For example, by regularly visiting flea markets, antique stores, estate sales, auctions, etc. Visiting the same place several times in a row allows you not only to spot some objects that would not have appeared obvious at first glance but also to create a relationship with the sellers. This last point can give you a significant advantage over other customers. For instance priority access to certain new (old) items, preferential prices, and knowledge.
Finally, even the best antique dealer with all the necessary knowledge and dedication will not find a treasure without a good pinch of luck, which often comes down to being in the right place at the right time. A cold and rainy day can be your best friend. So can arriving late, but just as a salesman is unpacking a box that hasn’t been opened yet. Or a long discussion that leads to a piece of information that is worth its weight in gold. Or simply saying “come on, one more box” before calling it a day.
Up Your Game With Technology
Now here’s the one piece of information you won’t get from the veterans of the antique market. Thanks to technology you can skip the knowledge part. I wrote an article a while back called 3 Reasons To Use Your Smartphone At The Flea Market that detailed how smartphones could make our lives easier as antique shoppers. Among other things, I referred to an app that uses your smartphone camera and a visual search algorithm, to tell you what you have before you.
Now, technology has evolved since the last two years when I wrote this article, and an even more powerful and better-integrated tool has appeared: Google Lens.
How I Purchased $3000 Worth Of Antiques For $170 at an estate sale thanks to Google Lens
Google Lens is a technology based on artificial intelligence. It uses your smartphone’s camera and deep machine learning to not only detect an object in front of the camera lens but also understand it and suggest actions such as scanning, translation, shopping, etc.
Google Lens allows you to point your phone at something, like an antique for example, and then ask Google Assistant what the object is that you are pointing at. Not only will it give you the answer in pictures, but you’ll get suggestions based on the object. Such as its rarity, a price range of identical or very similar objects, or dealers or forums with potentially interested customers.
Google Lens is available for all Android devices. iPhone users will need to either download the Google App from the App Store or install the Google Photos app since Google Lens doesn’t have its own dedicated app on Apple’s App Store.
$3000 Worth Of Antiques Spotted in Just 45 minutes
Now here is the little story of the $3000 antiques for $170 for those who have read this far. I mentioned above the “luck” factor in finding antique treasures. And that’s exactly what happened this time.
I was walking down the street of a small European town. As I passed a large door, I saw a sign indicating an estate sale. When I got upstairs, I walked through the half-open door and found myself in a large old apartment. It was filled with all sorts of things, most of which looked relatively old at first glance. I started my visit room by room by quickly scanning the objects present to get a general idea of the sheer amount of things to see.
Here and there I spotted objects of value without having an exact idea of what they might be worth – which would determine what I would be willing to pay for each object. As I was about to take a picture of an object, I pressed by mistake (again the “luck” factor) the Google Lens icon. And the next moment dozens of image search results for the picture of the object I had just taken appeared on the screen. I was just amazed at how fast I had obtained a wealth of information with one single click.
The Power of AI
Thinking that it was probably a fluke, I took the initiative to photograph other interesting objects with Google Lens. The results matched, and photo series after photo series, I was in possession of an unimaginable wealth of information. Once I had sorted the objects by estimated value, I was able to start the negotiation process – which turned out to be totally useless since I systematically accepted the asking price. To the point where one of the sellers intervened to tell me that “it would be nice if I could play the game a bit and make a lower counter-proposal”. So I did it to avoid offending them, and I asked if I could have one extra item in addition to the rest. All in all, 60 minutes later, I left with $3000 worth of antiques for $170.
The booty collected included: three rare signed 1970s lithographs, a 19th-century oil painting, two Art Deco bronzes, two Art Deco wall sconces, a complete set of Fornasetti plates, a mid-century modern armchair, and various smaller items. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with these finds yet. Probably sell some of them and keep the rest for my collection. I even found an original autographed print of American astronaut Jim Lovell (Apollo 13, Apollo 8, Gemini 7, Gemini 12) that I took home for $10 (resale price: between $250 and $400). This photo now sits on a shelf next to a 1969 Scan-Globe Denmark lunar globe.
Even now I still can’t believe that #1. a tool as powerful as Google Lens existed, and #2. that I only discovered it recently by “mistake”. I’m now thinking about all the future applications Google Lens can have. Especially in flea markets and antique shops. And I can already anticipate the ban set by vendors (even stricter than today) there may have in the future to take pictures of objects in flea markets.
We definitely live in an extremely interesting time from a technological point of view. But won’t the fact that we have the ability to know immediately on the spot the value of an object, end up making valuable things even more difficult to find? Theoretically, today, an average person equipped with a smartphone and the appropriate app, can be almost on equal terms with the one who holds the knowledge of antiques. In a kind of challenge that reminds us a bit of the archaeologist facing the Sunday treasure hunter equipped with his metal detector.
Feel free to share your opinion or your views on the matter in the comments section below.