Everyone has their own term for it. One person’s flea marketing is another person’s antique shopping. Maybe they call them car boot sales. You might choose to attend an organized antique fair you read about before arriving in port. It can be great fun!
- Don’t lose track of time. While on a flying vacation, you are in the area for several days. You would never dream of going to an antique market across town on the same day as your scheduled flight home. You arrived at this port on a river cruise or an ocean liner. In both cases, the ship pulls out at a certain time. You need to get back on board.
- Learn about the famous markets ahead of time. London has Bermondsey market and Portobello Road on Friday and Saturday mornings. Paris has Marche aux Puces de St.-Ouen on weekends. If you are in town, you might as well see the best.
- Arrive early. As a collector, you might be the “end user” of this item. You bring it home and it goes into your collection. Another part of the crowd is the professional dealer population, buying for their stalls or shops elsewhere. It’s been said London’s Bermondsey market on Fridays is a feeder market for Portobello on Saturday. Get there early. The dealers do. How can you tell a dealer? A good clue is the rolling piece of luggage filled with bubble wrap.
- Bring cash. You are stepping back in time in more ways than one. It puts a damper on negotiations when you say: “I need to run back to the ATM I saw three blocks back.” You want bills in varying denominations. Put another way, don’t expect them to make change.
- Ask for receipts. It makes sense for many reasons. The item is going into your collection. Knowing what you paid is important for insurance purposes. When you appear on Antiques Roadshow they will ask: “What did you pay for it?” Before getting home, the US Customs inspector might have a casual interest in what you spent.
- Be complimentary. It never hurts. These dealers are in business to make or supplement their income. They buy what they think other people will want. They work hard. Compliment them on their stock. Even if there is a language barrier, your tone will get the message across.
- Negotiation. Unlike the BBC series Antiques Roadtrip, dealers won’t knock 30-50% off the price. Although you should negotiate, realistically expect 10-15% maximum. If you want to avoid haggling, politely ask if they could do a bit better on the price.
- Logistics. Think a bit before you buy that three by six foot ornately carved door you’ve been admiring. Yes, you might be able to drag it onto the ship, but getting it from the ship to the airport and then back home will be a logistical nightmare. Focus on small items that are easy to pack.
- Better to assume it’s not real. Do you watch Antiques Roadshow? Of course you do! Why else would you be antiquing and flea marketing in a foreign country. Everyone loves the “I bought the painting at a yard sale for twenty dollars” revelation before they announce the painting is worth $20,000. We forget the part when they said “I bought it in 1969.” Expect every dealer will have thoroughly researched every item on their table before putting it up for sale. The chances of you finding a previously undiscovered “Sunflower” painting by Vincent Van Gogh are beyond remote. Buy what you like at a price that you consider fair, but don’t go out on a limb thinking you’ve found an undiscovered masterpiece.
We are passionate about antiquing overseas. I once bought a Coalport tea service for six at Bermondsey, which could only be wrapped in newspaper and put into a large drawstring garbage bag. I carried it to my business meeting later that morning, confident they would have a coat closet where I could stash it. They didn’t, leading me right into the conference room, carrying my trash bag. The British must consider us Americans odd at times.