Holiday finds at flea markets

Katherine Boyle / The Washington Post /

Published Dec 5, 2012 at 04:00AM

Last month, the holiday shopping focus was on big-box retailers. With all the competition out there, it would seem you could buy every gift you need at a retail store. But Marsha Bemko, executive producer of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” says there has never been a better time to shop for one-of-a-kind, pre-loved items.

“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Bemko said. “You pay less than full retail at flea markets, and you’ll look like you spent a lot more. There are bargains out there to be had.”

We’re not talking about shopping at Goodwill for silk ties or secondhand furniture (although we fully support that kind of thrift shopping). For the holidays, vases, colored glassware and handmade items are the obvious gifts for picky loved ones, and they’re easy to find at secondhand markets.

Bemko gives us some tips for haggling on price and finding memorable gems that you won’t see in stores.

Know your limits

Most of the time you’ll be paying cash, so have a finite amount of bills in purse or pocket to keep you from overspending.

“Say, ‘I’m going to find fill-in-the-blank,’ and then set forth a reasonable budget before you go,” Bemko advised. Otherwise, you’ll tend to overspend. But she also reminds us that part of the fun of antiques is taking little risks. “First-timers who are going out there without a huge budget can really learn from taking risks,” she said. “But if you’re spending $10,000, you need to worry about authenticity and you need to be cautious.”

Half of it is showing up

Although you can get great antiques on eBay, there’s no substitute for in-person shopping. “When you really want to comparison shop, you’ll need to go to more than one place on foot,” Bemko said. You can use the Internet for research, but this is one realm of shopping where you’ll want to touch the products beforehand. “You can’t get a sense of feeling, what’s really old and what’s reportedly old, without going in person.”

Take your time

You don’t order the first item on a menu, so why would you stop at the first stall and buy everything you see? It’s a common rule: Prices are higher in the front of the market. Start in the back, and scope out everything before you buy anything.

Take the smartphone

The smartphone is your weapon. It’s not that people will lie about products, but often, people just don’t know how old or rare something is. Use the Internet as a resource. It’s especially important if you’re about to buy something that is marked up because it’s “one of a kind.” “With certain one-of-a-kind objects, you’ll go online and see hundreds of them,” Bemko said, indicating that they’re not unique gifts. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s rare.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

As with all great deals or breaks in life, you’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask. Ask for a discount. At antique or flea markets, you are expected to haggle. “Assume it’s overpriced from the start,” Bemko said. “It is always worth asking, but be respectful of the fact that people need to stay in business.” Bemko recommends starting with, “Can I make you an offer?” before naming a price.

Too good to be true?

There are cases of people finding “flea market Renoirs,” but those stories rarely have happy endings. This year, a woman found a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a West Virginia flea market. A Washington Post reporter discovered that the painting had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art more than half a century ago. (The woman no longer owns the painting.) Moral of the story: Beware of deals that seem too good to be true. If you’re shopping at the international flea markets of Berlin or Vienna, those silver-dollar coins selling for 5 euro a pop are probably counterfeits made of lead and worth less than 10 cents. Flipping flea market finds for profit is a tough business. If that’s your goal, know that you’re gambling, not shopping.

Gifts to get this season

For the holidays, Bemko said, glassware is a common, reasonably priced gift you can find at most flea markets. “There’s a lot of colored glass and art glass out there right now, and they make great gifts. They’re popular.” Waterford glass or manufacturers of cut crystal are also flooding the flea markets because of the lack of demand. Bemko also recommends old laces and linens for textile enthusiasts, but she cautions that expensive heirlooms are hard to find in good condition. “With art glass, there are pieces at every price point,” Bemko said. “You can pay $5 or $50,000.” Most people won’t know the difference. And handmade holiday crafts, whether you visit a local craft show or a flea market, are always worth their time and creativity.

The bottom line

The holidays are a great time to try your hand at antique and flea markets. Because many markets sell items for a fraction of what you’d spend in a store, it’s a good way to save while giving a memorable gift.