Grinding through History – Antique Brass Spice Mills


These are pretty neat, aren’t they?

I picked these up at my local flea-market before it closed for Christmas. The last market of the year – almost everybody was selling stuff off cheap. One last chance to make money before three weeks of nothing. As a result, these were going cheap!

“What the hell are they??” I hear you ask.

Well, they’re antique brass spice mills! Ain’t they just the cutest lil’ things you ever saw in your life??

OK, okay…ok…let’s be a bit more serious now…

What are they, really?

Well that’s a bit of a tricky question to answer, actually.

The short answer is that according to all the research I’ve done, they are spice mills, used for grinding up things like coffee, salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and whatever else you can cram inside them. But that’s not entirely true. See, mills of this design were originally meant, not for spices, but coffee beans!

They originated with the Greek army because apparently Greek soldiers needed a lot of coffee to make it through a day’s fighting. The problem was that to get the coffee, they had to grind the beans, and grinding beans on the move was a problem, because of how chunky old-fashioned coffee-mills were. Have you seen those things? They’re huge!

To find a compact and portable alternative, some bright spark came up with these things!

Now, they do come in various sizes. All the way from well over a foot long, down to about five or six inches in height. The small mill is about 7.5in high, which makes it a medium, while the other mill is about 13in high, which makes a large! In fact, I don’t think any current manufacturers produce a mill this big!

“So what are they used for?”

As I said, originally these were coffee mills, but these days, people use them for all kinds of things. They’re very popular as spice-mills, for grinding pepper, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon…basically anything that you can cram inside it! The fineness of the grind is adjusted by the screw or nut inside the base of the grinder. A tighter nut means a finer grind (because the grinding-wheels are closer together) whereas a looser nut means a more coarse grind (from the wheels being further apart).

Mills like these have been popular for over a hundred years. And it’s not hard to see why – they’re beautifully made, extremely robust, and they have a huge capacity! They’re also pretty easy to clean.

“How do they work, then?”

The basic operation is pretty easy. You remove the handle, take off the dome-cap, and then you fill the mill with whatever spice you need to grind. You put the cap and the handle back on, and then start grinding.

As you turn the handle, the wheels grind, and the resultant ground-up spices are collected in the base. This stops them sprinkling and spraying all over the place and keeps things neat and tidy. It’s a ridiculously simple design, and I think, very effective and sensible.

“That thing looks COOL!…I want one! GIMME!”

What!? No! Bugger off! Gitcher own darn spice mill!

In all honesty, if you do want one of these things, they’re pretty easy to find. Spend enough time at your local flea-market and you’ll eventually find one. I’ve seen loads of them go through my market for years. I never bought one because I never saw their appeal until now. They’re usually pretty cheap – these two cost almost nothing – and once they’ve been cleaned and such, they’ll last a lifetime!

If you’re after a new one though, they are still made brand new – and you can buy them online. They’re manufactured in Greece, the country of their birth, by a company called Atlas. These might not carry the earth and heavens on their shoulders, but they can grind up a world of spices for you! And they’ll do it with style. Although I generally reckon – not with half as much style as the older ones do!

Creating Aged Beauty – Polishing My Antique Brass Tiffin Carrier


Way back in August, I went on holiday to Southeast Asia. It seems ages ago now, but while there, I bought something at an antiques market that I’d been chasing after for several years: An antique tiffin carrier…

Food-carriers of this basic style have been used in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, India and China for centuries, and the original ones were stacked baskets, usually made of wood or rattan.

With improved manufacturing and machining processes becoming possible with the industrial revolution, tiffin carriers made out of something other than wood (which was perishable and easily broken) now became possible. Decorative stacked porcelain ones were common in Peranakan households in the Straits Settlements in British-held Singapore and Malaya, but in terms of practicality and portability – few could go past the ones which were now being made of pressed steel and brass.

Manufactured in Singapore, India, China, and even some places in Europe, they were made of sheet brass, punched and spun into bowls, and lined in tin (to prevent damage to the brass), or sheet steel, which was punched and spun into bowls, and then painted in enamel paint, which was baked hard, to provide a durable, but smooth, and easily-cleaned surface. Straits Chinese tiffin carriers were often decorated to within an inch of their lives, with patterns of flowers and birds.

The Tiffin Carrier in This Posting

The tiffin carrier which I’ll be concentrating on in this posting – the one I brought back from my holidays – is probably the most typical vintage design, and you’ll find loads of these in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India, where they were made.

They consist of a single brass frame folded and riveted to a handle and a swinging clamp at the top. The bowls are cylindrical sections with bases, which slot between the frame, held in place by hooks riveted on their sides. They’re kept rigid and immovable by the swing-clamp at the top that holds everything in tension to stop it moving.

Most tiffin-carriers have guide-hooks on all the bowls, so that they slot in neatly and stack up one by one – but this one (and others of different designs) have bowls with smooth sides – the indented bases of each bowl lock together to prevent spills and leaks.

This tiffin carrier has four bowls. I have seen ones with as few as one or two, and some with as many as half a dozen or more! But for most everyday ones, between three to five (or more often, three to four) was more common.

The lid on the top of the carrier also has another compartment, which would be for storing condiments and spices with which to flavour your food, which is compartmentalised in each of the four bowls.

Polishing the Carrier

One reason why I bought a brass tiffin carrier over one made of steel is that the brass ones last longer. They don’t rust, the enamel doesn’t chip and flake off, and quite apart from anything else – they’re so much easier to clean!

As you can see in the opening photograph, the carrier I bought was heavily tarnished. It hadn’t been polished in decades! I spent about two days cleaning it up to restore it to something resembling its original shine, and I have to say, I’m very pleased with the results:

I didn’t bother trying to get it perfect – and for a number of reasons:

1). To get it this far was bloody hard work! And I didn’t want to put in excessive effort and risk damaging the brass.
2). I wanted it to look old, but without looking neglected and dirty. In this condition, it’s aged, but presentable!
3). There were some blemishes on the brass which I wasn’t able to remove, so I left it slightly aged so that everything blends in nicely.

That said, the final result is lovely, as is the interior:

This is what the tiffin carrier looks like when it’s entirely disassembled. Now I didn’t actually do anything to the interior, beyond knocking out a couple of dents, and washing the bowls with hot soapy water, to get rid of any grime and dust.

The grey appearance is because these were lined in tin when they were made (to prevent damaging the brass with food). A similar process was used with copper cookware back in the old days (and in fact, they still make copper cookware lined in tin today).

Although I doubt I would ever use this thing ‘in action’ as it were, I couldn’t resist having my own. I scoured flea-markets for years to find one, and I’m so glad that I now have one which I can honestly call my own!

Late Victorian Dentifrice Pot (Ca. 1890)


“Why Did You Buy a Toothpaste Pot!?”

No, I mean…really! Like…y’know…um…why?

I like antiques which are quirky, interesting, unusual and useful. Emphasis on useful. I don’t like buying anything – even an antique – if I don’t either like it, or can use it, in one way or another. And ever since I discovered that they existed, I decided that I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful antique toothpaste jar on my bathroom counter.

Getting to see such an exquisitely decorated little vessel, which was only put on this earth to serve us toothpaste!…makes the act of brushing one’s teeth twice a day just so much more pleasant – brightened by the fact that you get to scoop your toothpaste out of such a cute little container. And even when you’re not using it, that decorated little pot just looks just so decorative and pretty, sitting there on the shelf, and doing what it does. This is why I wanted one!

Well, that, and I’d been selling a lot of things online lately and I decided to treat myself a bit. I found this at the local flea-market, and thought it’d look good siting on my bathroom counter…

I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Square, round…even rectangular! But this was the first one I’ve ever seen with the gold paint on it…and it just jumped out at me, all shiny in the sunlight. It just looked like such a happy, cheerful little toothpaste pot! I had to have it. Once I got it home, I cleaned it, washed it out, and filled it with fresh toothpaste. Just getting to look at this charming, Victorian antique every morning would be all the motivation that I’d need to brush my teeth every day!

The toothpaste pots of Victorian England were undoubtedly, the most elegant and refined solution ever created, to the answer the age-old problem of how to package effective dental hygiene products to a public plagued by halitosis. In this posting, I’ll take a brief look at the history of dental hygiene, and how mankind arrived at the manufacture of these little toothpaste pots, and the contents they once held.

“Taking a Powder…”

These days, we’re so used to things coming in liquid form.

Liquid soap. Liquid toothpaste. Liquid medicines. Liquid deodorants…the list goes on, and on, and on.

And yet, this obsession with all kinds of liquid products is actually a pretty recent one. It wasn’t that long ago that most products that people bought for themselves for private consumption were not sold in liquid form. Medicines were not sold in pill-form or even in syrup-form. They were sold in powder-form, with each dose in folded paper sachets. To ‘take a powder’ was to take a dose of medicine – usually by tipping the powder into a glass of water and stirring it. The resultant diluted powder was gulped down and the dose taken. All kinds of medicines were administered this way, including painkillers or settlers for joint-pain, fever, headaches and upset stomachs.

Soap was sold in soap-powder form or in a hard, chunky block, which you either lathered as-was, or shaved or cut off with a knife. Deodorants were limited to whatever talcum-powder you could smack onto your body to absorb the perspiration from your skin.

And last, but not least – the subject of this posting: Toothpaste!

A Biting History of Dental Care

Throughout history, people have known that if you don’t look after your teeth, all kinds of nasty things can happen to them. They turn black, they crust over, they get infected, they fall out, you get abscesses, and if you get really unlucky like my brother did – you get a root-canal operation (yikes!).

I’ve always been pretty fortunate with my teeth. Like most kids I never took very good care of them (who can ever claim they did?) but after one particularly nasty visit to the dentist, as a teenager, got fed up with the whole debacle, and started methodically scrubbing my teeth twice a day. Since then (apart from one very unpleasant incident a few years ago which I still don’t understand how it happened…), I’ve had pretty good teeth. Not perfect (nobody will have perfect teeth without outside help from a dentist), but pretty good. No major damage or problems in years, apart from the odd hiccup.

Our ancestors were just as aware of the importance of, and the dangers of the neglect of – cleaning one’s teeth properly and regularly. And to combat this problem, they devised a truly staggering array of methods and materials to clean their teeth, from brushing it with ash or fireplace soot, to gargling their mouths with stale urine (delicious!). This last one was a favourite of the Ancient Romans. Urine contains ammonia, which bleaches things white. Basically – piss was the world’s first extra-whitening mouthwash! Also, piss was used to clean linens back in the old days, too – bedsheets and clothing were all soaked in stale piss to let the raw ammonia remove and lift the stains out.

Aren’t you glad we have washing-detergents now?

Anyway, by the Victorian times, mankind had moved on from brushing his teeth with soot and gargling it out with stale urine. The effects of dental neglect were by now very well known, and the effects of dental neglect were not improved by the sudden availability to the public at large, of a large and cheap quantity of sugar!

Previous to the 1800s, all sugar came from sugar-canes – these only grow in tropical regions, which meant that for centuries, sugar was a priceless luxury – indulged in only by the richest people, who could afford the prices of sugar which had been processed, packed and shipped from thousands and thousands of miles away.

When it became known that sugar could be extracted from sugar-beets, which grow in more temperate climates, the price of sugar collapsed, and suddenly what once cost a king’s ransom, the average, workaday man could go out and buy.

The rise in sugar, and an increasing access to more food meant that for the first time in history, people’s teeth were under serious attack. And Victorian dentists and pharmacists came to the rescue – with specially-invented cleaning products!

Victorian Tooth Powders

Despite the labels on the tins (or in this case – pots!) – tooth-paste as we would recognise it, did not actually exist in Victorian times. The technology and science of the era did not permit the consistent manufacture of a paste or gel-like substance which kept well enough and which could be produced to a high-enough quality to clean the teeth on a regular basis. So what happened?

Pharmacists, apothecaries and dentists fell back on their old standby – powders!

The first commercially-produced tooth-cleaners, of a sort, were not tooth-pastes, they were tooth-powders. Often, these concoctions were homemade, using whatever materials could be found. The pharmacist would be constantly mixing, changing and testing, until the right combination of ingredients was reached. The recipe was written down and then repeated whenever a new order for tooth-powder came in.

Common ingredients in Victorian tooth-powders included crushed soap-flakes (for the lathering effect), baking soda, powdered plant-extracts of various kinds (for disinfection), and usually at least one abrasive – brick dust or even powdered china (you know, from broken plates? These were used to scrub off tartar and teeth-stains). All these ingredients were all crushed up in a mortar and pestle, ground up until they were as fine as talcum-powder. A flavouring (for example – oil of peppermint) was then added and mixed in, to give it a pleasant flavour. Then, the finished product was packed up and sold to the public!

For the apothecary or pharmacist, a solid brass mortar and pestle such as this one would’ve been indispensable in their work. Easily cleaned, and nigh indestructible, it would ensure the end product was pure and without contamination. 

Such tooth-powders, or ‘dentifrices’ as they’re called (a ‘dentifrice’ is something that cleans the teeth – it’s not necessarily a powder), while originally made by pharmacists and doctors doing their own, homemade experiments – but once a winning recipe had been discovered, they might well go into fullscale production!

The thing is – how do you sell something like this to the teeth-conscious public? You couldn’t very well sell tooth-powder in paper sachets, and since ‘toothpaste’ wasn’t actually a paste, you couldn’t sell it in a tube, either! And even if it was – the ability to make cheap, throwaway squeeze-tubes (of the kind we buy today) was not possible in Victorian times. The first ones were made of lead!

Because of this, the Victorians instead sold their tooth powders in little ceramic pots…

Victorian Dentifrice Pots

Exactly WHEN people started selling toothpaste in cute little pots is unknown. The earliest dates I can find seem to be the 1870s and 1880s, although this isn’t based on any really solid evidence.

These pots were pretty small – about the size of a modern tin of shoe-polish. They were very simple, too. A base, the sides, the hollow inside to hold the powder, an indented lip, and a lid, which simply sat on top – and that was it! They didn’t screw, latch or lock down like modern toothpaste tubes, or even modern screw-top jars! The lid simply sat on top of the pot – if you tipped it the wrong way, the lid would be in danger of falling off!

Tooth powders were simply dumped into these pots until they were full, and then the full pots were sold to the customers. The pots were likely secured either in throwaway paper boxes, to stop them rattling around, or were just taped shut.

Either way, these pots would’ve graced the dressing-tables, wash-stands and bathroom counters of thousands of people in the late Victorian era, when cost-effective and easy dental-care came into the reach of the masses. And as ever, the claims on the packaging were always the same. Over a century later and nothing has changed! They promised to whiten teeth, remove tartar, and freshen the breath!

I got interested in Victorian toothpaste jars from the moment I realised what they were, mostly because of the sort of novelty aspect of them – they’re so different from how we get our toothpaste today! I mean yes, we get them in nice, brightly-coloured tubes – but there’s something just so satisfying about storing it in a decorated little ceramic pot on the shelf, which you buy once, but clean and refill countless times!

And they look SO much more elegant than those tubes of AIM, PEPSODENT, COLGATE and McCLEANS!

That said, for all their elegance of presentation, and reusability of packaging, brushing your teeth with a tooth-powder was a bit more involved than squirting something onto a brush and stuffing it in your mouth!

To get the powder to stick to the toothbrush, it was necessary to moisten it first. Either by sticking it in your mouth, or by dipping it in water. This allowed the powder to stick to the bristles of the toothbrush (which in Victorian times, were made of wood, and bristled with pig-hair!) so that it wouldn’t fall off and go absolutely everywhere, when you lifted the brush from the pot to your mouth. It was only after you mixed the powder with water that it really ecame ‘tooth-paste’.

Thereafter, the process of cleaning is exactly the same today – except that the Victorians didn’t have fancy-schmancy battery-powered electric toothbrushes like we do!

Victorian toothpaste pots are highly collectible. Numerous manufacturers produced all kinds of styles and patterns, pictures and lettering on the lids of their toothpaste pots. I’ve even seen one or two with words like “Patronised by the Queen” printed on them!

Almost all the decorations, maker’s names, company addresses and printed advertising material on the lids of these pots was applied through a process called transfer-printing. Ceramics with this type of decoration are known as ‘transfer-ware’.


Before the invention of transfer-printing – all the pretty pictures, the flowers, the idyllic scenes, the writing, the company-information…everything that went on every ceramic item ever sold – had to be laboriously painted onto it by hand, by some poor bastard sitting at a table with a brush in his hand! One mistake and the item would be rejected. And it took ages just to paint one tiny little cup, pot or bowl.

This all changed when the labour-intensive, but relatively-speaking – much faster – transfer-printing process was invented in the 1750s. It took a while, but by the 1800s, transfer-printed ceramics was a way of life for many people.

Transfer-printing works pretty simply – You get a copper plate. You engrave the design of whatever it is you want, onto the plate. You warm up the plate and paint on a special mixture of ink. You then laid down a sheet of paper over the inked plate and ran it through a press. This printed the image engraved on the copper onto the sheet of paper. The paper was then trimmed and cut to gain access to the various parts of the design, and then the paper was pressed onto the ceramic object being decorated.

In this way, the print was transferred from the copper to the ceramic. Transfer-printing!

To make it last, the printed ceramic item was then fired in a kiln to set the colours and inks; this dried them permanently and stopped them fading or running. It was a fiddly process, but it was a lot faster than painting or drawing on each individual pot by hand, and then sitting around all day waiting for it to dry! On top of all this, the results were far more consistent – important, when a company’s reputation was at stake!

Yes, you had to engrave the plate, yes you had to print each cup or bowl or plate or saucer one at a time – but in the time it used to take to paint one plate or bowl, dozens of such items could be transfer-printed! It was a fast, cheap, effective way of decorating ceramics, and it made actual sets of ceramics, all featuring the same pattern – a possibility. It was this process which printed all the pretty details on antique pots, like the ones used to sell tooth-powders in. It finally died out in the 1910s and 20s, when faster decoration processes were invented, such as premade decals which could simply be pressed on and then made permanent by painting them in with a clear-coat glaze.

The End of Transfer-Printed Tooth-Powder Pots

Pots like these for all their beauty, did not last especially long. By the early 20th century, they were already dying out. The First World War really saw their end. It wasn’t practical to send thousands of little ceramic jars to the front lines for the troops, all filled with powder. Advances in medicine meant that proper toothpastes were now available, and these could be stored in thin, metal tubes which could be squeezed to release the paste onto a brush in a measured amount. And the tooth-powder pot was relegated to the bathroom of history…

Where Can I Buy a Dentifrice Pot? 

Dentifrice pots are pretty common as far as antiques go. They’re usually dug out of old rubbish-tips and stuff. Complete pots with their lids and bases, without damage or loss of artwork on the lid can go for a pretty penny, especially if the pot is of an odd shape, size, or from a famous company, or if the artwork is particularly fantastic. Most bog-standard toothpaste pots are pretty cheap, though.

You can probably find them easily at most flea-markets and antiques shops (although they’ll cost more in antiques shops). But they are small, common, and pretty – and that does make them highly desirable as a collectible – some people even collect the lids on their own, without looking for the entire pot!

Sterling Silver Bowl with Coin – 1895 & 1787


Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes, you don’t.

This time, I got lucky!

It’s the most charming and adorable little silver bowl that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s made of sterling silver, and has the most amazing respousse patterning on the sides.

It’s late Victorian in manufacture, dating to 1895, just two years before the queen’s diamond jubilee. The detail on this thing just blew me away when I saw it – it’s got clovers and acorns all around the sides, and little flowers all around the rim. Floral motifs were popular in Victorian times, so this definitely fits the period! The sort of curvy-swervy patterning on the bottom looks like a nod to the then-rising movement of Art Nouveau as well.

This bowl was being sold in a local auction-house, and it was one of about half a dozen pieces that I wanted to try and buy. I got viciously outbid on some of the other pieces, and I had my reservations about buying this one. But when the price dropped…and dropped…and dropped…and nobody put up a bid, I decided to pounce, and managed to get a great bargain!

Small silver bowls, plates and cups like this were very common in Victorian times, and I’ve seen many of them in antiques shops, online, in flea-markets and in auction-houses.

Exactly what function they served is debatable, if indeed they did serve one at all! The Victorians were notorious for manufacturing all kinds of silver nicknacks for activities, events, items and niceties that we don’t even think about these days! Things like stamp-holders, card-trays, and even asparagus tongs and pickle forks!

The bowl is not gilt or lined inside in any way, so that suggests that whatever it held, it wasn’t corrosive – so therefore, it wouldn’t have been mustard or salt or something along those lines. Salt and mustard (which has vinegar in it) are both highly corrosive to silver – any silver vessel holding these condiments usually has a blue glass liner, or is gilt (gold-plated) to stop the silver from crusting over and turning black and flaky.

I think the bowl was likely used to hold chocolates or nibbles. Perhaps unsalted nuts or bonbons or something of that sort.

Whoever it was made for, and whatever use they intended for it, one aspect of this bowl really caught my eye – this:

No, your eyes are not deceiving you – that is a coin set into the base of the bowl. Exactly WHY there’s a coin there is anybody’s guess, but there it is.

That said, silver bowls and plates like this with coins set into them aren’t that uncommon, either! I’ve seen several of these over the years, and it seems to have been a perfectly acceptable practice. Some coins were used because they marked significant years, and some, just for decoration, like we see here. Another possible explanation is that the coins were out of circulation anyway – and it was an easy way to use free silver to make something!

The coin is a George III sterling silver shilling, from 1787.

It’s pretty worn, but you can still read the date, as well as the words: “GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA” (George III, by the Grace of God).

The silversmith’s mark on this piece is for Charles Stuart Harris. He seems to have done a pretty good job of fitting the coin in – both sides are visible, both inside, and outside the bowl.

All in all, it’s a beautiful piece of silver. Well-made and with stunning attention to detail. Its decoration just screams Victorian, and I love the coin – even if it’s almost impossible to read!

The date on the coin - 1787
The date on the coin – 1787

Flipping Antiques – Buying Low to Sell High


It’s been twelve months now, since I started selling antiques online as a hobby and a small sideline to make myself some money. The image of the struggling artist or writer might look very romantic, but it’s not very practical! Fed up with not having any serious money coming in, I embarked on this as a way to keep myself busy and make something on the side at the same time. So how did I get into this? And how can you? And what sort of things do you need to be mindful of when buying things to resell, and selling antiques and vintage things online?

I’ve already done an article on the actual process of listing and selling items, so if you’re looking for that, click here.

if not, then read on, and hopefully you’ll pick up something from the insights gained after a year of flogging antiques and bric-a-brac.

Buying Low to Sell High

Buying low to sell high (or higher, at least) is how people have been making money on almost anything and everything since the dawn of civilisation. So, where and how do you, as a picker and flipper of antiques, get in on all this?

In order to be at least moderately successful in flipping antiques, you need to be able to spot a bargain. You need to be aware of what prices items usually sell for, and how much you can reasonably expect to make from something. You also need to be able to gauge what sorts of things people will be chasing after online, and how to market your things towards this group of people.

Visit places like flea-markets, garage sales, charity or thrift-shops, and similar places to find good bargains. Search online, visit antiques shops and websites like eBay, to gauge prices and see how much something might generally sell for, and the prices that people ask for their items. This will give you a good idea of what prices are considered bargains, what you might reasonably expect to sell something for, and what prices might be considered a ripoff!

What & What Not to Buy

When trying to flip antiques and make money on them, it’s extremely important to know what, and what not to buy. This will be determined by factors such as price, rarity, condition, size, age and various other things. You need to be aware of what things are selling, and what aren’t, why, and why not.

It’s my experience that the successful sale of antiques works best if you confine yourself to three or four broad areas of interest, and that venturing out of these areas is done at your own risk! So, what are these areas?

When selling antiques, you should look for items which are usefulunusual or interesting, or cheap. Anything outside of these categories can be risky to sell, and you purchase these items for resale at your own risk!

So, what am I talking about? Let’s go through them in detail.

Selling Things Which are Useful

When selling antiques, it’s best to sell antiques which people are likely to find useful. It’s no use selling something which a person can only stare at, and appreciate from afar, or from behind a glass panel. Some people might like stuff like this, and yes you can sell stuff like that, but the fact that you can’t use an item limits who you can sell it to. Most items are expensive enough without also having to pay for them to be serviced. This is one reason why things like antique pocket watches are often huge money-pits.

Antiques which are useful and which can be used on a regular basis are ones which are likely to sell, because people can see them, appreciate them, and also put them to good use. They’re not just cute decorative objects which do nothing but take up space and collect dust. Antique clocks, sewing machine, cigarette lighters, and various types of metalware generally fall into this category. Hard-wearing objects designed to look nice, but also take a significant daily beating.

Selling Things which are Unusual or Interesting

Along with antiques which are useful or functional, another broad area where antiques tend to sell well, are ones which are either unusual, odd or interesting. People like owning something which is out-of-the-ordinary, whacky, weird, or otherwise unusual. These thhings draw attention, and are also great conversation-pieces! That said, these things will only sell if people can appreciate their unusual nature, or if the seller (you!) knows what the item is, what its purpose is, and how it works.

Weird and unusual things either sell pretty quickly, because people love how whacky they are, or they can sit for ages, because nobody knows what they are! It’s sort of a double-edged sword, so approach this area of buying for resale with caution. You might end up with loads of extremely interesting things which nobody is interested in!

Selling Things which are Cheap!

This one is tricky. What is ‘cheap’ from one person to another is highly relative, and one person’s ‘cheap’ could be another person’s ‘expensive’. Buying things cheaply to sell them at a healthy profit requires a lot of knowledge and experience, though. You need to be able to spot a bargain and know that something being sold for a low price could, if you play your cards right, be flipped for a high price. It’s not always easy, but it can be done. Just don’t get too greedy!

For example, if you buy something for $5.00 and you know it’s probably worth $150, then instead of trying to reach that high, try $100, or $70, or $50 instead. This will allow the potential buyer to get something which might be extremely expensive, at a relatively cheap price, while also giving you a healthy profit. It’s when you get too greedy and try to milk more out of the cow than it can give, that you’re liable to get stuck with merchandise you can’t move!

To Restore or Not to Restore?

Whether or not you restore something before you sell it can be a highly contentious issue in the antiques world. My gut-feeling is that one should follow what the experts do, and most antiques flippers and dealers who do this for more than a hobby tend to restore their antiques (if necessary or possible), prior to selling them.

“Doesn’t restoring antiques destroy their value?” I hear you ask.

Well yeah. If you have no idea what you’re doing, and you completely screw it up! But, if you’re a competent, careful and sympathetic restorer, then an antique in working condition can fetch a lot of money! And people will be more willing to pay a higher price on an antique if they know that it not only works, but that it’s been carefully cleaned, repaired, tested and put back together. Some people like buying things knowing that all the hard work has already been done for them. I flipped a $20 antique fire extinguisher for $100 all because I cleaned it and got it working again! Such things can happen if you know how to spot a bargain, and have a knack for fixing things.

Selling ‘Luxury’ Stuff

One of the hardest things to try and sell are ‘luxury antiques’. The really fancy, pretty, rare, fragile, old or expensive stuff. The problem with that is that most people don’t have buckets of money to blow on things that they don’t need. And if they are going to spend their money on antiques, then it has to be something useful, really weird or interesting, or it has to be pretty damn cheap!

There’s nothing wrong in getting a few luxury things like silver or jewelry or clocks or watches and trying to sell them, but don’t expect them to move fast, or make large profits – not unless you’re really lucky! Silver can move slowly depending on what it is, and watches and clocks can take ages! If you have a background or make a hobby of watch or clock-repair, you might be able to make a decent profit by fixing the timepiece yourself and selling it on, but if you have to pay someone else to do it – there goes all your profit!

Things like watches…even pocket watches…are extremely common. They might sell fast, but most people will not want to spend a great deal of money on them. One reason is the cost of repairs. The other reason is that because watches are so common, unless there’s something really special about them (a gold or silver case, a rare model, a really high-end piece, etc), there really isn’t the scarcity to make them worth more. Even in the antiques world, supply-and-demand still rules supreme!

Turning a Profit in Antiques

Flipping antiques for a profit can be a fun, if tricky game to play, for a number of reasons.

When you do decide to flip antiques for a profit, the important thing to consider is how you’re going to do it, what you can reasonably expect in return. As I’ve already explained, antiques can be hard to flip, for any number of reasons. Because of this, you need to be very careful in what you buy, how much you buy it for, and what you try and sell it for. Unless the price you’re asking is pretty darn cheap, more often than not, you won’t get what you actually asked for, since people will want to haggle and bargain with you.

If you’re comfortable with this (and it’s better if you are) then you can get a line of happy, satisfied, repeat customers. Being overly rigid on your prices and negotiations can and will make your stock sit…for weeks, and months, and sometimes even years!

Bought this three-piece silver condiment set at a local auction house and flipped it for five times what I paid for it. If you're a savvy flipper, you can make pretty decent profits on your antiques.
Bought this three-piece silver condiment set at a local auction house and flipped it for five times what I paid for it. If you’re a savvy flipper, you can make pretty decent profits on your antiques.

Because of this, you should never waste the opportunity to make a good sale, but at the same time, don’t pester people to buy your stuff. Let them make their own decisions. The only time this might be a problem, however, is when you have more than one person interested in a particular item.

It can be extremely frustrating watching two people umm-and-aah over something, trying to make up their mind, and then trying to figure out who has first-dibs on it! In instances like this, I really encourage people to either make up their mind really fast, ask me to officially reserve it for them while they make up their mind, or pass. Because leaving things hanging can lead to ugly confrontations later on. Unless it’s on eBay or something, a lot of online sales are done on the basis of a gentleman’s agreement, and if the other party doesn’t like acting like one…then you’ve got real problems!

Pricing Your Antiques

One of the harder things to do with selling antiques is knowing what to price them at. This can be pretty tricky since the values and the prices on antiques vary WILDLY depending on age, condition, manufacture, condition, geographical location, condition, materials, condition, rarity and of course…condition!

The longer you shop around, visit antiques shops, bargain, haggle and stick your nose in all over the place, the sooner you’ll learn what a bargain is, and what a reasonable price might be to charge for your antiques. Part of it is up to you, and part of it is determined by what other people sell their items for. The more you look around, the more you’ll learn what a reasonable price is.

That’s not to say that what other people sell their antiques for is the correct price, and that’s not to say that what you sell your antiques for is correct, either. It’s a matter of each seller’s personal circumstances, and the nature of the item being sold.

The most important thing with flipping your antiques is making sure you can do it for a decent percentage of the purchase-price. Anywhere from 125-200% thereof. Anything less really isn’t worth it, unless the item is really hard to sell, or if you’ve had it for ages and just want to have a fire-sale to get rid of everything!

Making a Sale

I’ve already written a post about selling antiques online in general, so I won’t cover too much here in my last segment, except to say that when you do make a sale online, you should always try and tempt the buyer with whatever other stock you have for sale. Don’t just close the deal, take the money and run – take a few minutes to find out what your customer likes, what he or she collects, what they find interesting – and tempt them with similar items that you might have. For all you know, you might land two or three sales for the price of one, move loads of stock and get fat profits in the process!

Knowing how to sell and how to tempt and interest your customers is part of being able to move your things fast and make healthy profits on the things you buy. Being stubborn and pernickity will cause sales to stall, for people to lose interest, and for you to start losing money! So be patient when you have to be, and fast-thinking when you need to be, to find good bargains and make good sales.