Reselling Antiques: The Five Principles of Power Picking

Photo: EmmaMaria

Picking shows are fast becoming ratings cash-cows for networks like the History Channel, HGTV, and A&E. It seems the next generation of bargain-hunters who cut their teeth thrift-shopping and selling on eBay have moved on to higher-stakes games like cross-country picking trips and buying the entire contents of unclaimed storage units. From Storage Wars to American Pickers, the digs are going deeper, the audience is getting broader, and the ratings are going higher.

But what are the key principles of successful picking? How can newbies get started and how can experienced pickers up their game? After nearly 20 years of buying and selling and with the help of a few great picking colleagues, I’ve boiled down the five principles of power picking:

1. Research

Successful picking is predicated on one fundamental skill: seeing the value of an item that others cannot see. Identifying value and knowing the market potential of an item is all based on a simple (but exhaustive) research. A broad knowledge of many categories of items can increase your odds of stumbling upon a rusty treasure in almost any environment. I scout completed eBay auctions, Craigslist, and high-end auction house records to see what’s hot, what’s selling fast, and what might be hot tomorrow. Any source that can give you a leg up on fashion trends and design trends can help too. Begin to look at magazines and all media as a potential research tools. What are people clamoring for? What’s the gracing the walls of Park Avenue crowd? What are the trendy kids in LA and New York wearing? What vintage sounds are musicians trying to recapture with old instruments?

2. Network with Other Pickers

Picking is a lonely sport — pickers tend to be creative, fast-moving, slightly obsessed, and when we’re “in the zone,” not too social. But on those casual Friday nights, we love to talk about our latest finds, what’s flying off our virtual shelves, and what we think is going to be the next big trend in the business. Many pickers focus on a single spectrum of items like books, vintage concert tee-shirts, bikes and scooters, etc. These folks can be walking catalogues of information that you can sample from to increase your knowledge — get to know them and work to establish a reciprocal relationship of shared tips.

3. Network with Buyers

It’s much easier to buy an item if you know you have a customer waiting in the wings. A wide network of solid buyers can give you the comfort and confidence to purchase more and purchase more often. Work to be a great supplier — be consistent, fairly priced, and able to deliver unique items that other pickers can’t. Buyers are much like sellers; they are intricately connected to one another. Once word gets out that you’ve got the goods, buyers will refer you to other potential customers when there’s something that doesn’t fit with their shop or client-base.

4. Market

Once you’ve found that rare grime-covered bicycle, that piece of vintage Italian pottery, or that antique lunchbox, you need to sell it. Taking an item out of one context (an old dirty barn) and selling it for a 2,000% profit in another context (the stark white walls of a high-end antique shop) is what marketing is all about. Learn to clean items gently (when appropriate), learn the art of digital photography and staging, write compelling and accurate descriptions, and be ready to promptly answer questions and negotiate a bit on price.

5. Get Creative

Picking can be competitive; there are limited venues to source goods from and you’ll begin the see the same faces over and over again at the hot spots. Staying a friendly step ahead of your colleagues will serve you well. Depending on the time you have available, travel off the beaten path to source your items. Be the first customer at that estate sale or yard sale. If you decide to do "cold calls" and approach property owners directly, call first and always respect posted "no trespassing" signs.

Picking isn’t driven solely by cold economic calculations. The best pickers are motivated by the thrill of the hunt and a true love of the items we buy and sell. We consider our work not only commercial, but archival. Rescuing items from the recesses and trash-heaps of the American landscape is our work. Giving them new life and making a buck or two in the process is our livelihood. When we find that little treasure rusting away in some anonymous garage, we save it, we get it into the hands of someone who will restore and appreciate it, we spare it from the landfill, and we preserve a bit of our collective history. 

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