Pros and Cons of Antique Shopping Online

A best practices guide to shopping for antiques online

When I started my antiques business in the early ’90s, antiques and the Internet weren’t even mentioned in the same sentence. Collectors visited shops and shows, while designers traipsed around with a camera, a notepad and a stack of blurry Polaroids.

Today, collectors, designers and dealers embrace the digital experience and peruse the Internet for hours, bidding, buying and bookmarking favorite sites along the way. Michael Bruno, founder of the industry-leading, describes the Web simply as a “time-saving tool for decorators, vendors and consumers alike.”

The Internet has changed life as antiques dealers know it—and most agree that’s a good thing. Some, however, see it as a blessing and a curse. While the Web gives dealers a greater reach (and the ability to update inventory instantaneously), prospective buyers can comparison shop as never before.

A specialist in 20th-century modern pieces, Kim Elstein of 33NOW Gallery (33NOW Gallery, Stamford, 203-858-1155, went online seven years ago. “The Internet was in my business plan when I opened my gallery at this location,” Elstein says, and although she gets walk-ins, 1stdibs has unquestionably helped her business grow.

With the Web has come an apparent proliferation of antiques centers. The two go hand-in-hand, according to Michael Rufino, who owns the Hamptons Antique Galleries in Stamford. “The Internet has been completely positive for our business,” he says. “The designers are back with a vengeance.”

Even 1stdibs has a showroom in the New York Design Center. “The demand was so strong from our dealers for this opportunity … that within one hour of sending an e-mail, we filled the whole 33,000-square-foot space,” says 1stdibs president Bruno. “Having both a virtual and a physical presence enhances the shopping experience for both the dealer and the buyer.”

Best Practices
♦ Be prepared to dedicate the time and personnel necessary to keep your website updated.
♦ Understand that the Internet market is transparent and price your merchandise accordingly.
♦ Stand out by focusing attention on your specialty.
♦ Describe your merchandise in detail and always disclose its condition. Provide clear photos with multiple views.
♦ State your purchase and return policies clearly.
♦ Be sure that your Internet business reflects the same exemplary service you provide in your shop.

Finding just the right piece, a time-consuming and costly aspect of a designer’s business, is now reduced to a click or two—at least in the preliminary design stage. Another plus: Designers can work from literally anywhere and enjoy access to dealers worldwide.

“When I moved to Connecticut after working in the design business in New York for twelve years, I thought my [professional] life was over,” says Ali Schwarz (Ali Schwarz Design Group, Redding, 203-938-4898, Despite her rural locale, Schwarz quickly realized she could handle more projects by shopping online, and her business flourished.

Best Practices
♦ Keep clients focused. The Internet can be a headache for designers who have to “rein in” a client (remember they shop online, too).
♦ Check return policies; clients have a habit of changing their minds.
♦ Inquire about condition and be clear with clients about imperfections.
♦ Doublecheck the scale of a piece in its proposed location.
♦ If you don’t know a dealer, ask your colleagues for references

At the end of the day, online shopping comes down to convenience (who doesn’t love going antiquing in your pajamas at 1 a.m.?) and the luxury of choice. All you need to do is click on your favorite search engine and away you go.

“I love to use the Internet to get inspiration for my home and to educate myself. My designer and I used a combination of magazine tear sheets and the Internet to reference a variety of styles that appealed to me,” says Sheila Kash, an Old Greenwich homeowner. The Internet, she says, kept her from becoming overwhelmed.

Best Practices
♦ Visit the websites of dealers you know and trust.
♦ Bookmark and print items; keep files on pieces and websites you like.
♦ Inquire about an item’s condition and ask a lot of questions.
♦ Be sure you understand payment and return policies.
♦ Don’t stop visiting shops, galleries and antiques centers! Nothing trumps seeing merchandise in person.
♦ Cultivate relationships with dealers, a great resource for advice on design, history, rarity and conservation.