Ardingly Antiques Fair - the inside track

6/25/2015 02:45:00 pm HELEN STILES 0 Comments

As someone who loves shopping for interiors, and especially finding something unique and unusual,
 I love a good flea market or antique shop rummage. But with 3 young children, my bargain-hunting in recent years has been largely restricted to eBay, Etsy and other online auction sites. Somehow, I’ve never actually made it to Ardingly, one of the biggest and best Antiques fair in the country. So I was very excited earlier this week to be invited to help out my husband’s Uncle Mike, a pro trader and Ardingly regular.  So I thought I'd share a little insight into the experience from the trader’s side of the tracks (although I couldn’t help doing a little buying too…)

The day started early (2am to be precise - about the time I’m usually going to bed after an evening spent working on the business!) I had a blissfully quiet trip round the M25 and arrived in time to dump my car and watch the sun come up from Mike’s van as we waited for the gates to open at 5am. Then the work started - first we had to find our way across the huge show ground to Mike’s pitch, then commence the job of unloading before the punters are let in at 9. I’m always intrigued to see what Mike has been buying and selling. He lives in Wales and deals in a lot of stuff I don’t see much of in London. On Tuesday he had a real mix of items to sell - everything from original fibreglass Panton chairs in orange and white, to an amazing Robert Heritage rosewood dining table.

Almost immediately, and long before we'd finished unloading, the trade-buying started. Other traders whizz up and down the aisles looking for bargains to ‘flip’ on their stands or take back to their shops and websites. The particularly keen amongst them have powered scooters or foldable bikes to get around the stands as quickly as possible and get the best bargains! The rosewood table was snapped up almost straight away, followed by a huge brass and rosewood veneer sideboard that (I’m very pleased to say) we didn’t even have to unload from the van (it was extremely heavy!)

By 6.30 the first flurry of activity was subsiding and there was time to enjoy a quick cup of earl-grey from the comfort of a lovely danish sofa in the early morning sun. (I couldn’t help but think of the chaos normally ensuing at home at this time - 2 small boys decorating the kitchen in milk and cereal, increasingly urgent pleading to find toothbrushes/schoolbags/shoes and usually a last minute nappy change required for baba just as we’re finally about to leave the house). Yep, that earl-grey tasted gooooood!

But then Mike decided to put me to work - sending me off with a wad of cash and instructions to ‘go and buy something we can make some money on.’ Eek! For someone usually so at home spending money, I felt strangely nervous! So off I set, wandering the 1700+ stands with my eyes peeled for a bargain. You do have to be good at scanning - the variety of items available is staggering - antique and vintage furniture, textiles and lamps; fine art, memorabilia, decor and ceramics - even a few cowhides and sheepskins. I decided I’d better just dive in and get buying, so was back within half an hour with a lovely pair of vintage rattan garden chairs bought for £85. I could tell Mike was not hugely impressed, definitely not his usual ‘look’ as he calls it. But I assured him they’d be a hit (and if not I’d happily take them home for our little patio).  But (alas for my patio) within an hour they’d been sold for 50% profit. Vindicated!  As an added bonus, my google fit app pinged to tell me I’d met the day’s workout goal - not bad for 7.30am!

There’s no doubt that flea markets are hard work - and I have a new found respect for the work that goes in as a vendor. Not only the weeks of sourcing that goes on beforehand, but also the heavy lifting and sheer stamina required for such a long day! By 3 o’clock I’d timed out.  I had bruised shins, sunburn and an almost irresistible urge to go to sleep! Time to hit the road, but not before loading up with some fabulous mid-century french dining chairs (destined for a makeover with some handwoven mud cloth); 2 lovely teak-legged stools and a very retro ‘70s portrait of a slightly melancholy lady. Not a bad day’s work I felt. As I hit the road again I could only wonder at Mike, who was all set for a night’s sleep in the back of his van before repeating it all on day 2. I think I’m better suited to buying…

So finally, my top 3 tips for shopping the antiques fairs:

  1. Get there early…the best bargains have gone by 9am. If you know what you’re after, get in and don’t hang about! 
  2. Haggle nicely - everyone is there to make their cut, and usually there is enough in it for both vendor and buyer to end up happy. So be friendly, enjoy it and you’ll end up with a better deal. 
  3. Beware the fakes - I was disappointed at how many stall holders were selling cheap Chinese reproductions. Fine if that’s what you’re after, (and you pay accordingly) but for me an antiques fair is all about the chance to get something authentic and individual. Be open-minded and you’re sure to find something you love.