A Stylist's Guide to Buying at Fairs with Ali Heath

After featuring interior stylist and journalist Ali Heath in our All I Want for Christmas blog in December we thought we’d invite her back to offer up some top tips on buying at fairs.

Ali loves the thrill of the search and is a dab-hand at tracking down gorgeous pieces for her own home, as well as sourcing for interior shoots for some of your favourite homes magazines; The Telegraph Magazine, Stella, Elle Decoration Country, Elle Decoration, YOU Magazine, Country Homes & Interiors, Country Living, Homes & Antiques, Homes & Gardens.

Ali Heath Cropped

After the excitement of Christmas and all the traditions that abound, the start of a new year for me acts as a marker for fresh beginnings and a time for new thinking. I’ve never been one for new year resolutions that get broken before they begin, but I am a great believer in getting excited about plans for the year ahead, whether for home, work or for family. So instead of January being a month of doom and gloom, I view it as a period of forward thinking and fun.

Working as an interior journalist and stylist I am obsessive about home interiors and am constantly collecting, curating and creating new looks and layouts within my own home. Objects and furniture move frequently and paint colours are forever changing. The ability to transform the look of your living space need not cost the earth and hunting for bargains and new treasures is always on my radar. I don’t usually go out looking for specific items but I immediately know when i've found something right as my pulse will start racing and the urge to bring my new found treasure home will often prove too much. The stylist in me is immediately thinking where it will work best, and with what.

If you are looking for something unique then it is good to search beyond the high street, the real treasures are often tucked away at fairs and auctions. These special one-of-a-kind gems will be even more precious as you’ll be unlikely to see them in use or on display in someone else’s home. I will never forget finding an art deco butterfly mirror at an early morning fair in the dark, it was pouring with rain and I was heavily pregnant. I had seen a similar mirror on the cover of Elle Decoration and had the image in my source book of ‘hope to finds’. It is the best and quickest £60 I have ever spent, this bargain find has looked gorgeous in my daughter’s room ever since. The stories about how you discover your best pieces and the historical provenance that comes with them adds to the personal value.

Fairs and shows can be addictive and once hooked you will feel compelled to visit just in case you chance upon that special piece. Having spent a lifetime sourcing at such events I have the following tips to give you a head start next time you are out treasure hunting.

1. Check out which fairs you are keen to attend and then make sure you arrive well before the fair actually opens. You want to allow time to ensure you are positioned right at the front of the gates for opening, as believe me the best pieces will be scooped up really quickly once the hoards go through.

2. Wear the correct gear – trainers or comfy shoes will become your best friend on the day, as  will a hat, gloves, wellies and a raincoat in bad weather. Preparation is everything.

3. Take a bag for smalls, maybe a small trolley and a car or van large enough to transport the treasures you plan to find. Ensure you have enough blankets or bubble-wrap to cover goods and ropes or bungee cords to secure furniture in the back, the last thing you want it to get home and find your haul is damaged.

4. Do bring a torch – it will often be dark and a bit of light will ensure you can scan stands quickly. Carry a tape measure if size is key – don’t assume someone else will have one. Take notes on your phone or in a notepad if you need to remember where the stand is located that you have purchased from - it is easier to collect pieces after you have finished your trawl of the fair. Take a note of the dealer’s number in case you get lost.

5. Take cash – you will always get a better price if you offer cash. Cheques are a thing of the past and cash ensures faster sales and no concern on the dealer’s behalf about whether the cheque is guaranteed.

6. Don’t pretend to be a dealer if you are not. It will disengage the trader you are negotiating with, they seem to have a sixth-sense for who is trade and who isn't. Do bargain a little – if you only have a set amount to spend ask them what their best price is. They will generally be straight with you. Once you know if you can afford it don’t waste their time being indecisive – if they miss sales because of you they’re likely to get annoyed, especially at a busy event. Avoid offering silly (low) prices for things if you want to nurture a good relationship with traders.

7. If you are looking for a key piece then be quick – scan stalls as you walk past at speed. Dithering and stopping to look at things you do not want will waste time and probably mean you will miss out on the exact piece you're looking for.

8. Trust your instinct. If you think a dealer seems a bit odd and the goods being sold a little suspect, in terms of quality or authenticity, then move on, your hunch will generally prove to be true.

9. Try and avoid copies and fakes. A little bit of research beforehand can avoid costly mistakes. Make sure you know what you are looking for. If expensive, ask the dealer for a receipt dating the piece. If not authentic the dealer is less likely to give you an official receipt.

10. If you are looking for a specific high value piece, it is advisable to pay an expert to go with you and help guide you.

11. If you fall in love with a piece on the day then go with it. The chances are you might not find that item again and if the cost seems ok and justifies the reward then don’t miss the chance. Trends will come and go, so trust your own judgement and eye.

12. Take down dealer details – they can be useful contacts for future hunting.

Above all, enjoy the buzz of the find – there is nothing as satisfying as the euphoria you feel when driving back with a car full of booty!

Ali Heath Interior stylist and writer www.aliheath.co.uk twitter: @thestylistguide 

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