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Hunting For Collectible Cast Iron Cookware

Although learning about its history and acquiring a variety of nice pieces is a large part of the hobby of collecting vintage cast iron cookware, some will tell you that what keeps it most engaging over time is "the thrill of the hunt". Seeking out new pieces for your collection, and making those "lucky finds" are a big part of the fun.

It doesn't take long for most determined collectors to find, exploit, and exhaust the venues for vintage cast iron in their local area. And, although eBay remains a prime source for many, collectors can quickly become disenchanted with the unreasonable pricing often found there, with the inability to conduct a "hands-on" inspection, and with the receiving of pieces in worse-than-expected condition.

Garage/yard/estate sales may seem like a good idea, but the better part of a day can be spent going from one to the next to the next without much to see. Additionally, those not arriving early to such events will likely miss out on whatever was available.

Even if you don't see any iron, it's a good idea to inquire. Garage/yard sale sellers may have some not out on display or that they didn't think would draw any interest.

If you do manage to find something you want, complete the transaction and secure your purchase in your vehicle. Asking the seller or sale manager to hold your selection while you continue to shop may end in frustration if you return to pay only to learn your find has been mistakenly given to another shopper.

The next step, then, is to search for opportunities further from home. This obviously requires time and expense, but, with careful planning, you can make the most of a day trip or some other, scheduled out-of-town travel. Even in these days of expensive auto fuels, you may be able to enjoy a day exploring a destination an hour's drive away for around $20 in gas money.

Internet search engines and their map features are the place to start. Choose a locale to which you plan to travel by entering the city and state names into the search box, and then zoom in to a 10-mile radius view. Next, find potential vendors by, one at a time, typing terms like "antiques", "antique stores", "flea markets", "consignment stores", and "thrift stores" into the search box.

Results of each will appear on the map as numbered dots which correspond to a listing diplayed alongside the map. Clicking and dragging the map slightly, or zooming in may also generate additional nearby results. Change the map style to a traffic view, then select Print from the menu to make hard copies as desired.

Your expectations of finding better pieces should coincide with the category of vendor. Nicer pieces are to be found at antique stores and antique malls, but typically at higher asking prices. At thrift stores, it's usually a matter of happening to make a lucky find on any given day. Indoor or permanent flea markets represent a middle ground in that their bigger vendors are usually involved in handling estate sales, meaning the iron they do acquire is often in decent shape and the prices are usually negotiable.

Consignment store finds can be tricky. The format followed by most is to reduce the price of items the longer they remain unsold, usually by increasing a percentage discount at 30-day intervals. You may, therefore, find yourself pressed to pay more than you want rather than risk finding the item gone before the next discount interval passes. Price tags are marked according to date of arrival, and there will be a discount schedule posted.

If you own some of the popular collector guide books, bring them with you to help with identification and valuation. Another powerful tool is the eBay® smartphone app, which can search completed sold listings and help you determine current selling prices.

The name of a business can often be a tip as to what to expect. Store names like "Antiques and Interiors" or "Antiques and Gifts" frequently mean you're going to find more items of the latter category in each. You can also safely exclude, in most cases, the search results that appear to be collectibles shops, such as those for comic books or baseball cards.

Try also to determine from your map those results which are located in residential areas. These listings are often the homes of antique dealers who have no actual retail location to visit. Bird's eye and street views on internet search engine maps can be helpful in showing you the locations and their surroundings.

Often, map listings will include a website URL if the vendor has one, where you may be able to view photos and find out operating hours. There may also be links to customer reviews, but bear in mind that, good or bad, they may not necessarily be truthful representations of the vendor. It may be prudent to phone the most promising-looking vendors before your trip, to make sure they will be open when you arrive.

Most dealers these days will have a facebook presence. Pages typically have hours of operation listed and a map for directions. Browse the photo section of such pages to get a feel for the general types of offerings, or the lack thereof. Bear in mind that photos are a snapshot of moments in time, so that which you see of interest may be long gone. Photo posting dates are therefore worth noting.

Once you do arrive in your chosen cast iron hunting locale, use the map application on your smartphone to help navigate the area. By applying the same search criteria in your phone's map app, you may also find additional results not on your previously-generated computer map. The biggest plus here, however, is that your phone can also function as a GPS while in the map app, letting you know in real time your proximity to your chosen stop. Keep your eyes on the road, though, and pull over in a safe spot before checking your position.

Since the areas you visit may be unfamiliar to you, remain alert and aware of your surroundings. Some vendors may be located in less than completely safe locations, and, since it's likely you'll be carrying cash for a potential purchase, you'll want to be extra careful.

Many times, in an unfamiliar locale, you won't know the potential of a given vendor until you walk in the door. Suffice it to say that if all you see upon entering are ultra-expensive interior decor pieces or, conversely, nothing more than yard sale junk, you're better off not wasting either your or the proprietor's time. And, if upon entering a venue, you are met with the overwhelming aroma of potpourri, you should probably lower your expectations of cast iron success there.

At some places, there may be available for the taking publications in the form of pamphlets or newspapers listing local area antique vendors. Look for them in racks near the door or on the counter.

Pay attention at any venue you visit for sale signage. Individual vendor booths may have percentage discounts posted for all or parts of their inventory. Be sure to bring it to the cashier's attention when checking out, as they typically do not keep track of each dealer's sales promotions.

At many such venues, you may find your efforts to negotiate a better price roadblocked by an established house policy. It is not uncommon for managed antique malls or flea markets to set a pricing threshhold below which they will not consider offers or phone their absentee sellers with offers, typically on items priced at $20 to $25 or less.

Keep notes on each of your stops, and take photos if you can. If you make enough of these kinds of trips, memories of the places you visit can tend to blur together. Documenting your hunting trips will also help you eliminate the unproductive venues from your itinerary should you return to the area again in the future.

Hunt for iron efficiently. Bringing along a friend, spouse, partner or significant other who also enjoys collectible vintage cast iron-- or any other collectible in a similar vein for that matter-- can make your iron hunting trip more enjoyable and productive. At many venues, there is far, far more to see than just iron, so it may take quite a bit of time to check every aisle, booth, bay or corner by yourself.

If you can "divide and conquer" at each stop, with each person looking out for the other's favored items as well as their own, it will mean you will be able to visit more places in a single day's hunting. If necessary, make your own "picker's flyer" to assist you in remembering the kinds of things you're looking for; it can even be shown to vendors who might have what you're seeking, but just currently not on display.

Iron Hunting Checklist

  • Full tank of gas
  • Maps of potential destinations
  • Cash - in a variety of denominations
  • LED pocket flashlight (with fresh batteries) - to check for cracks and damage
  • Straightedge or plastic triangle square - to check for warping
  • Collector's guide books - to help identify and estimate value
  • Cell phone
  • GPS or smartphone GPS app - for driving directions
  • Digital camera or smartphone with camera
  • Pen & notepad
  • Snacks & drinks
  • Comfortable footwear
  • Moist towelettes - for after handling sticky or rusty iron
  • Hunting buddy - two sets of eyes are better than one

Being Diligent

So, let's say you've just found a pan you've been wanting for a long time. And it has a tag on it with a price you're more than willing to pay. Or maybe more than you'd like to pay. Or no price tag. But you really want it.

The biggest cause of buyer's remorse is a rush of adrenalin, which can blind you to flaws and cloud your judgement, especially if the item happens to be obviously underpriced. So, stop. Take a breath. Exhale. Now, let's make sure your excitement isn't going to get the better of you.

Check the condition. Find a flat surface to check for warping. Look closely at the sidewalls for cracks. You brought your pocket flashlight, didn't you? Look closely inside and out for evidence of pitting. Very closely. Does it meet your standards for condition? No? Put it down and keep moving. If it does, then proceed to Negotiating A Price.

Negotiating A Price

Some people prefer a trip to the dentist over haggling for a better price, but it really isn't all that painful. For most antiques, collectibles, or any used item in general, the price on the tag is just a starting point. You should never feel bad about asking-- in a courteous manner, of course-- for a better price. The worst that can happen is being told no, and hopefully as courteously as you asked.

Some examples:

Could you do any better on this one/both of these?
What's your best price on this one?

Sometimes just broaching the subject is all that's required; most sellers would rather be perceived as accommodating than as hard to do business with.

What's today's special price on these?

Keep your ears open. If you overhear another shopper successfully negotiate a better price, your odds of doing the same are increased.

Items marked "firm". Sometimes firm doesn't necessarily mean non-negotiable. It may just mean "don't insult me with a lowball $5 offer on an item priced $20". Occasionally, "firm" prices can be softened when purchasing multiple items.

Price tags can actually hold clues to a seller's willingness to negotiate. Setting prices according to round figures is a natural tendency. Although the big box retail stores like to think they're using marketing psychology effectively, we all know that $99.99 is still one hundred dollars.

So, when you see a price like $11, $17, $22, or $33, you can be fairly sure the seller has built a pre-set margin for negotiation into that marked price, and will likely take $10, $15, $20, or $30, respectively, without so much as the bat of an eye. All you need do is ask. Nicely. You may be surprised to get an even better price than those if the seller is motivated to move the item.

No price tags can mean a couple of things. The first, and the one you should be most hopeful of, is that everything's negotiable. The second is that the seller has decided to quote prices only upon request, and probably wants to size up your ability to pay a price higher than lower before doing so.

If the latter case, it's most important that you know values, and that you stick to your guns (and your budget). The seller may need to pay their rent, or they may just need a few dollars in cash to buy lunch that day. You could very well have that new piece for your collection for just the price of a footlong sub sandwich.

Happy Hunting!