In times of economic uncertainty, people search for safer ways to invest their money. Antiques are being touted as good investments now. But are they really?

In times of economic uncertainty, people search for safer ways to invest their money. Antiques are being touted as good investments now. But are they really?

We've all heard of some flea-market find bought for a few dollars that turned out to be worth thousands. The reality of finding such a treasure is only slightly better than hitting the lottery. Yet you can make money investing in antiques if you know what you are doing.

In this new instantaneous culture, many people think anything "old" is an antique. The traditional definition of antique is anything more than 100 years old. Some merchants have shortened that definition to 50 years, but that is more in the "vintage" or "collectible" range.

"Time makes a difference in what is valuable," says longtime collector Sherrell Sears of Jacksonville, original co-founder of Pickety Place. "Availability determines value."

The rarer an item, the more likely it will keep appreciating. Antique furniture seldom loses value, but how much it goes up depends on rarity, style, trends and condition.

"All the furniture I own personally is antique," says Aaron Evans, owner of The Oregon Curiosity Shoppe in Medford. "I get customers every day who are tired of paying for really junky newer stuff. They want furniture they can pass on to their kids. Nice pieces hold their value. And now is the time to buy. I'm seeing some interesting pieces come on the market because people have to make mortgage payments."

To successfully invest, you have to do your homework. Book stores are full of references about antiques, and it is important to learn all you can about anything you want to collect. It is also important to understand what good quality and good condition are, the age of various styles and how to tell the real from the fake. Most collectors say to pick one or two things you like and learn everything about them. Go to shops and shows frequently, watch the prices and ask questions. Most dealers are willing to share their knowledge.

The other thing is to keep up with trends. Although big cities are seeing a new surge in collecting among younger people, the local market doesn't reflect that yet. Here it is still the older generations who value antiques, and most of them have been collecting for years and have bought most of what they want. Younger collectors want things from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Whether those things will maintain their value no one knows.

Know that many things touted as "collectibles" will not necessarily hold their value. Collector plates and Beanie Babies were once big; now thrift stores are full of them.

"The key is to buy the best of whatever it is you collect," says Sherrel Sears. "If you just want stuff because you like the looks, then do that, but for investment you have to buy the very best pieces."

Other antiques that always seem to go up in price are antique guns, tools, old iron kitchenware, really good paintings and advertising signs. Antique jewelry currently seems really hot, but only time will show whether that trend holds.

But antique reproductions of these items are also flooding the market, so the savvy buyer really needs to become an expert to avoid being taken.

And even a really good older piece can lose value if the condition has been harmed. Refinished furniture is worth only a fraction of original-finish items, and it is important to be able to recognize that.

"It's difficult," says Sears. "Whatever you buy, you should buy what you love, buy the best you can find and don't worry about what's going up and down. Maybe you make money on it; maybe you don't."

For investing, be willing to hold an item at least 10 years, which means it should be something you want to live with. And provenance — the history of the piece, where it came from and who owned it — always adds to the value.

When it comes time to sell, sets usually sell better than single pieces, particularly if you have assembled high-quality items.

But remember: Nothing is sure in our unstable economy.