The allure of antiques is attributed to the richness and tradition that a historical piece instantly adds to your home.
Whether it’s a vintage Victorian lamp or an Edwardian mahogany writing table, an antique also adds a subtle touch of mystery and intrigue ? where did it come from? How was it acquired? Was it used by royalty?
Whether you’re interested in becoming an antiquing expert or remaining a happy enthusiast, there are some basic things you should know before buying anything. We at StyleChicago have compiled a list of guidelines and suggestions to help you find the perfect piece of history to bring into your home.
What makes something “antique?”
There is a clear-cut way to classify something as an antique. To be considered “antique,” according to US Customs, a piece must be at least 100 years old. Anything else is typically vintage, collectible, or retro.
9 Questions to Help You Determine if Something is Antique
You know that an antique is at least 100 years old, but how can you be sure that the piece you’re considering was crafted an entire century ago?
Whether you’re unsure of the age of a piece, want to make sure that the age is accurate or want to ensure that the antique has its original parts, there are little things that should tip you off. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the piece made from materials that are rarely used in modern production?
- Do the details look hand-painted, or did a machine create them?
- Does the style of the piece reflect a certain time period?
- For wood: How thick is the veneer? (Older veneer is thicker than modern.)
- Are there square pegs and/or irregularly shaped nails, reminiscent of older times?
- For tables: Is the underside of the table lighter than the top? (It should be.)
- Are carvings/details identical, reminiscent of machine work?
- For wood: Is there darker wood around the hardware, indicating original hardware? (Shadows inconsistent with the hardware will tell you that the hardware isn’t original)
- Are there dirt in the crevices that have always been hard to clean?
Remember, as a 100-year-old item, an antique will most likely show its age.
Slight wear, even for an item in mint condition, is understandable, but don’t fall for a piece with countless cracks, as damage decreases the value.
An antique will often have the mark of the manufacturer or designer, helping you further determine the time period and authenticity of the piece.
You may need a magnifying glass to find it, but definitely look for one, as it can reveal so much with once glance. Once you find the Marker’s Mark, if you are unable to identify it, look through guides (several are online) that feature illustrations & accompanying time periods with each mark.
4 Basic Tips to Help Determine Value
Once you’ve determined that you’re in the presence of a true antique, how do you know what it’s truly worth?
1. Do your homework.
Research the particular piece you are looking for to avoid overpaying – comparison shop at antique malls, look up auction prices, flip through price guides (keep in mind that the auction price for an item is typically less than its retail value).
You can also play detective with the specific piece you’re interested in. For example, if there is a lock on the item, look up the lock maker’s name.
Don’t by shy about talking to dealers either. After all, they’re in this business because they love antiques and should be willing to talk about them. Just don’t take advantage of their kind willingness to share – you still need to do your own research.
2. Look for quality craftsmanship.
Think hand carving on wood or large, uneven dovetailing (where wood pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, without glue) on drawers – these indicate that meticulous efforts and care went into the creation of the piece.
Chips and cracks definitely decrease the value of a piece, so ask to see the back of the piece as well as the feet and the drawers to make sure it is in mint (or very good) condition.
Ask yourself the 9 questions and perform the 3 tests you’ve read about to help determine how much the piece is really worth. Run your fingers around the rims of pottery, and hold glassware up to the light to better expose cracks. Steer clear of anything that is excessively worn and damaged.
3. Use an appraiser.
If you do decide to go the professional route and have an appraiser help determine the value of a piece, never choose an appraiser that has two agendas in mind.
For example, never agree to an appraiser’s taking a percentage of an object’s appraised value as a fee for the appraisal service – it provides a financial incentive for an appraiser to unnecessarily inflate his estimate of an antique’s value.
Also be cautious of hidden hourly fees when dealing with an appraiser, because they will have no vested interest in the final appraisal price.
To avoid such complications, the Chicago Appraisers Association recommends hiring an independent appraiser who represents the client and not the antique shop or auction you buy and sell from. Appraisers tend to give the median price for an antique as opposed to low or high-end price.
Stop by SUSANIN’S Auctions on Thursdays for their free Antiques-Roadshow-type appraisal days, titled “Discovery Days.”
If you see “firm” written on a price tag, this means that the dealer absolutely must have that amount. If there is no such indication, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the dealer, “Is that your best price?”
Since you’ve done your homework (you have, haven’t you?), you won’t have to worry about offering an embarrassingly low rate. Keep it respectable, and remember that if you buy more than one item, you may get a better deal.
And the most important tip of all… Buy what you like and have fun doing it!
Originally published in November of 2007, edited and re-published in November of 2016