Antique furniture knowledge is a scary proposition for any diy home goddess. “How am I supposed to know if a piece of furniture is an antique?” you are shouting at me. I can hear you. I promise I can! There are so many fakes out there, you remind me. Reproduction pieces. Revival pieces. Good ones. Bad ones. How can a diy home goddess tell if what she is looking at is real?
Well, I am not an expert on antique furniture knowledge by any means. I did lots of research and collected some books (see later on in the post for my recommended research).
I have gotten taken a time or two, like when I picked up a couple of night stands at an antique flea market, when the dealer said they were mahogany, a matched set, and pretty old. Nope! They were maybe forty years old. And they were definitely not mahogany. The wood was too soft, which I found out when I tried to sand off the layers of paint!
I have found antiques by accident as well, vintage furniture like my poker table, by looking up the label on the underside while I was considering the purchase, as well as items such my radio, which they sold me as one from the 1950’s, when I found out later is was only made in 1938 and 1939! It’s a matter of doing some research first.
What Is An Antique?
There are a few key tidbits of antique furniture knowledge you should know, in order to get started.
- An antique, whether it’s furniture, jewelry, dishes, or anything, by definition, is something that is at least 100 years old.
- Vintage means anything that is 50-100 years old. Some say it only has to be 20 years old, I guess it depends on what the market says styles are currently vintage.
- A collectible has no age limit, it is just something people are willing to collect.
- A reproduction is an exact replica of an antique, but has no value as an antique. It looks just like the original, but it is machine made, and mass produced.
- A revival is a stylized version of the original antique. It is definitely older, possibly hand made, and what does ‘stylized’ mean anyway? I haven’t figured that out yet.
RADAR – The Key to Antique Furniture Knowledge
What is that! I know, I understand. No, I am not asking for any intuition you don’t currently have. This is something to keep in mind, and that you will acquire over time. RADAR is an acronym of what people will use to look for antiques.
- Rarity – few were made, or few still exist; unusual looking in some way
- Aesthetics – if you love it or would change nothing about it; get in touch with museums and art galleries to see what is aesthetically pleasing.
- Desirability – is it coveted, or was it a passing fad that never came back?
- Authenticity – this is where the research comes in. Signatures, styles, carvings, shapes, colors, time periods, materials… the list goes on and on.
- Really good condition – what kind of condition is it (mint, excellent, good) Damage can possibly be a negotiating tool. Also check to see what kind of repairs that have been done, which may decrease the value, if that matters to you for resale value.
What To Do:
The first thing you want to do is gain yourself some knowledge. You can start by doing some basic research on the internet. Some good websites are:
http://www.timothy-corrigan.com/antiques/knowledge_center.html – Useful for learning the lingo and the history behind antique periods.
http://theantiquesalmanac.com Useful for tidbits on all kinds of antiques.
Maybe pick up a book or two, if you are a diy home goddess like me, and have to have something in your hands to hold.
Antiquing for Dummies – by Ron Zoglin – I know. The title. But for a newbie, there’s nothing wrong with this book. I’ve got several For Dummies books on topics I like. www.dummies.com or your local bookstore.
Warman’s Antiques and Collectibles – They come out with a new book every year, showing prices and descriptions, and the book covers everything from glass to furniture to pop culture items (see what I said about vintage!).
Kovel’s Antiques and Collectibles – Another annual book like Warman’s, that covers prices of various antique items, but they also discuss what to look for. This kind of book would be good if you are looking for a specific style, or maybe depression era glass.
Books on how to deal with flea markets may give you some tidbits as well, such as the Kovel’s Flea Market Strategies. Here’s my experience on flea markets.
Next, Start the Treasure Hunt
The next step, is the most important step in gaining that elusive antique furniture knowledge. Handling the merchandise is the best way to learn about antiques. Most places will let you look through and examine items. Especially if it is a big store, and there’s only one or two sales clerks! Just start looking at everything. Pick things up. Turn it over. Look inside things. Check for markings. Take a magnifying glass with you if you have one. Examine any damage. Have your phone and do internet research while you are there. Take pictures, come home, and do more research. These are specialty stores, so there’s a good chance you will be able to go back in a day or two and still have what you were looking at available for sale.
A Chart to Give You a Start
This is not a complete list, by any means. And, this is not a guarantee at all that it will lead to an antique. But this will give you a heads up on what to look for when you are starting your search for the perfect item.
|Question to look at||Good chance it’s old||Good chance it’s new|
|Dovetails||Irregular, small||Perfectly matched|
|Worm holes||Crooked, maneuvering||Straight|
|Hardware||Each one slightly different||Perfectly matched|
|Wood + Nails||Old + Old||Old + New or New + Old|
|Wood||Different types in underside and drawers||All the same|
|Smell||Moldy, musty, mildewy||Fresh wood, just smells new|
|Glue||With dowels, mortise or tenons||No dowels or stuff|
|Carvings||Uneven, asymmetrical, not perfect||Smooth, symmetrical, perfect|
|Wear||Places with most contact of body||All over|
|Spindles/Slats||Different sizes (slats are wider)||Same size|
|Saw cuts||Straight lines||Looks like a circular saw did it|
In addition, there are a few other tips to keep in your antique furniture knowledge arsenal:
- Check where the drawer runners are. There should be lots of wear, showing years of age and use.
- Look on the underside for some kind of signature. Then check out the internet for verification of who it is. Also see if there’s another tip to use that will verify the signature is valid. A good example is Tiffany’s. Just because the lamp has the Tiffany’s name on it, doesn’t mean it’s legit. Look into what kind of glass that was used to see if it’s a match.
- Boards will separate at the seams over time, leaving gaps.
- Wood was not a consistent color throughout back in the day. If it’s all an even color match, it is probably newer.
- Are there any black marks on the wood to indicate water damage (such as plants being on a side table for years).
- Nicks and dings on the corners
- If there is a slightly darker area right around the edge of the hardware, there’s a good chance it’s the original hardware, and it’s never been removed.
Who Are You Dealing With?
When shopping, for antiques at a store, you should ask the dealer the following questions (taken directly and word for word from this website: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0092-shopping-antiques:)
- How long have you been a dealer?
- Do you belong to any professional organizations, like dealer associations, appraiser associations, or organizations related to specific types of merchandise?
- Do you specialize in certain items? Dealers who specialize can teach you a lot about telling the difference between real antiques, reproductions, and fakes.
- Do you carry reproductions? If dealers have reproductions mixed in with antiques, the reproductions should be labeled clearly. If they’re not, be careful: Some reproductions are so well done that even experts can have trouble recognizing them for what they are.
- How do you know the item is genuine and not a fake or reproduction?
- How did you determine the price for the item?
- What criteria did you use to identify the item?
- Will you guarantee the authenticity of the item in writing? If the dealer isn’t willing to give you a guarantee, don’t disqualify the purchase. Many dealers buy items without absolute certainty about their authenticity, but the price should reflect that.
- What is your return policy? A reputable dealer should agree, in writing, to take back anything that was misrepresented.
The Big Finish on Antique Furniture Knowledge
I, personally, am more into collecting and gaining antique furniture knowledge than I am into collecting dolls, glass, coins, jewelry, art, or any of the other dozens of categories of antiques out there. I don’t know why, but furniture just speaks to me. So I am offering only a small amount of advice here, on what I have learned. But your best bet is to specialize. Here’s a website that gives you an idea on just how many categories there are on antiques, whether antique, vintage, pop culture… you get the picture. Find one type of antique that you are interested in, one that speaks to you, and learn as much as you can. On the internet. In books. By shopping! And hopefully falling in love with something to buy for the diy home goddess that you are. Because you deserve it!