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How To Identify Antique & Vintage Furniture

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Tips on Buying & Identifying Antique & Vintage Furniture

Identifying antique furniture at auction is not easy for the amateur buyer.  Many people buying antique and vintage furniture understand little about what they are purchasing, whether as an investment, because they like the pieces or simply as furniture for their homes. Investors could be collectors, dealers or just ordinary people with cash to spend hoping they can sell it in a year or so to make money.

It makes no difference what your objective is, although genuine collectors and antique dealers will have a better knowledge of the business than most. Whether you purchase at an auction house or on an online auction such as eBay, it pays to know what to look for and how to avoid costly mistakes.

Identifying antique furniture is perhaps not as important as checking that it is, in fact, antique, and you could generally take the identification processes of the auction house or online auction seller as being fairly accurate. OK, some may pass off a Victoria settee as early George III, but unless you are well acquainted with how to identify such fraud, or perhaps misleading listings, you simply have to take such things at face value and trust the auctioneer, or in the case of EBay, their payment processor PayPal to offer protection on the form of a refund.

Here are a few tips on buying antique and vintage furniture, irrespective of from where you are purchasing it: at auction (e.g. eBay or Sotheby's), from an antique store or market, or even from an acquaintance making you an offer. Some may even help you in identifying antique furniture as opposed to vintage or '.retro'

Meaning of 'Antique Furniture'

When you are considering buying antique and vintage furniture, first make sure you understand the terms. The definition of antique depends on where you live. It is generally accepted that an article of furniture must be at least 100 years old to be described as antique.  However different countries and states have their own legal definitions for tariff and tax purposes such as the state of Nevada in NRS 647.012: “Antique” means a unique object of personal property that is not less than 60 years old and has special value primarily because of its age.

However, it is apparent that there is no legal obligation as such and identifying antique furniture to be not so much as antique as 'old', and with little value, will likely offer you little redress in law unless the deception was deliberate fraud.

Meaning of 'Vintage Furniture'

Vintage has no specific time scale, even though some might claim differently. It is a term stolen from the wine industry and refers to a specific date or period. In terms of furniture, it may or may not be antique. A table of 'Chippendale vintage' means only that is was made during the time that Thomas Chippendale was in business (mid to late 18th century). That is an antique, but not made by Chippendale. Similarly, a table of WW2 vintage is just that - an old table made during or around the Second World War.

Other Terms - 'Retro' is meaningless: it generally means that the piece is a copy of furniture typical of a previous era, such as the typical retro free-standing kitchen cabinets of the 1950s and 60s: two cupboards below, two drawers in the middle and two glass-doored cupboards at the top painted in any color you like.  'Victorian retro' is simply a copy of Victorian designs

Look for Sturdy Frames - When buying antique and vintage furniture, check the internal frames. This is an important aspect of identifying antique furniture.  If the frames are in good condition then it is likely that the piece has been well looked after. You can easily have a table top French polished, but if the frame has to be rebuilt then it is no longer an antique.

Holes are not Always Bad - A common aspect of identifying antique furniture is that holes indicate that the larvae of boring beetles have been at work. These might be over 100 years old, and what you should look for are fresh holes: where the wood just inside the hole seems fresh and there may even be some sawdust lying on the upper surface of frames. That means the insects are active and must be treated, but old holes are fine, and some even believe they can add to their value. Some collectors won't purchase sideboards, tables or dressers without some 'value-added' beetle holes that indicate their age!

Avoid Reupholstery - If you are buying antique or vintage furniture that is upholstered, such as piano stools, chairs, sofas, chaise longues and so on, try to avoid pieces that need reupholstering. Often the upholstery itself, if original, can help in identifying antique furniture, but be careful if it is damaged. This not only costs money, but upholstering involves stripping out the old tacks and hammering in new ones, all of which weaken the frames of your furniture and might do the same to its value.

Check for Damage - Make sure you check your furniture for damage, and if purchasing online ask the seller to inform you of any damage - no matter how little. Surface scratches are not a problem, but broken rails or frames can be costly, and a repair is bad news if you are purchasing to resell.

A lot depends on why you are buying antique and vintage furniture. Castles and stately homes are full of antique chairs you could never sit on because they would rip and crumble to dust! That's fine for an investment, but if you intend to use it in your home, make sure the antique and vintage furniture you are buying is serviceable and in good condition.

Know the product! - Last, but not least, know about the type of antique you are buying. Read up about 'Sheraton chairs' or retro 1950's tubular steel designs. That way, you can check out what you are purchasing with authority. Identifying antique furniture is part experience and part knowledge, and education is very important with the latter.

There are many more tips on buying antique and vintage furniture that could help you, but if you keep these eight above in mind when you are viewing and purchasing furniture then you will have a good chance of purchasing a piece that will serve you well for the purpose you are buying it.

If you find identifying antique furniture and distinguishing it from vintage or retro equivalents difficult, then either take the time to learn, or take someone knowledgeable with you to auction - or purchase from an online auction where there are many others to spot any misclassification.

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