Whether you’re an avid antique collector or you just like the look of old furniture, it can be helpful to find out whether the furniture is just old or if it is genuine antique furniture. Not all old furniture is valuable just because of its age but if it turns out that your furniture is a real antique then it could be worth a lot of money.
A flea market can be a treasure trove of antique finds and beautiful vintage furniture but it does require a thorough search to uncover the very best objects. And to be able to find them, it can be helpful to know exactly what to look for so that you can identify antique furniture relatively consistently.
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- 1 Style Isn’t Everything
- 2 What Counts As An Antique?
- 3 How Much Is Antique Furniture Worth?
- 4 What Makes Old Furniture Valuable?
- 5 The Bottom Line
Style Isn’t Everything
Some periods of history have birthed distinctive styles of furniture and if you find a piece in these styles, it does have the potential to be a valuable antique. But it is important to remember that this isn’t always the case. A good quality reproduction of an antique furniture style might look just the same at first glance but it won’t have the same value.
Common Furniture Styles
- William and Mary 1690-1730
- Queen Anne 1720-1760
- Chippendale 1755-1760
- Rococo 1845-1870
So what are the signs that something really is an antique made in the time period it appears to have been rather than a modern reproduction? Let’s take a look.
An Appraisal Is The Only Way To Be Sure
Before we start looking at the telltale signs of antique furniture, it is important to remember that the only way to be absolutely sure is to get your furniture appraised by a professional. They are trained in a wide variety of techniques to be able to tell with certainty when the piece was made.
One of the telltale signs that a piece of wood furniture is antique is to look at the dovetail joints. These are the joints that hold the furniture together. Old furniture will have hand-cut dovetails whereas more modern furniture will have machine cut dovetails.
Hand-cut dovetails will not be uniform in size and will have irregular shapes whereas machine-cut dovetails will have uniform and identically shaped dovetails.
When looking for genuine vintage furniture, another aspect to look for is the hardware. These are elements like drawer and cupboard handles. Like the dovetail joints, handmade furniture may have hardware that is irregular compared to the identical hardware found with machine-made furniture.
Genuinely old furniture is often made with a mixture of wood types whereas modern furniture tends to be made out of a single type of wood. So if you find a piece of furniture that has different parts of it that have been made of a different type of wood to the rest of it, you might be looking at an antique.
Very old furniture tends to be made of oak and furniture made after 1700 will often be made of mahogany or walnut, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Crucially, old furniture will be made of solid wood throughout.
Look For Labels
Sometimes you will find labels or stamps with dates or the name of a furniture maker somewhere on a piece of furniture and this will be a good sign that it is a piece of old furniture rather than a reproduction.
Another good sign that furniture has been made by hand rather than by machine is the presence of maker’s marks. A good place to look inside and underneath and at the back of the drawers and underneath the furniture itself.
If the furniture was handmade the shape of the hand-cut elements will reflect the tools that were used to craft it. So there will be nicks and cuts and you may see straight saw marks. If the furniture was machine made using a circular saw, you will likely see circular or arc-shaped marks.
One of the most overlooked objects to look for to determine if a piece of furniture is genuinely old are the screws. Handmade screws will be single-slot and they won’t be identical. Their edges will be sharp from being hand-filed, the tip will be flat from being cut off, and the overall shape will be cylindrical rather than tapered.
Solid wood furniture made in the early part of the Victorian era will normally have a finish of shellac, and furniture that is even older than that may be finished with oil, milk paint, or wax. A lacquer or varnish veneer signifies a more modern example.
Beware Shabby Chic
The shabby chic style originally used antique furniture but modern reproductions made to look like vintage furniture are also very popular. At first glance, these can look like antiques when they actually aren’t. It is always a good idea to examine the furniture to look for genuine signs of wear and tear. This can be everything from pockets of dirt in the corners of the drawers to worn-down edges on the moving parts of the furniture.
What Counts As An Antique?
When you are looking for antique furniture, it can be helpful to understand some of the definitions used. Generally speaking, an antique dealer will classify an antique as something that is a hundred years old or more. Something that is 50 years old would be classed as vintage furniture rather than antique. Fine antique dealers are those that deal in antiques that are over 150 years old, and these tend to have the highest antique furniture values.
How Much Is Antique Furniture Worth?
Antique furniture values will vary depending on where you are looking to sell it.
- Retail value, also known as replacement value, is a fair assessment of what a buyer would pay to an antique dealer for the furniture, and it is the value used by insurers in their appraisals.
- Wholesale value is the price that antique stores would pay for the piece of furniture. They have to make a profit on it, so the wholesale value is usually 30%-50% less than retail value.
- Auction value is the price that the piece is predicted to make at an auction house and this is most often the mode of sale that estates and attorneys would use. Selling at an auction house does carry with it an element of risk because it depends entirely on who turns up to the auction that day.
What Makes Old Furniture Valuable?
Just because you have found an old piece of furniture, that doesn’t mean that it will be worth a lot of money. There are additional elements beyond the age that can increase the value of an antique piece.
One of the reasons why the value of antique furniture and vintage furniture is so high is because of the great quality of the materials they are often made of (e.g. solid walnut, oak, etc). Beautiful good quality materials will help to increase the value of a piece of furniture compared to furniture that is equally old but made with cheaper materials.
Another reason why antique and vintage furniture is often so highly valued is the craftsmanship. Handmade furniture has a level of craftsmanship that often goes above and beyond that which you will find with machine-made furniture. It can make the furniture stand the test of time and it can simply make it more beautiful to look at.
Generally speaking, the older an antique is, the more valuable it is likely to be. But again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. The furniture has to tick some other boxes beyond its age alone for it to increase in value.
If you know the original owner of a piece of furniture and, even better, you know the name of the maker who created it, this can help to increase its value as an antique. Antiques with a clear statement of provenance are often more valuable than those who have more of a murky past.
Another reason why antiques in general are more valuable than newer pieces is their rarity. For example, it is less likely for a piece of furniture to become an antique by surviving 100 years or more than it is for a piece of furniture to survive 50 years and become vintage furniture. This means that there will be fewer examples of the piece surviving, which can make it more valuable.
Equally, a rarity because of other reasons can also increase the value of a piece of furniture. For example, something that is an unusual size, that was made for a very specialized purpose, or has a unique decoration that is made of unusual materials will be rare and thus more valuable than pieces of the same style that don’t have those elements.
The condition of an antique also has a large impact on its ultimate value. Furniture that is in good condition will be more highly valued than pieces that show signs of damage or previous repairs. Having the original finish or veneer can also be a plus point as can the entire piece being intact.
Painting antique furniture can significantly devalue it so it is vitally important to get an expert opinion on the correct way to repair it without detracting from its price. Painted furniture that is otherwise in good condition can even be valued less than furniture in less good condition but in its original state. If you want to make repairs, an expert will be able to suggest the correct methods that are in keeping with the styles of the time in which the furniture was made.
The Bottom Line
Finding a rare chair or table during your antique search can be an exciting moment and it is important to be able to identify whether the piece is vintage furniture, antique furniture, or something much more modern. There are some definite tips and tricks that can show you a sure sign of the approximate age of the furniture but it is, of course, always best to seek the advice of an expert who will be able to date it for you much more accurately.