Many families have that one piece of antique furniture that's been passed down for so many generations that no one quite knows its origin story. Yet, what was once seen as an eyesore for some has now become a huge movement towards celebrating historic interior design and sustainability. Thankfully, antique furniture isn't as costly as you might think, and while you may be unable to afford an original William and Mary highboy or an Eastlake chair, most people find that there's a perfect piece to add their home without breaking the budget.
What Furniture Is Considered Antique?
The topic of what is and isn't considered an antique is highly debated, and even experts disagree on what constitutes one. Unfortunately, this applies to furniture as well as many other collectibles out there.
If you're basing your definition off of the American philosophy, then according to a 1930 development, the United States government decided that an antique was an item that was at least 100 years old. Interestingly, this was based on making imported items duty free rather than any real advice from the experts in the field. However, many antiques collectors and dealers debate over this common 100-year-old rule; for instance, automobiles are one of the most confusing because of how they label antiques as being only 25 years old. Yet, most furniture collectors largely follow the rule that antique furniture is around 100 years old or older.
How to Identify Antique Furniture
Since antique furniture spans multiple centuries and countless design movements, precisely identifying any antique piece is very difficult for someone that's not really experienced in assessing old furniture. However, that doesn't mean that you can't discern a genuine antique from a fake at a flea market if you're trying to make out with a great deal. If you've got a piece at home or you're looking at picking one up on the fly, there are a few key characteristics that you should run through to see if the piece of furniture in question is actually old or just made to look that way.
Check the Joints
It's all in the joints when it comes to identifying antique furniture. Before Ikea and other ready-to-assemble furniture became the industry standard, furniture was made to last for decades. Thus, the major wear and tear they'd incur were on their joints, and so you can tell dates using joints pretty easily. Mortise and tenon joints with their handmade dowels and pegs were used into the late 17th century, knapp joints with machine crafted furniture in the 1860s, and machine-perfected dovetail joints in the late 19th century.
Look for Labels and Patent Dates
If you can find any lingering pieces of a label on the undersides of drawers, bottom of chairs, dressers, vanities, and so on, then you've got a good chance of the piece being genuinely antique. Old labels should list the patent date, or at the very least, the manufacturer/maker, depending on their age. With a little extra research on their creator, you can better date the pieces to an antique range. These labels are also really useful when it comes to valuation if you're interested in something, as you can compare recent sales to similar pieces and price yours accordingly.
Check for Signs of Physical Damage
Interestingly, finding physical damage can actually be a good sign on certain antique furniture, as those that were made before the mass manufacturing of the industrial age can show obvious signs of the laboring process. Things like saw marks can be a tell that not only was a piece handmade, but that it might have been made from a few hundred years ago. Since there are still people who hand make furniture today, these tells shouldn't be the only sign that you base an antique assessment off of.
See if There's Any Patina
While patina is most typically associated with the specific shine on antique metal goods, it's also frequently used to describe the warm, shiny finish that appears on wood that's been preserved over time. As wood is nourished over the years, it can take on a delightfully deep reflectivity that belies its old age. That being said, patina is hard to assess accurately if you don't really know your woods, so it's not the best choice for novice collectors to assess their antique furniture pieces with.
Familiarize Yourself With Well-Known Historic Furniture Styles
A major element of being able to pick out an authentic antique piece of furniture is knowing what stylistic signs and characteristics to look for. Of course, there are far too many historic design movements to know off the cuff, but there're a few from each century that you need to become passingly comfortable with to become a confident buyer and seller of antique furniture:
The Jacobean style lasted from about 1600 to 1690 and was characterized by straight, heavy proportions. This is the style most people think of when they think of medieval styles and castle furnishings. Some of these characteristics to look for include:
- Geometric motifs
- Heavy, solid proportions
- Double scrolls
- Oversized furniture (such as chairs)
- Usually made out of oak
Early American style was popular between 1640 to 1700 and is based on a simple construction. It's made from local woods and with little carving or decorative design unless the piece was owned by a wealthy household.
Some of the motifs included in these pieces are:
- Acanthus leaves
William and Mary
The William and Mary style was named after the William III and Mary II English monarchial reign from 1689 to 1702, when the style first appeared. The lowboy and the highboy were made popular during this time, and vertical lines were an emphasis of this style.
- Scallop shell
- Acanthus leaf
- Dark walnut
- Curved back splats
- Padded seats
Queen Anne furniture features a more refined approach to the William and Mary style and was fashionable around 1700 to 1755. The most popular pieces of Queen Anne furniture today are the quintessential Queen Anne chairs with their heavy upholstered padding and low seats. Additional characteristics of this well-known elegant style include:
- Cabriole legs
- Pad feet
- Claw and ball feet
- Needlepoint or chintz upholstery
- Ample cushioning
Modeled after Thomas Chippendale's unique mid-Georgian furniture style, popular in the early and mid-18th century, Chippendale furniture features elements derived from several different regional and temporal influences, including Chinese and Gothic architecture and antique motifs. Some of the specific features to look for include:
- Claw and ball feet
- Cherry, mahogany, and walnut woods
- Scroll and cut work
- S-scroll lines
Shaker furniture was produced by the United Society of Believers, often called Shakers, from approximately 1820 -1860. This was a religious group that lived in small, self-contained communities and believed simplicity was the way to peace. Shaker furniture is simple and practical, made with wooden knobs, slat backs, and no decoration. The most prominent piece of furniture found today of these antique Shaker wares are the famous ladder-back chairs that they produced. Coming in both rocking and sedentary styles, these ladder-back chairs still provide inspiration for modern craftsmen today.
One of the most well-known aesthetic styles of the past is undoubtedly the Victorian style. Of course, there're some developments and deviation within the style itself since it spanned such a long period of the 19th century (about 1840-1910) but in general, the furniture was embellished, ornate, and widely popularized as it was the first style to be mass produced using industrial processes.
Some of the common characteristics of the Victorian Period include:
- Plush, decorative upholstery
- Beautiful inlays
- Prominent trims
- Bright, saturated colors
- Balloon backs
Arts and Crafts
The Arts and Crafts period lasted from 1880 to 1910 and includes the more specific Mission style in its overall tenets. This movement was characterized by straight, simple lines and hand craftsmanship. As a response to the Victorian period, Arts and Crafts artisans like Gustav Stickley focused on creating pieces that were blocky and squared off, and had exposed joinery, hammered metals, and iron fastenings. Additional characteristics of this style include:
- Mortise and tenon joinery
- Light and clear staining
- Domestic woods
- Rectilinear designs
Better known for its advertising and jewelry arts, the Art Nouveau movement was a niche style that popped up during the late 19th century in opposition to Arts and Crafts furniture. Art Nouveau was graceful and beautifully embellished, really focusing on taking inspiration from the organic world. Patterns were very detailed and often mimicked those in nature, such as through carvings and illustrations of leaves, flowers, branches.
How Much Does Antique Furniture Cost?
Get ready to clutch your pearls and hold tight to your wallets because the prices of some antique furniture will alarm even the most financially successful people. While there are many pieces that're affordable, what's considered low to mid-priced for furniture is a whole different ballgame than what other collectibles' costs are. Furniture in of itself is one of the last remaining costly expenditures in modern life. Typically, you should expect to pay between $800-$3,500 on piece(s) of antique furniture. Of course, these prices can skyrocket up to the tens of thousands, and drop in the low hundreds at auction depending on buyer interest.
However, a few of the major factors that contribute to these varying prices include:
- Age - Although age isn't a hard and fast rule for antique furniture values, usually the older the pieces are, the less likely they were to survive, and so the more valuable they'll be at market.
- Maker - Pieces from prominent artisans, cabinetmakers, and carpenters will sell at higher prices because of their superior craftsmanship and historical significance. Something handcrafted by Thomas Chippendale is going to be worth way more than an unmarked piece of Shaker furniture.
- Style - Design style directly intersects buyer interest, meaning that whatever the audience is interested in buying is what's going to be considered valuable at any given moment.
- Condition - The ideal and thus most valuable piece of antique furniture has an extremely fine condition, with very little signs of wear and tear, all of its original pieces intact, and no signs of modifications or restorations completed on them.
Best Places to Buy Antique Furniture
Overall, when you're buying or selling antique furniture, the first option you should consider is finding a local shop to buy or sell at. Antique stores, salvage shops, thrift shops, and estate sales are all great places to find antique furniture and avoid the steep costs of shipping. On the other hand, with this method, you're limited to what furniture can be found in the area, and so you won't get the whole scope of historic pieces in your local store. Thus, another great way to find antique furniture is through online retailers and auctions, though you will have to sacrifice a lot of money in shipping.
Some of these online retailers include:
- Old Plank - Old Plank is a Chicago based furniture business that sells antique furniture from a huge time span and a variety of price points.
- Harp Gallery - Harp Gallery is a Wisconsin furniture store that sells all sorts of antique home goods, including furniture, sculptures, clocks, paintings, and more.
- Newel Antiques - Since 1939, Newel Antiques has been in the furniture business, originally renting pieces to Hollywood producers to use in film and television productions. However, they currently sell and consign antique furniture to the broad public.
- One of a Kind Antiques - One of a Kind Antiques has a lot of antique pieces to offer, but their website is a bit slow to load and difficult to navigate, so you should be ready to spend some more time on their website looking for what you want.
- Facebook Marketplace - If you want to avoid shipping costs, looking at what's offered for local pickup on Facebook Marketplace is another good option.
- 1st Dibs - A sleek and modern online antiques auction site that sources inventory from antique dealers around the world, 1st Dibs is best known for all of the antique and vintage furniture that it offers.
Places to Purchase Salvaged Antique Furniture
In addition to auction houses, estate sales, and online retailers, there are also salvage shops that buy furniture from old properties and sell it either in its entirety or sell its materials alone. Often, you can find beautiful pieces for cheap at salvage shops, and while many of these have a revolving inventory at their physical warehouses, a number of them allow you to make purchases online. A few of these salvage companies include:
- Columbus Architectural Salvage - Columbus Architectural Salvage is a furniture salvage shop that sells both complete antique furniture and individual pieces like legs, bases, arms, and so on.
- Charles Philips Antiques - Charles Philips Antiques is a salvage dealer that has most of its inventory for sale at its physical location, but does include a few pieces for sale on the website.
- Olde Good Things - With six physical locations and an online store, Olde Good Things is a salvage company that has just about any type of domestic antique that you can think of.
Tips for Caring for Your Antique Furniture
Buying antique furniture is typically pretty expensive, so it's important that you do everything you can to make sure that whatever pieces you've found maintain their value overtime. This is especially true if you're intending to add a lot of wear and tear to your new pieces in the immediate future.
Should You Refinish or Repair?
Generally speaking, it's not a good idea to have antique furniture refinished or repainted. Antique collectors love the look of the worn woods, the patina that is only built up by years of wear, and the character that's built from scratches and dents. However, if you really want to add a fresh coat of paint, then you should always discuss your options with a certified antique appraiser to make sure that you're not seriously damaging the value.
Additionally, if your furniture needs to be restored or repaired, you should take it to a professional to have the work completed. If it's a matter of replacing some missing hardware, you can probably do it yourself, but when in doubt, find an expert to do the work for you.
Quick Ways to Care for Antique Furniture
There are a few things that you can do for everyday maintenance on your antique furniture:
- Keep everything out direct sunlight and moisture
- Dust it regularly with a soft cloth.
- Nourish woods with wood wax
- Polish any metal pieces
Invest in Furniture That Was Built to Last
It can be easy to fall into the trap of buying antiques as an investment, but the collectors' market for furniture is incredibly nuanced and difficult to master, Therefore, it's best if you focus on choosing items that connect to you and that you want in your immediate space. Although buying antique furniture can be a costly affair, it provides a wonderful link to the past and (with the appropriate care) will last for centuries to come.