Maybe a piece of furniture has been passed down in your family throughout the years – a grandmother’s charming writing desk, for example, or an heirloom cedar chest. Or maybe you’re going to a flea marketing hoping to find that perfect exquisitely carve antique French parlor chair. These pieces definitely look, well, old (like they’ve seen better times), but the question becomes “is it really antique?”
Here are some clues to discovering its history:
- Embrace the imperfections! With antique furniture, the more “imperfect” a piece appears, the better the chance it’s the real deal. Today, most furniture is machine-made; the entire production process is engineered to produce, basically, furniture “clones” (perfectly made, time after time). With antiques each chair leg, chest drawer or cabinet shelf was hand-crafted. As a result, each of the four legs of a chair or each drawer of a chest will probably have some slight differences. Maybe the edges are slightly uneven, maybe there’s a nick, maybe one area of the wood looks warped, possibly the patterns and carvings aren’t exactly identical. These are signs it was handmade and very probably antique!
- Be a “dovetail” detective! Dovetailing is a type of furniture joint in which the ends of two pieces interlock, forming a corner (similar to the way puzzle pieces “snap” together). The sides of drawers are the most common place to find a dovetail joint. With antiques, the notches and grooves will not be identical. One of the notches might be wider while another might be a little skinnier. One of the grooves might be a little more wedge-shaped while another might be more triangular. (Dovetail joints on machine-made furniture, on the other hand, will appear as if punched out from the same cookie-cutter mold.”)
Now, the next question you have might be, “Is my antique piece worth anything?”
- “Seal” of approval: If in the 1800’s, a man pretty handy at carpentry decided to make his own desk, just for himself, he most likely wouldn’t put his signature on it. A company, whose sole purpose was to craft furniture, on the other hand, would definitely put their “signature” (their label) on their piece to indicate that the piece of furniture was a legitimate product from their company. Their label information would include their company name, its location and possibly the year it was produced (or the founding year of the company). These labels are commonly found on the insides of drawers, underneath the table top of chair bottom, or on the backs of larger pieces. If you find a label, the piece came from a company (or a craftsman) and probably has more cache on the market.
- Condition, condition, condition: If you really have your heart set on finding a valuable piece of antique furniture, the condition is vital! There are a couple of facets of “condition criteria” to consider.
- Age condition: Consider a 200-year-old chair – is the piece in decent shape? (Hopefully, the feet are not shredding and splintering like bales of hay! Fingers crossed, it doesn’t look like it will collapse with one touch!) Optimally, the chair would have a “neat” appearance (and is not covered in grime and soot).
- Original condition: An antique piece of furniture in its “original” condition increases in value tremendously. This means that the piece still retains its original veneer (it wasn’t refinished or repainted). Also, the original fabric is still intact and in fairly good condition.
Since antique furniture is a bit of a wild card on the auction market (like fashion, trends and styles might be popular one year and the black sheep of the furniture world the next year), most experts will say the important decision-making factor is to simply buy a piece you love. So do a little research! A plethora of furniture styles exist! To start, furniture styles are often named by the period or “reign” in which they were made (i.e. “Tudor,” “Victorian” or “Napoleonic”). Sometimes, furniture styles are named after their “inventor” (i.e. “Chippendale”). Some are identified by artistic style (i.e. “Rococo” or “Art Deco”). Read up on and look at images of pieces that are exemplary of their category. If you find a category you like, dig a little deeper and find out if there were famous craftsmen or companies during that period. Pieces attributed to those celebrated craftsmen or companies will be worth more.
One final note: Antique furniture traditionally implies that the piece is over 100 years old. Vintage pieces are younger, so the currently-popular, sleek and minimalistic styles of mid-century modern (imagine the set of Mad Men) and art deco (again, imagine the set of the 2013 The Great Gatsby film) would actually be considered vintage, not antique.