Lovers of antique and vintage furniture and other decor know there’s nothing like the thrill of finding the perfect piece for your collection and getting it for a great price. The popularity of home design TV shows has helped fuel the passion for antiquing, but how do you know that what you are buying is authentic? Vintage furnishing fans and other home decor experts offer up some guidelines to help you on your shopping journey.
Find Your Style
The thrill of the hunt isn’t just in the store. In fact, looking through magazines and online can help you determine what speaks to you and what you might expect to pay, says Sarah Barnard, a California designer. “Learning more in advance of in-person shopping can also help to spot trends and rarities,” she says. ”Becoming familiar with materials and silhouettes will be helpful both in trying to identify items at markets or fairs and in noticing any unique variations that can make an object more special or rare.”
Consider Emotional Worth
As with any purchase, sometimes our emotions get the best of us and we purchase something that we might regret later, especially if the item was pricey. With antiquing, the opposite might be true so if a piece catches your eye, think about the remorse you may feel if you don’t take it home.
“Finding limited and one-of-a-kind items is one of the great joys of vintage shopping,” says Robin DeCapua, a home stager with Madison Modern Home. “If you see something you love, it can be tempting to try and shop for something similar at a better price. However, when shopping for vintage or antique items, it's common for even identical pieces to have unique differences due to time or use that may be difficult to identify without seeing them in person." DeCapua recommends taking your time with any piece that stands out because it may be difficult to find the same antique again, later on.
Find Reputable Sellers
Though you cannot be 100% sure of a seller’s honesty, you can do due diligence and read online reviews and if possible, get personal insights from other antique enthusiasts. This can be even more important when attending huge shows like The Round Top Antiques Show held twice a year in Texas.
“These shows can be overwhelming, with hundreds of vendors selling everything from furniture to jewelry. It's essential to research and find a dealer you trust,” says Barry Gray, a woodworker and founder of the site The Tool Square. “Many vintage and antique pieces have been around for decades, if not centuries, and will show signs of wear and tear. This is necessarily a good thing, as it adds to the character and charm of the piece. However, it's essential to be aware of any damage or repairs that have been made to the piece. A reputable dealer will disclose any damage or repairs and provide detailed photos of the item.”
Bringing a black light along for your shopping trip can also help you uncover any damage or repairs that aren’t readily apparent. Reyne Hirsch, an antique expert and former appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow,” explains the process: “Take an object into a dark space and wave a blacklight slowly over the item. If part of it luminesces, that shows some level of repair.” You can pick up a pocket-sized black light for less than $10 on Amazon or at other retailers.
Any damage or repair on an antique piece is worth substantially less than one in better condition, so unless it has historical value, Hirsch recommends you pass on it and search for one with little to no damage. Grays says a good seller will have documentation about the item and can answer any questions you have about its history and authenticity.
Check for Markings
There are quick ways to know if a piece is the real deal. First, look at any markings on the back of a plate, dresser, or inside a drawer. DeCapua advises shoppers to look for a maker’s mark on ceramics first. “Once you're a real pro at this, invest in a reference book that identifies many of these marks,” she says. “Bring it with you to play vintage sleuth.”
The back of artwork from another era can also provide clues to its authenticity. Virginia Chamlee, artist and author of the best-selling book Big Thrift Energy, says the back of older art will look a lot more rudimentary than new canvases. It might even be affixed to the frame with hand-cut nails. “Some older canvases are even stamped, which can be very helpful in dating a piece," she says. "The National Portrait Gallery keeps a database of these stamps and it's super-helpful if you buy a lot of older art."
Don't Be Afraid to Ask
Searching for a shopping score is often about luck. Take the time to go up and down every aisle and look in every corner of a store. “Many have back rooms where they pile stuff before it goes out. Politely ask if you can skim through it,” says DeCapua. “They may decline, but it never hurts to ask. You'll be beating others to the sale, as these pieces haven't even hit the shelves yet.”
Look at what’s on the walls as well. “If something catches your eye, ask for help to bring it down so you can get a good look at it,” she says. “I once found a large 1942 painting from a Russian artist for $60. I ended up selling it on eBay for way more—it now hangs in a Russian art gallery in the Midwest.”
And it doesn’t hurt to discuss the price of your coveted item with the store staff. “ Many sellers of vintage and antique furniture are willing to negotiate on price – you just have to ask. Be prepared to make a counteroffer, as long as it is within reason,” says Chris Alexakis, an interior designer.