Buying used furniture of relatively recent vintage—about 60 years old—is different from investing in fine antiques. Certain brands and makers have developed devoted followers due to their unique design and extraordinary craftsmanship. Buying a piece of used furniture from one of these makers is an investment that may increase value over time. You can use these sturdy pieces in your home for years. You can hold onto them, restore them if some work is needed, and resell them.
You have to be on top of your game and keep a careful eye out for scams. One drawback is savvy scam artists know how to pass off close look likes as the real thing. Flea markets are notorious for selling look-alike items worth far less than the real thing. Let's take a closer look at crucial signs that point to an original vs. a knock-off. We'll review six top makers, tips for spotting originals, and important considerations before you buy.
Vintage vs. Antique
Vintage furniture is anything that is 20 years old or more. If a piece of furniture is at least 20 years old and has been restored, it's still considered vintage. An antique is a furniture piece that is more than 100 years old.
Before Buying Used Furniture From Top Makers
An authentic used or vintage piece of furniture from one of the top furniture manufacturers can be a worthwhile investment and rare opportunity. If you find a piece of furniture no longer manufactured, that is a significant find. However, you need to closely scrutinize the piece of furniture since many pieces are replicated. Be aware of market pricing, and if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
If you're going through an auction house or dealer, their terminology can sometimes be unclear. If a piece of furniture is billed as "in the style of" or "attributed to," that means it is a reproduction.
Auction houses and vintage dealers usually have paperwork on previously authenticated items, so ask to see the paper trail. Also, grill them on all the information on the piece, including how long they have had it, where it came from, how much it's valued for, a list of imperfections or damage, and if it has been refurbished.
Next, look for some tell-tale signs that the piece is authentic. Check the dovetailing and joinery; older pieces will be irregular, while newer machine-made pieces will be symmetrical. Also, look for wear-and-tear; it should look natural, not purposefully made to look old. Look inside drawers and on the backs and bottom of furniture for manufacturers' stamps, tags detailing where the piece was made, or marks showing that labels were removed.
If you're unsure about a piece of furniture's authenticity and plan to make a significant investment, it's a good idea to get a vintage furniture appraisal.
Buying Considerations for Used Furniture From Top Makers
The age of a piece of furniture should not matter if the piece of furniture you want to buy for your home does not fit your space. Know your room's measurements and the approximate sizes for your furniture needs. Since these pieces of furniture are so valuable, you will not be able to take them apart to get them inside the door, so measure all your doorways to make sure you can get them inside the intended room. Besides making sure it will fit, make sure it matches your room's style. Even an authentic Stickley can stick out like a sore thumb in a space that's doesn't match its style.
It's unlikely that vintage furniture is made with the same type of wood throughout. It didn't make sense to use valuable wood on the bottom or back of furniture. So, look for different wood types. If it's all the same wood, it's probably a reproduction.
Some popular wood choices for making high-quality furniture were mainly hardwoods: oak, walnut, mahogany, rosewood, and cherry. Red and white oak were popular varieties. Quarter-sawn oak is a type of lumber cut, a sought-after, almost holographic pattern in the grain. Oak was very popular during the Arts and Crafts movement. Pass on any pieces of furniture made with particle board or plywood. Likewise, check for the signs of quality in joinery; in other words, it should not be held together with staples, glue, or finishing nails.
If a piece of furniture has upholstery, look at the construction and ask if the piece has been reupholstered. It's not unusual for a piece of furniture to be in almost mint condition if a family kept the furniture wrapped in clear vinyl or plastic in their sitting room, which might've seen very little traffic.
If you plan on using the furniture for your home, pick a size that fits your needs. However, if you're looking for resale value, then look for furniture that is an unusual size or shape. Those pieces are rare.
Look for unique carving motifs or the use of uncommon materials, designs, or colors. Furniture carved by a well-known manufacturer who made very few pieces in limited editions will likely increase its value.
Top Makers to Consider Buying Used
Though Gustav Stickley remains the most famous of the Stickley furniture makers, the current company was founded by brothers Leopold and John George. Stickley furniture was never inexpensive; buying new Stickley furniture is prohibitive for most people.
Stickley furniture fans seem almost cult-like in their enthusiasm, especially for the company's signature Mission styles. Some boast collections of dozens of pieces. Others make pilgrimages to Manlius, New York, to tour the factory and visit the Stickley Museum. Stickley enthusiasm is understandable: the craftsmanship and designs remain true to the values of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Stickley pieces frequently appreciate in value, especially older pieces and limited edition introductions.
Because Stickley furniture is collectible, you will see forgeries in the used market. Get familiar with the legitimate Stickley shop marks before you buy.
Henkel Harris makes investment-quality and heirloom-quality wood furniture. The pieces are well worth their hefty price tags. If you're lucky enough to find an authentic piece of Henkel Harris and can afford it; buy it—even if the price seems high for used furniture.
Henkel Harris is known for its exquisite hand carvings and lustrous finishes. If you find a piece with drawers, run your hand along the inside of the drawers. That satiny-smooth feel comes from waxing the drawers to protect your delicate clothing.
You likely won't find Henkel Harris at a garage sale. If you do, you've found the garage sale equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. You may find it at higher-end consignment stores or at estate sales where there are no heirs—or where the heirs don't realize what they have.
Drexel Heritage makes high-quality furniture in a wide variety of styles. The pieces are well-designed and well-made, and the proportions tend to be exceptional. Even the trendier pieces have a certain classic loveliness.
Some of the midcentury modern pieces from the Profile, Projection, and Declaration lines appear sculptural, especially in profile, such as the short 881-435 Declaration bookcase shelf and the Projection step end tables. Danish Modern proponent John Van Koert designed the Profile line, and many attribute Projection to him. Stewart MacDougall and Kipp Stewart designed Declaration. Drexel wood pieces and upholstered chairs with wood frames are excellent finds.
Century Furniture makes wood and upholstered furniture in styles ranging from classic to uber-modern. Century is fine-quality furniture, and the designs tend toward the sublime. If you find a wood piece in good condition and like it, don't hesitate to buy it. Cosmetic fixes are worth the time and cost, as long as the pieces aren't missing inlay or impossible-to-match hardware.
Century upholstery frames are usually worth reupholstering, though the labor cost can get high for complicated styles. In many cases, the shapes are so fantastic that it's worth the investment as long as you don't spend a fortune on the fabric.
Ethan Allen is best known for its early American and 18th-century reproductions, and they also make cottage, country, and contemporary furniture styles. The pieces probably won't appreciate in value, but buying wood furniture made by Ethan Allen typically means buying furniture that will last—even when you buy it used.
Company founders Theodore Baumritter and Nathan Ancell started a home furnishings business called the Baumritter Corporation in 1932. They bought a bankrupt furniture factory a few years later. They launched an Early American furniture collection called Ethan Allen by the end of the decade. Decades later, they changed the company's name to Ethan Allen. With that in mind, in addition to furniture marked "Ethan Allen," keep an eye out for pieces branded "Ethan Allen by Baumritter," "Furniture by Baumritter," and "Viko Baumritter."
Wood pieces from Durham are made of solid wood. Though solid-wood furniture presents design and construction challenges, Durham works it out pretty well—and the construction is sound. The main advantage of buying used solid woods is that you can refinish them more than once. Meanwhile, the finest veneered furniture only has one deep sanding in it before you risk ruining it. Durham's light- and medium-colored wood finishes have more visual depth and luster than the darker ones.
The costs for authentic vintage furniture can seem pricey; however, you get what you pay for. High-quality work is always worth more. All of these furniture makers are still crafting furniture. Their reputation precedes them, with good reason; their quality crafting stands the test of time. For each high-end furniture maker, you can expect to pay for it—whether they're pieces made in 1900, 1990, or today.
For example, you can find a Stickley dining room table from the 1990s for $1,700, up to $13,000 for a restored 1900s dining room table, and $32,000 for a mint condition antique table. Since the quality speaks for itself, you can likely expect that it will maintain or accrue value over time if kept in good condition.
All of the makers run similarly in price, and all high-end furniture will depreciate if not maintained, in poor shape, or damaged. You can restore it and bring back some of its value, but if not done right, it can permanently devalue the piece.
How to Choose Used Furniture From Top Makers
Finding a piece of gold from a piece of junk is your No. 1 task. The fun part is detecting what is good quality and has value or what could have value if fixed or with time.
What Are Signs to Look for in Good Used Furniture?
The frame of the furniture is the backbone of the furniture piece. It needs to be sturdy, not shabby. Drawers should slide easily, and table legs should have no wobble. The joints should fit snugly together. The wood veneer or decorative covering should be intact. If it has "bookmatched" veneer—a matching wood grain pattern on either side of a piece of furniture—that is a rarity and highly prized.
What Furniture Should You Avoid?
Do not buy furniture that smells bad. This tip applies to upholstered items and furniture coming from a smoker's home; it can stink for decades since wood is also porous. Mold, mildew, and urine stains from pet accidents also ruin a piece of furniture. Closely inspect the furniture for insects. Bed bugs can hide in joints.
Furniture constructed with staples instead of screws, nails, or good joinery is mass-produced—not hand-made or high quality and will likely fall apart.
Check the furniture for a tag, label, or manufacturer's stamp before buying. Even if you don't recognize the brand, research the manufacturer. You may find the artistry of a custom builder and could be getting a good deal for the asking price. Each of the high-end furniture makers has records of their shop marks. Scrutinize the stamps and labels and be skeptical until you can verify.
Where to Shop
Shopping for vintage furniture is not easy if you're new to it. But, the online world has made it more accessible. You can go the route of flea markets, secondhand stores, estate sales, and auctions, or similarly, online auctions bring much more inventory to you. However, if a piece of furniture has reached an auction house, then you will be paying its expected price.
Explore different vintage furniture stores in your area. Shop in a place with older homes and well-established communities. Once you find a good vintage store, go there often and get to know the store owner. If you're looking for a particular type of furniture, ask the vintage store staff. If something you like doesn't sell over time, the shopkeeper might discount it for you, putting you in big bargain territory.
Vintage stores may not have the history of an item, but you can find out where they purchased the piece. Ask for all the information on the furniture and make sure they point out all defects, scratches, and issues with the piece. Sometimes, you can bargain down the price based on defects. However, make sure you can fix the piece, and the cost of repairs doesn't make the furniture too costly.
Besides looking in vintage stores, browse online. Many vintage furniture websites list their inventory by furniture maker, age, style, or furniture type. General auction sites and used goods classifieds sites are still worth a look, and you might as well search for an item on those sites and see what comes up.
As with all buying online, its biggest drawback is you can't see the item in person. You are putting a lot of trust in someone you don't know to be honest about the condition of the furniture and other unseen issues. Another considerable setback can be shipping costs. If you're buying a wardrobe or cabinet weighing 300 pounds, that can be a problem. Also, something can happen during the transport of the piece, destroying its worth.
Where to Buy a Vintage Furniture
Is buying vintage furniture worth it?
Vintage furniture is often higher quality than new furniture and will last you for years to come.
Are there safety risks with vintage furniture?
Any furniture painted before 1978 may contain lead paint. The dust and debris from lead paint can cause lead poisoning, which is toxic for humans.
How do you buy at the right price?
If you've done your homework and know roughly how much a piece of furniture is worth by comparing similar sales online, then set your ceiling price and stick to it.