How Old Is an "Antique?"

Defining an Overused and Misunderstood Term

Close-Up Of Antique Pocket Watch
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In purist terms, and according to the "official" definition issued by the United States Customs Service, antiques have traditionally been considered items with at least 100 years of age under their belts. That means the scale slides every year as more objects age to fit into that time frame.

However, the term antique is used rather loosely among the masses, and often ends up reflecting the age of the person using it more than a hard and fast definition.

To a teenager, for example, a kitchen gadget from the 1960s seems “antique," while a senior adult might see antiques as the many objects they used or saw in the homes of their parents and grandparents as a child.

Differing Opinions Among "Experts"

Of course, you can ask a dozen different antiques "experts" what an antique is and you'll get a number of different answers. There have actually been heated debates on this very topic when groups of antiques experts have gathered together to try to define the term antique. 

Some experts look more at high style and design when deeming an object antique. They see antiques as "masterpieces" of design and of only the highest quality. With this assessment, everything from primitive furniture of any age to faceless Amish rag dolls from the late 1900s would not be considered antique regardless of the rarity of the item. Many other experts disagree with these folks, including the author of this article.

One way to look at it is the dividing line drawn where styles dramatically changed from a old-fashioned look toward the modern. Hemlines were shortened and simplified, and Art Deco design was the all the rage during the 1920s moving into the 1930s. These fashion and design developments with a modern bend, among others during this transitional period, provide a stark contrast to the fancy nature of Edwardian, Victorian, and Colonial influences witnessed in previous decades to centuries.

With this in mind, one viewpoint is to see items made prior to 1920 as antiques and newer pieces as "collectibles." The antique scale slides in terms of the actual age of these objects as we continue to move forward through the calendar, however. As soon as 2020 rolls around all of these objects will be considered antiques by the U.S. Customs Service definition so widely followed in the field.

How Should You Describe Items You're Selling?

Even the most honest sellers with the best of intentions can make a mistake on occasion in describing their wares. But when sellers use terminology incorrectly, especially when they do it repeatedly, those blunders can very easily undermine their integrity. For that reason alone it's a good idea to try to get the facts straight.

Identifying an item that is obviously a collectible - something less than 100 years old - as an antique makes savvy buyers feel like you're just trying to pull one over on them. It can also make you look ignorant about what you're selling, or even worse, dishonest.

If an object is obviously newer than 100 years in age, just call it a collectible. If you honestly feel like an item is over 100 years in age after doing your homework, then it's perfectly fine to describe it as an antique. Some online selling venues have specific categories to follow that distinguish antiques from collectibles. You'll do better by getting it right, since potential customers will check those categories for what they're looking for in addition to relying on keyword searches.

Even if you're selling in an antique mall or at a show, labeling and representing your items accurately will serve you well. Customers will come back time and again to see what's new in your booth if you do your best to offer them great merchandise that has been thoroughly researched and appropriately marketed.  

Learn more:

How Do You Determine the Age of an Antique or Collectible?

Developing an Eye for Quality Antiques