How Old Is an "Antique?"

Defining an Overused and Misunderstood Term

Close-Up Of Antique Pocket Watch
Elizabeth Belkina / EyeEm / Getty Images

The term antique is used rather loosely these days, 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 tool or 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.

In purist terms, however, 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 grow older and fit into that timeframe.

Even so, this can still be a controversial topic among antiques dealers, authors, and many seasoned appraisal experts.

Differing Opinions Among "Experts"

The truth is, 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 topic when groups of antiques experts have gathered together and were asked the question: what is an antique? 

Some experts look more at high style and uppercrust design when deeming an object to be antique. They see antiques as "masterpieces" of design and of only the highest quality. With this assessment, everything from primitive furniture of all ages to faceless Amish rag dolls from the late 1900s would not be considered to be antiques regardless of the rarity of the items in question.

Many other authors and experts disagree with these folks (including the writer of this article).

One way to look at this conundrum is the dividing line drawn where styles dramatically changed from a old-fashioned look toward the modern. Hemlines were shortened and simplified, and angular Art Deco design was the all the rage during the 1920s moving into the 1930s.

These fashion and design developments with a forward-thinking bend, among others during this transitional period, provide a stark contrast to the elaborate styles seen during the Edwardian, Victorian, and Colonial periods witnessed in the 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 continues to slide in terms of the actual age of these objects as we move forward through the calendar, however. As soon as we ring in 2020, all of these objects will be considered antiques by the U.S. Customs Service. This definition is widely followed by those who trade antiques and vintage goods.

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 as antiques when they're not that old. 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 far less than 100 years old - as an antique makes savvy buyers feel like you're just trying to get one over on them.

It can make you look really 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, or perhaps "vintage" if that's common terminology (such as with clothing and jewelry). 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 or vintage. You'll do better by getting it right, since potential customers may check those categories for what they are 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 is appropriately marketed.

Learn more on related topics reading How Do You Determine the Age of an Antique or Collectible?, and Developing an Eye for Quality Antiques.