Buying Antique Furniture: The Ins and Outs of the Game!

by DKP

W07 WASSILY AFTER MPFCWhat is an antique?  Most define it as an object over a century old.  Mid-century modern is beginning to come into its own both as a style or genre and also being very collectible.  Vintage as defined by etsy and eBay is 20 years old, but this really does not have much meaning when it comes to antiques.

Contrary to popular belief, antiques do not always hold their prices or go up in value.  What makes the prices of antiques go up and down?

  • Fads: If Martha Stewart or other trend setters write about it the prices go up, and when the fad is over, then the prices may hold or go down.  Generations tend to fall in love with styles, and this too can drive the prices up momentarily.
  • Locality: American made antique furniture (particularly the 18th century) is generally more valuable, let’s say, than many European counterparts.   A variety of reasons create this.  And a genre specific to an area can demand a higher price, as in Western genres such as A. Brand, Mason Monterey, or Wagon Wheel furniture, or Kentucky-made southern poplar furniture, or Pennsylvania tilt-top tables.
  • Quality: Any good quality piece is more likely to hold its value.
  • Uniqueness: An unusual hand-built item or an item with a small run will generally go for more than a manufactured item which flooded the market.

Why buy that old piece of furniture?

  • Durability: Antiques are usually better made than modern consumer-era furniture.  That great set of bookcases from (name withheld) is not going to last you because they are most likely made from some sort of particle board, whereas an arts and crafts bookshelf will last you your whole life.  It is simply a fact that craftspersons, techniques, and the materials used a half-century ago were much sturdier.  Consumer-era furniture does not just mean cheap furniture.  Some expensive upholstered furniture frames from non-Chinese furniture companies were manufactured in China, and often have been poorly constructed under that nice leather exterior, meaning a two-year-old can kick the arm off a chair for which you paid $3,000!
  • Ambiance and Style: Quality of materials and craftsmanship, along with attention to details create beautiful objects not usually found in the functional consumer-era furniture of today.  Manufactured pieces 50 years ago still have quality craft-persons working the lines, and so the details are beautiful, and there are a plethora of styles from which to choose: intricate ornately carved pieces to rather sleek modern craftsman style.
  • Green choices:  Buying and restoring using traditional material is green living.  Traditional shellac varnish is much greener than modern finishes, can last a long  time and be repaired if they stain or scratch — hence original varnishes on 200-year-old tables.  If inner stuffings on upholstered items are in good condition, they can easily be cleaned and reused, and no harsh chemicals are needed.  Frames, springs, etc., all are reusable.  In our business, if we have to use a dangerous toxic chemical to remove a stain, we are using 1-2 oz, not a bucket of cancer-causing chemicals.  What is greener than that?
  • Shopping local:  Want to boost local economy?  Buy and restore locally instead of buying from China.   Even buying across the country you are supporting American truckers, therefore USA economics.

What about restoration?

Yes, the cost of most antiques + restoration is expensive relative to buying consumer-era items.  It is probably going to cost less per linear foot to buy bookshelves from –name withheld–.  However, when one factors in poor quality which will not hold up to real living, then you have to consider how many times you want to buy new dining chairs because the new consumer era frames fell apart.  This month we estimated reparation on a new nice-looking chair whose cheap frame cracked, and of course, it was more than the original price of the year-old chair.  A restored item should last you for decades (upholstery items such as show covers may have some exclusions), and when you look at it that way, then it becomes a matter of green living versus consumeristic living of buy-buy-buy and send last month’s flavor to the landfill.

Even upholstery is economical in the long run.  A hundred-year-old sofa may have good reusable innards, but possibly the buildup needs to be restored.  Once that is done by a good upholsterer who knows antique upholstery techniques, the buildup will last another 75-100 years, and the show cover will be replaced from time to time.  This becomes economical when it is amortized over many years, versus the (name withheld) sofa whose innards will collapse in five years.

Antiquing is fun, whether it is hunting around the neighborhoods garage sales or visiting neighborhoods where antique stores abound.   So how do you go about choosing a piece that will last you and be worth the price?

First of all, whether it is a garage sale or a fancy antique store, be willing to dicker and offer the price you want to pay.  Many antique stores already have that dickering price built in, however, do not be put off if they can’t come down.  Also, unlike stores with fixed prices, dealers may have picked up a piece for nothing and may be hungry for cash flow.

Garage sales are excellent places to kick the tires and pay a low price for a great buy.  If you go wrong it really doesn’t matter at $5-25.  But you also should inspect the pieces at garage sales to be sure that you want to repair problematic areas.  (More on that later.)

The internet should be approached with caution, but can be wonderful when looking for a particular piece:

  • Check out the policies of the storefronts and their reputation, including return policies and shipping.  Online stores that host many small vendors should stand behind their sellers: etsy, eBay, 1stdibs, rubylane.
  • As-is means as-is.  Buy only if it is what you want, as-is!
  • Some internet sites, such as 1stdibs and etsy, allow you to look locally, which saves some shipping costs.
  • Craiglist is fine, if you can see the pieces in person.
  • Some vendors found through these large sites might be willing to look for a particular item for you.

You might think that dealers know their product, but some antique dealers are not well-informed at all, and some tell “BIG” stories in order to drive their prices up.  It is all part of the antiquing game.  If you have an area of expertise, ask them about that areas to see how honest they are.  Do they tell you they know little about that genre or do they give you misleading information?  I tend to trust those who say, “I liked it but it is not my area of expertise.”

They may have provenance on the item; this is its life story, where it came from, who owned it, and what restoration (or not) has been performed on it.   Beware of tall tales unless they make sense, or if there is documentation to go along with the story.  In Southern California it is not uncommon to find several pieces coming from the estates of famous actors; then you have to know your antique dealer or be hoodwinked!  I imagine in DC or Virginia or Pennsylvania, you are more likely to find civil war or political provenance on items.  When you hear provenance, ask: “Does it make sense?  Does the piece fit the story?  How much more does it cost because Clark Gable owned it?”

Don’t worry about what style goes with what; it is perfectly acceptable to find your own way by buying what you like and creating an eclectic room.   If you know what you like or want to know what the names of the styles you like there are several ways you can gather more information:

  • Visit the local used bookstores, which usually have many picture books at better prices than new.
  • Go online to 1stdibs (my favorite) and pick a category, say, chairs, and peruse, paying attention to he pieces you like.  1stdibs is an education in itself!  From there you can google the names of genres, styles, or manufacturers.
  • Visit house museums to see firsthand the styles of various times in history.

What kinds of restoration are costly?  What should be expected versus what is a really big deal?  And can you use the piece as it is while you plan for its restoration?  That will be covered in future blogs!

Below are several pieces which could be used until our clients could afford the restoration.

W12 Antebellum Sofa B4 3MPFC

This southern civil war-era sofa was badly damaged and poorly upholstered, and we made extensive repairs to the damaged frame and finish, then reupholstered with a new show cover.  It was used up until its treatment.

W12 Antebellum Sofa AFT 2MPFC

©MPF Conservation.  May be printed for your own use ONLY,
not for use on blogs/sites without permission.

About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
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