Local estate sales are usually overflowing with antique and vintage items. But, do you know the difference between antique and vintage? You may happen upon vintage or antique furniture, perhaps a mid-century modern furniture piece or one from an earlier period. Or you may discover vintage jewelry, sought-after collectibles, decorative objects, or even an antique work of art.
At estate sales, people tend to use the terms “antique” and “vintage” interchangeably, but there is a difference. Keep reading to learn the difference between antique and vintage items. We’ve also got some great tips to help you identify vintage pieces and antique pieces.
Common Definitions of the Word Antique
There’s general agreement that the word antique refers to an item’s age. Most definitions conclude that antique items are at least 100 years old.
The United States Customs Service says an antique is an item that is “100 years of age or older.” In conformance with U.S. Customs laws, Merriam Webster Dictionary states that the item must have been made at least 100 years ago in order to be considered an antique. Merriam Webster includes furniture, works of art, and decorative objects as potential examples of antique items.
Additionally, Ruby Lane, an online antique marketplace consisting of antiques, vintage items, and collectibles, concurs with the definition of the term antique. Ruby Lane states that an antique must be objectively confirmed to be at least 100 years old.
Examples of Antique Items
Antique accent pieces can add historical significance to your home. Here are examples of antique pieces from well-known design eras.
Georgian Era: 1714 to 1837
Georgian-era antiques included Chippendale chairs and Oriental-style screens. Wedgewood ceramic pieces also became popular during this period of time.
Victorian Era: 1830 to 1890 (approximate)
Victorian furniture featured ornate styling and embellishments. Glass table lamps on marble bases, along with decorative ceramic Staffordshire animal figurines, were popular accent pieces.
Edwardian Era: 1901 to 1910
Arts and Crafts furniture was popular during the Edwardian Era. Tiffany lamps and Lalique jewelry became sought-after decorative objects.
Art Deco Era: 1920s through 1930s
This era’s machine-produced objects feature streamlined profiles and sharply defined angles. Art Deco furniture reflects this styling. Decorative objects include mirrors, glass vases, and perfume bottles.
Common Definitions of the Term Vintage
When comparing antique vs vintage pieces, the definition of vintage is more subjective than the meaning of an antique. There is a primary definition of vintage, but along with the primary definition, there’s also a relative meaning that may pertain to someone’s age.
Primary Definition of Vintage
As Merriam Webster states, the primary definition of vintage has nothing to do with furniture or collectibles. The term vintage actually pertains to wine and is an altered form of the French word vendage. Taken literally, vendage means “the grapes that were picked in a certain season.” So, strictly speaking, the term vintage refers to something that occurred last season.
Relative Definition of Vintage
Because vintage means last season, and last season is relative and ever-changing, the term vintage often changes according to one’s perspective. For example, 1980s décor and fashion is often referred to as vintage style. However, if you grew up during that era, those items were of a contemporary nature. Given that, these 1980s pieces are certainly not vintage from your perspective. That makes it harder to solidify the difference between vintage and antique items.
Examples of Vintage Items
Popular vintage jewelry spans several different eras. This umbrella category includes Hollywood-like 1940s bangles, 1960s Jacqueline Kennedy-inspired brooches and necklaces, and bold 1970s jewelry designs.
Vintage style clothing also covers several chronological periods. The term vintage applies to 1950s poodle skirts, 1960s minidresses, and 1970s tie-dye shirts.
Common Definition of the Word Retro
In contrast to antique and vintage items, Merriam Webster notes that retro pieces revive previous styles and fashions.
A retro item was likely produced during the past 20 years. Retro pieces are generally less expensive than vintage or antique items.
Retro vs Vintage Items
Retro and vintage pieces often get confused, especially because both are constantly changing. Here’s an example that will help you to make the distinction. A retro Danish modern bedroom suite is available from a furniture factory right now. The furniture replicates the vintage Danish modern furniture that was originally sold in the 1940s through the 1960s.
Examples of Retro Items
Retro furniture includes tufted sectional sofas, flared desks, tapered chairs, and triangle coffee tables. Arc floor lamps and minimalist pendant lights represent retro accent pieces.
Tips for Identifying Antique Pieces
Follow these four steps when identifying an antique.
- First, see if you can easily identify the item, such as a wooden hand plane.
- Next, ask yourself if the piece is still used today. If not, there’s a fairly good chance that it’s an antique.
- Third, look for signs that the piece is handmade. If you’re viewing a piece of furniture, for example, look for hand-sawn marks or unevenly cut dovetails.
- Finally, attempt to locate the item’s patent number.
The previous four steps can be performed on any antique item. However, the following are tips for identifying specific antiques. Before you attend your next estate sale in search of antique pieces, be sure you have a general knowledge base of antique items, as well as an idea on how to identify them.
Antique Furniture Tips
When looking for an antique piece of furniture, determine its period of origin. Don’t rely on the item’s style, as the furniture marketplace contains numerous reproductions. Consider that very popular furniture styles, such as Duncan Phyfe furniture, have been duplicated many times. You may also see furniture that mimics pieces from the Victorian, Edwardian, and Art Deco eras. Without proper knowledge, it can be difficult to tell a nicely restored original from a beautiful reproduction.
Be sure to look at the entire piece of furniture. Search for clues that would indicate a certain production era. If the piece features perfect symmetry, it was likely made with woodworking equipment rather than with hand tools.
Also, look at the construction techniques and materials. If possible, try to test the furniture’s finish before you purchase the item. Choose a hidden spot and apply a small amount of denatured alcohol to the finish. If the finish disintegrates, it’s made of shellac, which indicates the item was likely made before 1860. Finishes such as varnish and lacquer weren’t available until the mid-1800s.
Antique Silver Recognition Tips
Identification marks reveal details about antique pieces of silver. First, look for a “Sterling” or “925” mark, indicating that the piece is made of sterling silver. Then, look for the manufacturer’s symbol or maker’s mark. The Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks will help you with manufacturer identification. Next, find the pattern that matches your silver piece.
Antique China and Glassware Tips
With thousands of old china and glassware pieces on the market, trying to identify a specific item is a challenge. To begin, look for a maker’s mark on the underside of a plate or dish.
Reference the Marks4Antiques database to link the mark to a specific manufacturer. To find the pattern, reference an online replacements supplier.
Identifying unmarked glassware is more challenging. Turn to a recognized reference source, such as the Glass Encyclopedia from 20th Century Glass. Here, you’ll find details on glass manufacturers along with previously sold glasswares’ style, pattern, and age. If you can’t find your glassware in this antique encyclopedia, you may have vintage glassware rather than antique glassware.
Antique Books and Printed Materials
Most antique books, pictures, and etchings are relatively easy to identify. An antique book’s first few pages will list the printer and perhaps the printing date. The available information should enable you to determine the printing company’s operations era.
Antique pictures’ artists typically painted their names on their works, giving a clue to the item’s age. For a framed picture, look for the framing gallery’s stamp or label on the reverse side.
When analyzing an etching, look for details in the fine print. If a newspaper’s date is faded, read available stories for clues to the publication date.
Tips for Identifying Vintage Items
Compared to antique pieces, identifying vintage items tends to be easier. This is because more reference materials may be available. With that said, some vintage items may have more documentation than others, improving their value.
When evaluating vintage pieces, avoid items containing subpar materials and corner-cutting construction methods. If a defect is simple and inexpensive to repair, buying the piece may be a cost-effective move. If the defect has to do with the craftsmanship, walk away from the item. Finally, don’t purchase damaged glassware and dishware, as they will have little resale value.
Research Period Items Beforehand
Before evaluating a vintage piece, look at original photographs and learn about specific designer trademarks and techniques. Determine comparable prices by viewing similar vintage items for sale at auction houses or flea markets.
Online Etsy item listings may provide pricing details for some items. eBay “Sold Listings” are very useful, as they provide actual selling prices.
To obtain recent eBay “Sold” information for a vintage piece, visit the eBay home page. Click on the word “Advanced” to the right of the blue search bar. Type in the search details, check the “Sold Listings” box, and click the blue search bar for results.
Determine an Item’s Period Style
The 20th century featured numerous vintage furnishing styles, notably the Danish modern and mid-century modern designs. Early American, futuristic, and minimalistic decorative styles also had their adherents.
When evaluating a vintage piece, determine how well the item conforms to a certain period style. If you notice inaccuracies, the piece may be a reproduction. Cheap construction materials and shoddy craftsmanship can also be signs of a copy.
Look for a Maker’s Mark
A manufacturer’s stamp, or maker’s mark, confirms that the vintage piece is authentic. Pieces proven to be originals often bring good prices. Reproduction furniture makers are sometimes quite skilled at creating realistic-looking maker’s marks. Ask an accredited appraiser to evaluate the item.
Antique Identification Assistance
Once you find an antique or vintage item, you’ll need to have it reviewed. Getting your item identified is essential for determining its value. Consider these four local resources that may help you accomplish your goal.
Accredited Antique Appraisers
Consider adding an accredited antique appraiser to your RSS feed. Ask them if they offer free identification services.
If so, understand that they’ll offer an informal opinion rather than a formal one.
Local Antique Shops
Take your collectible to a local antique shop and ask them to identify the piece. If it’s not practical to transport the item, bring along some pictures. If you’re a regular customer, they may be more willing to help.
Local and regional antique shows are great places to network with antique dealers. Take the item of interest, and ask several dealers if they can tell you more about the piece. Finally, if there’s an antique appraiser onsite, ask them for a verbal opinion.
Free Antique Guides
Your local library may have a treasure trove of antique identification and price guides. Look for books about specific types of antiques. Some libraries even have a separate room for historical reference materials. If you strike out, ask the librarian if the books are available through an inter-library loan.
Identifying Vintage vs Antique Items Can Be Tricky
For the layman, it may be difficult to recognize the difference between antique, vintage, and retro items. But not for you. Now you’re well-equipped on the definition of vintage, antique, and retro pieces.
Before you go searching for the perfect collectible to add to your collection, be sure to do your due diligence. Know what you’re looking for, how to identify it, and how much it should cost. Then, go for it! With this easy-to-follow information on vintage vs antique items, you’ll be better informed when visiting your next estate sale.