Like anything old and of great value (think wine, books, jewelry, art), antique furniture can feel like a hefty commitment that requires insider knowledge, constant upkeep, and preservation to maintain that value. Not to mention, many of us simply think the aesthetic is far too specific to fit into a modern day setting. But despite any reservations, there’s no denying the sacred presence and sheer beauty of an object crafted more than a century ago.
From Tony Duquette’s maximalist interiors, where the boldest and quirkiest antique furniture vied for attention, to the sumptuously layered rooms by Sister Parish, where nicks and dings infused both character and comfort, our associations with aged pieces are often rooted in those most eccentric or supremely traditional looks. So why consider antique furniture if you don’t subscribe to either aforementioned aesthetic? As Parish put it, “innovation is often the ability to reach into the past and bring back what is good, what is beautiful, what is useful, what is lasting.” In other words, the past can inform and actually enhance your present.
“You want to introduce antique furnishings into a house so that it looks like it has been made over time and not in a day,” says decorator Lucy Rose of Lucy Rose Design. “There is also no lead time with ordering, so decorators like me, prefer antiques for completing a space.” Today, with so many shelter magazines and décor companies touting the importance of an old-meets-new mix to achieve balance and character, it’s easier than ever for online shoppers to find inspiration and follow suit layering these pieces in as decorators do.
“I have furnished the majority of my home with older pieces,” says Ginette Lospinoso, the former vice president of the Interiors department at Christie’s Auction House. “Not only can you acquire better quality, and in many cases a better price, your interior will undoubtedly reflect a uniqueness and personal touch that is just not achievable if your home is filled only with new pieces or an entire suite from a catalogue, retailer or website.”
Education on preservation and authenticity is certainly important but to start off that golden rule of shopping applies here: buy what you love. For anyone apprehensive about investing in antique furniture because of the maintenance required, the reality is that new items also will need upkeep at some point. “Furniture was often made better then than it is now,” Rose says. “I do not think antiques need any more care in comparison. Trust your gut when you are looking and buy what appeals to you—and make sure it is something that serves the purpose you bought it for.”
So if you’re ready to incorporate antique furniture into your home, or if you simply want to invest in a piece you’ve fallen in love with, below find the ultimate checklist to help you shop like a pro.
Know What Makes a Knock Off
Construction most often determines the difference between a real and an imposter. When shopping for antique furniture, the signs are easy to spot. “Certainly nothing crafted before the 19th century should be made with metal nails, screws, or particle board,” Lospinoso says. “These should be dead giveaways that something is a fake.”
Look for Proof of Authenticity
Stamps can be a key driver of value. “If you are buying from the 20th century onward, ask to see the stamps (if they exist) and compare those to one’s by the same makers online,” Lospinoso says. “If you can find out anything about the provenance from the seller this can also help confirm authenticity.” Unfortunately, if a piece predates the 20th century, there is a strong chance it will not be stamped.
Consider the Level of Wear
Although it’s true that antiques are often far more durable than newly fabricated furniture, they have been lived in. Make sure you are comfortable with a bit of wear and tear but always ask about an item’s condition so you know if actual damage is a concern. As Lospinoso points out, “some damages are marginal and can easily be restored, but others like major damage to veneer in a rare wood, might be harder to repair.
Repairs & Restoration Matter
Upkeep is required to bring antique furniture back to its intended functionality but a restoration that changes the original proportions can decrease value. You can expect some level of gluing or refinishing but look out for hardware or materials that do not perfectly match the originals. Also, be weary of complete overhauls. “When I see something old that is so shiny it looks like a bowling alley floor, it gives me pause,” says Lospinoso. “These items are old and their patina should reflect that.” Another helpful hint: American furniture collectors do not favor restoration, so if a more polished piece is preferred, consider shopping for English or European antique furniture.
Preservation is Part of the Purchase
Sellers are the best source for learning about how to properly care for your antique pieces. The internet also offers loads of information on preservation with institutions like the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute providing downloadable guides that detail everything from care and handling to restoration. You can also ask sellers to recommend restorers in your area.
Remember It’s Got Potential
We can’t restore every piece back to its original use or beauty so consider turning something on its head. “You may find a chair with an amazing frame but horrid upholstery. Look beyond what sits in front of you and imagine the potential of a piece reupholstered or even lacquered in a different color,” says Lospinoso. If done well, a new treatment or fabric upgrade can actually enhance the original details, while also creating a piece that actually fits in with more modern décor.
Written by Madhu Puri