Everything you need to know about buying antique
One of my favourite places to hunt for furniture is auctions, antique stores, flea markets and online marketplaces. But at times it is challenging, stressful and hard knowing if you’ve found a hidden treasure or if you should just leave it alone. Indeed, antique furniture can seem like a complex world but there is nothing quite like the thrill of finding a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece that fits in perfectly with your home (especially if it’s a bargain!).
In order to navigate through this exciting world, I though’s I’d share a couple of tips I find helpful when buying antiques (and some pictures of my favourite antique pieces around the house). I should admit that a lot of my knowledge is thanks to my partner’s father John. John is a silver specialist and antique, curiosa and vintage wine expert who used to work for the auction house Sotheby’s!
Buy with your eyes and heart
There are so many trends going on and therefore it is sometimes a temptation to select furniture because it is ‘on trend’, rather than individual taste. To ensure that you won’t regret a purchase (some antique items can be a bit pricey!) it is usually better to buy furniture because you truly like it.
Establish what period or style you like the most in terms of design and material, the next step is to look for pieces that are well made and be guided by the colour and craftsmanship. If the piece is pleasing, and you feel like it would fit within your space, and will give you pleasure to look at then this is an excellent starting point. It seems like an obvious point, but one that I remind my clients of when they want to incorporate antique furniture into a space.
Key things to consider are:
- Is it sturdy?
- Are the legs even?
- Are the joints well made, or have they separated?
- Do doors and drawers work properly?
- Are there any bits missing?
- Is the hardware complete and tight?
- Are there any cracks, stains, chips or broken bits?
Try to find a signature, a label, or a stamp
While signatures or labels are rare on older pieces from 17th/18th centuries, a good starting point is to check on the backs and underside of the drawers, top/bottom to potentially find pencil marks or signatures that could indicate who/where the piece was produced.
Investigate the authenticity of an item
When investigating an item’s authenticity, don’t be afraid to get hands-on! Even if you do not have the means at the moment to actually go and see the item and buying online, ask for pictures.
- Most handmade items will have irregularities in their surfaces.
- Look for anything that shouldn’t be there. For example, is any of the sides, top or backs made of plywood? Plywood was not used in furniture until the 1930s so if you find plywood on “an 1890s” piece you might think twice about its authenticity.
- Have a look underneath pieces. If you are buying a table, shine your phone underneath. The underside of a 19th-century table may have a waxy rim around the edge where people have touched it. An antique chair will likely show more signs of wear at the ends of the arms where people’s hands have rested. A drawer that’s been opened thousands of times will show signs of wear around the runners. So if it looks too new, be alarmed.
- Screws and nails – Screws weren’t fully machine-made until the mid-19th century. Screws made before this were either partially or fully handmade, meaning no two are alike. In some furniture nails or screws were not even used. For example, the French wardrobe from the Louis XV era that I bought did not have any nails or glue. Instead, the framework is held together by its structure and wooden chevilles. So if you see nails – steer clear!