How Antiques Work


A buyer inspects a lamp at Ardingley Antiques Fair.
A buyer inspects a lamp at Ardingley Antiques Fair.
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

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Every weekend, the antique hunters come out. They prowl the aisles of shows, scrutinize the offerings at sales and occasionally even wave cards at an auction. They come in every size, color and age. Whether to help connect with the past, for perceived value or for utility and style, furniture and furnishings from times past are popular items with today's buyers. This multi-generational hobby has been growing in popularity for several decades. Coast to coast, millions of people join in the hunt for something valuable, something historic -- something antique.

­As defined by U.S. law, an antique is anything that is 100 years old or older. Of course, not all antiques are created equal. Some co­llectors think that only articles made before 1830 are real antiques. These items were hand-crafted by necessity. After this date, the Ind­ustrial Age kicked in, and many items were manufactured by machines. Period antiques -- furnishings made in the style of the period -- also have high appeal for collectors but are usually beyond the reach of casual collectors. For instance, Queen Anne style remains popular today, but a chair made in the time of Queen Anne's reign (1702-1714) is rarer and more valuable (expensive) than a reproduction of the chair made in 1900. The Queen Anne reproduction chair is antique, but it's not a period piece.

So how did this passion for everything old get started? We'll answer this and other questions about antiques in this article.

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American Antiques & Antique Mania

A statue of Hera from Pompeii was part of a traveling exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, Ill. The exhibit featured more than 450 artifacts from Pompeii and the nearby communities of Heraculaneum, Oplontis, Boscoreale, and Terzigno.
A statue of Hera from Pompeii was part of a traveling exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, Ill. The exhibit featured more than 450 artifacts from Pompeii and the nearby communities of Heraculaneum, Oplontis, Boscoreale, and Terzigno.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

­The popular zeal for antiques, or antiquities, arose from the excavations of Pompeii (began in 1748) and Herculaneum (began in 1709). When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., volcanic deposits buried the two cities. The covering of ash, debris and hardened lava ranged from 19-23 feet (6-7 meters) in Pompeii and up to 65 feet (20 meters) in Herculaneum. As a result, the cities were perfectly preserved and protected from looters. In 1738, Charles III of Spain ordered an extension of the first Austrian-led excavation of Herculaneum. Work expanded to include Pompeii in 1748. The treasures uncovered from the ruins sparked the neoclassical movement. Eighteenth-century designers recreated the spirit and style of the ancient cities in architecture and home furnishings.

American antiques found favor with collectors in 1876. The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia showcased American achievements in archit­ecture and engineering as well as artifacts from its humble colonial beginnings. As U.S. citizens celebrated 100 years of independence from the English Crown, they decided that their own heritage was worth preserving. Antiques became so popular that manufacturers started turning out reproductions of the "early American" styles of Queen Anne, Chippendale (1750-1780), Hepplewhite (1790-1815), Sheraton (1790-1815) and Duncan Phyfe (1815-1840).

But those reproductions don't hold a candle to the real thing. If your antique is authentic, it could be quite valuable. Ultimately, the buyer decides the price at which an antique will sell, but there are some standard factors that determine the price or value of individual pieces.

The first is the original quality of the item. If an antique was originally well-constructed with high-quality materials and excellent craftsmanship and design, it will still have high value today. Furniture that was made poorly when it was new won't gain value just because it reaches 100 years of age.

Antiques dealers and auctioneers also look at the age, rarity and current condition of the article. Period originals are more highly valued than well-crafted antique reproductions. Pieces in good condition with original finishes are preferred to those that have been restored, repaired or refinished. Other factors in determining the asking price include previous sales of similar antiques and the provenance of particular items.

But how can you tell if you have a reproduction or if you're sitting pretty on the real thing? On the next page, we'll give you some pointers to spot the fakes.

Spotting Real Antiques, Fake Antiques and Reproductions

Wood is extremely important in determining a true antique. The Hotel de Vogue was built in 1614 for the first president of the Burgundian parliament. The entrance door is made of richly carved wood, showing its age and originality.
Wood is extremely important in determining a true antique. The Hotel de Vogue was built in 1614 for the first president of the Burgundian parliament. The entrance door is made of richly carved wood, showing its age and originality.
Sigrid Estrada/Liaison/Getty Images

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The high level of skill and expense required to create a fake antique means that you probably won't ever encounter one in your shopping rounds; they aren't very common. What you're much more likely to encounter are reproductions with a good many years of use on them. Furniture styles of past periods and d­esigners are still manufactured and sold new today.

Harold Sack, former president of the respected antiques firm Israel Sack, says that visual inspection is the first step in detecting a restored, faked or reproduced antique. "The overall look, which I call 'aspect,' should ring true for the period and for the area in which it was made," he wrote [source: Sack]. In your inspection, look at the wood, joints, tool marks and hardware.

Wood is an important indicator of the age of a piece. Different woods were favored during different periods -- and by different makers. Prior to 1720, walnut, a dark wood, was popular with Europeans and colonists. It was used for graceful Queen Anne tables and chairs, and for utilitarian colonial benches and cupboards. Mahogany was the prime choice for mid-18th century formal furniture, such as dining and drawing room pieces. It was also prominent in Chippendale styles. Cherry, a paler red than mahogany but just as strong, was abundant in North America and widely used to build sturdy, durable furnishings for rural dwellers.

Many antiques, new and old alike, are made from oak. It was the first choice for European furniture before 1700, and enjoyed renewed popularity in circa 1900s American furniture.

Pale, fine-grained and hard maple provided country craftsmen with wood for functional furnishings. The beauty of grain patterns in bird's-eye and tiger-striped maple encouraged cabinetmakers to apply maple veneers to plain furniture made of other woods.

Finally, humble pine was disguised or hidden in most antique furniture. Mostly, it was used for the backs, undersides and interiors. If the entire article was constructed of pine, it would have been painted or stained to look like a more expensive wood.

Also keep in mind that manufacturers of pre-20th century furniture never used plywood or particle board.

It's important also to look at the color and condition of the wood. Wood darkens and shrinks as it ages. Thin panels used as door inserts and drawer bottoms shrink faster than the thicker frames that support them. This shrinkage causes splits or cracks in panels that were nailed to the frame. Panels that were loosely held in place may no longer cover the full space of the frame. Where this is the case, the exposed edge should be slightly lighter in color than the rest of the wood composing the furniture.

How the wood ages over time could also help you spot not only whether it's real, but also how old it is.

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Determining the Age of an Antique

Because wood shrinks across the grain but not along it, very old furniture may appear to be misshapen. A tabletop that was round when it was made becomes slightly oval with great age. Wooden pegs that jut out just a bit from the surface of a chair leg or cabinet side are also indicators of age-related shrinkage.

The way furniture is put together is an important indicator of age. Early craftsmen used hand-cut mortise-and-tenon joints, dovetail joints and wooden pegs. Hand cut dovetails are wider and cruder than dovetails made with machines starting in the mid-19th century. Nails tell their own st­ory. Rose Head nails were forged individually by blacksmiths in the 1700s. After shaping the nail, the blacksmith placed it in a heading tool and delivered several hammer blows to form the distinctive head. Cut nails were prominent from 1790 to 1890. Sharp-ended wire nails with flat, round heads began to be machine produced around 1880. Staples are hallmarks of 20th-century manufacture.

Different cutting and sanding tools leave distinctive marks on wood and give clues to the era during which a piece of furniture was made. Look for saw marks on unfinished backs and undersides. Straight, irregular marks indicate pre-1830 hand cut wood. Around 1830, sawmills cut wood, leaving straight, even marks. Circular cuts are post 1850. Exposed surfaces of antiques were hand-sanded. They're less smooth and even than machine-sanded surfaces.

Now that you know the difference between a reproduction and an authentic antique, where's the best place to pick one up?

Buying Antiques

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton adds to his collection in an antique shop in downtown Prague 11 November 2005.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton adds to his collection in an antique shop in downtown Prague 11 November 2005.
Michal Cizek/AFP/­Getty Images

­As demonstrated by the success of TV programs like PBS's "Antiques Roadshow" and HGTV's "Cash in the Attic," many people find antiques in their own homes. If you want to start or add to your antiques collection, there are some reliable places to look for them.

One of the best places to see and learn about antiques is in museums. These pieces are generally professionally authenticated, in pristine condition and grouped by period or style. They are often identified by maker and location of manufacture, and museum docents may be able to fill in historical details as well. Studying museum displays will help you learn to recognize antiques when you see them in the wild.

When you're ready to start buying antiques yourself, the hunting grounds are wide. Nearly every community has a store specializing in antiques. Smaller shops usually have offerings selected by one dealer, the storeowner. Larger antique malls feature booths or floor space that numerous individual dealers can rent to display their wares. You can expect to find antiques in good to excellent condition with prices to match.

Auctions are guaranteed to heighten the excitement of the antique shopping experience. A quick Internet search for "antiques auction" plus your city or state will bring up a list of auctions in your area. Auctions carry a wide and ever-changing array of antiques and collectibles. Most have viewing hours before the auction so that you can examine the items for sale and determine what you want to bid on and how high you're willing to go. Auctions are competitive and thrilling. In the end, you may walk away with the steal of the year. Or you may get caught up in the game and cast caution to the wind. It's a good idea to attend a few auctions as a spectator to get a feel for the merchandise and the cadence of the auctioneer before you sign up for a bidding card.

Internet auctions also offer antiques for sale. The drawback here is that you must rely on the seller's description and photos of the item. You can't examine the actual articles you're bidding on, the bidding may last for days and you can't take your prize home at the end of the auction.

Antique shows bring many dealers together for a limited event, usually a weekend. Some venues charge admission fees, so it's worth doing a little research to find out what dealers are participating and what they specialize in handling. Then, if you decide to go to the show, you'll save time by knowing which booths have merchandise that interests you.

Look in antique shops and newspaper classified ads for notices about estate sales that include antiques. These are auctions of the contents of a home, often without a reserve price (the minimum bid at which the item will be sold). The classifieds also carry ads for antiques, furniture and miscellaneous items. All of these are potential sources for antiques.

When you really know what to look for, you may be able to find treasures at truly bargain prices in flea markets, second-hand stores and garage sales. But where do you go to authenticate your find?

Authenticating Antiques

A maker's signature is one way to authenticate an antique. For furniture, this could be a ­brand on the underside, a paper manufacturer's label secured to the piece or a name written or signed in chalk, pencil or ink in an inconspicuous place such as a drawer bottom. A potter's name or initials may be incised into stoneware. On glass, ceramics and metal, look for identifying marks on the bottom.

Documents that prove the provenance (origin or history) of an antique can authenticate and add value to the piece. These documents can include wills, letters, diaries, historic records and photographs that describe the item and place it at some fixed point in history.­

Take the reputation of the antiques dealer into consideration. Is he or she experienced and well-regarded in the antiques trade? Is he or she a member of a national antique dealer's association such as CINOA, Antiques Dealers' Association of America, or National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America? If so, he or she is unlikely to misrepresent a reproduction as an authentic antique.

If you have serious doubts about an antique, scientific high-tech methods to authenticate age and manufacture methods include X-rays, CT scans, microscopy and ultraviolet and infrared analysis. But be careful how you handle the antique; in order to keep its value, it must be cared for properly.

Cleaning Antiques and Care

Christie's Employee, Sandra Nedvetskaia, carefully cleans a two-handled Campana vase, one of two, at Christie's Auction House in London, England.
Christie's Employee, Sandra Nedvetskaia, carefully cleans a two-handled Campana vase, one of two, at Christie's Auction House in London, England.
Daniel Berehulak/­Getty Images

­Well-loved antiques have been used, cleaned, polished and enjoyed for generations. This can continue in your home. The best way to maintain the function and value of antiques is to do them no harm.

Antiques with original parts and finishes are worth more than altered antiques, so think in terms of restoration rather than renewal. If a piece is coated with years of grime, cleaning alone can reveal its beauty and add value to it. Make necessary structural repairs, but remember that the dings and wear that come with age are part of the charm of antiques.

While many antiques can be used everyday, some require special care. Antique clocks need periodic winding, some daily and some less often. Rugs and quilts will hold up longer if they're displayed on walls rather than thrown on floors or the back of a chair. Antique wines need the same conditions as any wine that you plan to store for a long time: cool temperatures and high humidity, in a dark, vibration-free environment.

Antique books, manuscripts and sheet music must be protected from water, fire, excessive humidity, excessive heat, strong light, and paper-nibbling insects and rodents. Store them upright on shelves closely enough to support each other, but leave a little wiggle room so you don't damage them when you take a book out to enjoy. Make sure that acidic papers, such as newspaper, aren't pressed between the pages and always handle old books with care.

Photographs, whether printed on paper, metal or glass, should only be handled with white cotton gloves. They should be stored in archival boxes in individual archival envelopes, and kept in a dark, dry, cool place.

With maintenance and care, your antiques should provide years of enjoyment as they increase in value. And one day, you may be ready to unload your precious collection to begin a new one, or simply to make some money. If you discover that you enjoy hunting for, appraising and caring for antiques, you may find your calling as an antiques dealer.

Antiques Dealers

A Lebanese antique dealer examines a pair of 17th century gold and silver studded guns at a flea market that opened in the war-devastated city center of Beirut.
A Lebanese antique dealer examines a pair of 17th century gold and silver studded guns at a flea market that opened in the war-devastated city center of Beirut.
Joseph Barrak/AFP/­Getty Images

­It starts with a passion for antiques. After years of collecting, many people realize that they have more antiques than their home can hold. Or they develop an interest in a different style of antiques. That's when they decide to sell part of their own collection. This small start turns some antique collectors into antiques dealers.

The years of asking questions, buying, repairing, studying and living with antiques are important. Experience counts for antiques dealers. They need to know how to recognize and preserve the value of purchases, properly price their inventory and gauge when particular items will return the most profit. They must also be knowledgeable and networked enough to find the items their clients want. No weekend class can teach that. Successful dealers have often studied under real-world antiques masters, working in someone else's shop, for years.

Antique collecting and dealing often runs in families, passed down from parent to child like blue eyes or curly hair. The respected antiques firm Israel Sack, Inc., continued in business, passing from father to sons to grandson, from 1905 to 2002.

As children, twins Leigh and Leslie Keno learned to value antiques from their grandmother and their parents, who were antiques dealers. When they were 12, they declared themselves antiques dealers and started selling the artifacts they'd gleaned from the countryside around their home. They sold their personal collection of antiques to pay for college. Today, Leigh is a former vice president of the appraisal department at Christie's specializing in acquiring American antiques for prestigious customers. Leslie is Senior Vice President and Senior Specialist of American Furniture and Decorative Arts at Sotheby's in New York. They have made appearances on PBS's "Antiques Roadshow" and hosted the PBS show, "Find!"

Haven't had your fill of old furniture and well-designed pieces? Take a careful look on the next page to see the worth behind those links.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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