It was a black marble egg, tucked into a silver teacup, found in Edinburgh during my 12th summer, spent there with a friend. I bought it for my mother, my first antique purchase.
Today, our one-bedroom apartment, in a nothing-burger, red-brick, suburban 1960s apartment building — i.e. without a scrap of prewar charm — is filled with antiques, the oldest a tiny unglazed pottery head, supposedly pre-Columbian.
I’ve been buying and loving antiques since my early 20s, their value drummed into me by frugal parents who argued that a well-chosen antique often retains some re-sale value while almost anything new sold today that’s mass-market does not.
So, what is an antique? It’s typically anything 100 years or older, making objects from 1921 antique today. (The word “vintage” is used for items at least 20 years old.)
Despite what you might expect, not every antique is rare, valuable, fragile or expensive.
Its current cost depends on contemporary taste, its rarity and condition and, sometimes, who made, designed, or owned it, even those from a home once curated by a legendary interior designer.
The smallest items belonging to a celebrity can realize stunning auction prices because of that association, like a mahogany stool owned by the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, estimated to fetch $150, which sold for $33,350.
I started buying antiques in my hometown, Toronto. I didn’t have a lot of money, but wanted to own and enjoy things with some character and history, like the small, square wooden seaman’s chest with a bright green interior with the owner’s name — Lewis Proctor — painted in orange on the front.
For decades, I’ve wondered who he was, and on which ships he crewed. I also knew, by its solid, lasting construction, it wasn’t likely to chip or crack and need to be replaced.
Detail of Seaman’s chest showing original hinges. Image copyright: Jose R. Lopez
While some antiques — glass, china, crystal and pottery — are inherently more fragile, many pieces, including furniture, art, lighting, rugs and linens, are just as ready for your everyday use and enjoyment as they were a century ago or more.
The very nature of well-made antique furniture — often heavier wooden pieces made by hand by craftsmen, not laser-cut in a foreign factory of chipboard and glued together — means they’re typically much more durable than new, mass-market furniture.
In Nova Scotia, on holiday in my mid-20s, I acquired a Victorian mirror, enamored of its curves. I use it today as a make-up mirror. And four rush-seated, ladderback painted chairs — probably 150 years old — at a country auction, for $50 each. The paint is full of tiny cracks — the official term “alligatored,” like a reptile’s skin.
Caitlin's ladderback chair with its alligatored paint. Image copyright: Jose R. Lopez
My love of antiques is partly the pleasure of owning and sustainably re-using a piece of history, wondering who used these things before we did. Who sat in those small painted chairs?
If older material seems intimidating, remember — antiques are merely Other People’s Stuff, and can be found at almost any price point, whether thrift, consignment and antique shops or flea markets and auctions.
Yard and estate sales can yield treasure, as do online sites like Etsy, eBay, 1stDibs, and Chairish. And of course, ZZ Driggs offers an excellent collection of antique and vintage works for rent or purchase.
Buying antiques can initially feel unfamiliar as you learn what to look for, but it should never inhibit you from closely examining anything before you buy. Dealers and auction house staff are usually happy to educate you and answer your questions. Keep in mind, this is largely a community of people passionate and confident in the goods they sell and ready and willing to share stories or what they know about a piece's history or construction.
A few things to ask and consider:
- What’s the object’s condition? Look closely for major cracks or shoddy repairs. Does it wobble, does it seem unsturdy? If so, perhaps worth a pass unless you are willing to deal with restoration down the line.
- Is it rare or were thousands produced? A rarer item will cost more because...it’s rare! A print with 1,000 copies is usually less valuable than one with 50, for example. However just because many of a product were produced does not mean it's less durable. In fact, lots of iconic works of furniture prior to the 1980s were built very well and continue to hold up today.
- Examine the construction; early genuine wooden furniture commonly used dovetail joints (which look like bow ties on the corners of furniture), which are stronger than simply glued materials often seen today. Look carefully inside drawers to investigate their condition.
- Remember we see things with 21st century eyes in terms of attractiveness. Just because a period piece strikes you as “ugly” it may also be the real deal! A “pretty” piece, in color, shape or size, can fool your eye if it’s actually new, and simply matches contemporary fashion.
- Keep in mind scale was different 100 years ago. Yes, individuals were on average shorter a century ago, so chairs, dining tables, or especially counter height tables (like butcher blocks or kitchen islands) might be shorter than usual and perhaps less comfortable after extended use today.
- If you have small children or pets, is this piece sturdy enough? Could it topple easily? Furniture produced decades ago does not have the same stringent safety standards today.
- If it’s a textile or rug, are there stains or tears? Get a close-up photo and consult an antique rug/textile specialist before committing a lot of money.
- If the piece is damaged in any way, can it be affordably cleaned or repaired? It may look like a bargain, but how much do you want to invest?
- You can always quickly Google something as you’re looking at it and thinking of buying it, to see what comparable current prices are and what it should really look like. It’s easy to get excited at auction or a flea market. Be sure you want the item and it's not an impulse buy!
- Bring a magnifying glass and small flashlight with you to look more closely inside things or underneath them. Never be afraid to look carefully. It’s your money.
- Carry a small portable reference book with manufacturer’s specific marks to help you identify china, porcelain, silver or silver plate. It’s a treasure hunt, but you will only gain confidence during your on-the-fly research.
- Learn the markings. For instance, EPNS means the piece is made of silver plate, while .925 or hallmarks (small marks impressed into silver objects) can help identify when and where a piece of sterling was made. It’s easy with all the information at your fingertips via a Google search or the like.
Learn to recognize an antique from a later reproduction by choosing a category or period you find most attractive, useful or affordable — coin silver spoons or early hand-made quilts or elegant, comfortable wooden Windsor chairs. Many regional auction houses, like Skinner in Boston, Doyle in New York and Hindman in Chicago, to name only a few, sell on-line and you can have things shipped. There are national auction houses too, like Live Auctioneers and Everything But The House. Magazines like Antiques or Early American Life also explain every sort of item, from jewelry to paintings, and you can find lots of useful information online, including museum collections, or borrow reference books from your local library.
I’ve studied antiques at New York University, Historic Deerfield and the New York School of Interior Design, but really the best way to educate your eye is by looking at — and ideally handling — a lot of stuff wherever and whenever you can. You’ll soon start to recognize the stylistic and material differences between a 20th century piece and one 100 or 200 years older. The shape of a table, the pediment (top) of a cabinet, the type of woods used, the difference between softer vegetable and brighter chemical dyes used in a textile or rug — all will become familiar. Even better, sometimes not to the dealer or auctioneer. Score!
I found an 18th century teapot in an upstate New York shop for $3.50, missing its lid; if it had one, it would have been worth $1,200 or so.
Our massive teal armoire, my biggest antique investment so far, ($1,000 plus $500 shipping), is a bit battered, but also super-useful, and we use it to store most of our linens and all our pantry items.
I bought it sight unseen, except for a very small photo online, from William A. Smith, a New Hampshire auction house I knew well from my 18 months living there, attending their auctions every week. Thanks to its size, shape and color, I thought it might be from Quebec, and its distinctive black wrought-iron rat-tail hinges could mean it’s 18th century. When we finally received it, we saw the back panels are of very raw rough wood, a typical way period cabinetmakers saved money on materials, using only the best wood where it was most visible.
It also had some flaws I hadn’t noticed — a few small, deep scratches and some poor repairs to the top. But I’m happy with it.
It’s old, after all. It’s been around.
And, like every antique, it’s only ours for a while.
Caitlin Kelly, a writer in Tarrytown, NY, winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, has written more than 100 stories for The New York Times in addition to The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Marie-Claire, Salon and many others.
Freelancing as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, she began selling her images to Time, the Globe & Mail and Toronto Star, and later to The New York Times and Washington Post, among others.
She’s been a reporter and feature writer at The Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News. Author of “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail" (Portfolio.)
She coaches writers worldwide and has taught writing at Pace, The New York School of Interior Design, Marymount College, Pratt Institute and Concordia University in Montreal.