As you explore the world of furniture and decor across time and space, it’s crucial to know the lingua franca of antiques and vintage furnishings.
With it, you will not only open the patinated doors of a professional lexicon used by dealers, auctioneers, experts, and fellow collectors, but you will also have the tools to access and enjoy a beautiful (yet seemingly esoteric!) world.
Below are 33 must-know words and phrases in the wide, weird, and wonderful world of antiquing. Some apply to all sorts of items, some are specific to furniture, and some relate to the art of antique collecting itself. Consider this your introductory course, and dive in from there!
Paint that has been weathered and cracked so it looks like alligator skin.
A design fashion of the late 1800s, often using curved lines and natural motifs like flowers, vines, and trees.
Work of this period is characterized by simple, angular, streamlined designs, the use of enamel and objects often made of metals. Its name was derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, where the style was first exhibited.
The clean, curved lines of the James Mont Art Deco Lounge Chair exemplify how the style was translated into furniture.
When marked “as is”, whatever the object’s condition, you and the seller are acknowledging that you’re buying it with flaws and imperfections, whether cracks, stains or other damage, visible or invisible. If you discover a problem after you bought it — or discover it’s not the genuine — and it was sold “as is”, you’ve failed to do your due diligence and won’t get your money back. Do your research, or buyer beware!
A bid is your attempt to purchase an item at auction, whether online or in the room. Bids are legally binding, so it’s not something to do lightly or casually. You can bid as many times as you like, but every new bid on an item, yours or a competitor’s, will raise its price (plus the buyer’s premium on it, making the final cost at least 20 percent higher than the amount you bid.) Depending on the auctioneer and the item’s value, the next bid might be set automatically at $50, $100, even $1,000 higher than the previous one.
Auction houses charge both buyers and sellers an additional fee, beyond the hammer price of every item they sell, and this fee is added to the final cost. It’s usually 15 to 25 percent but often goes down as the price goes up.
Before the 20th century, war was a slow moving affair, yet it still included mobile and well furnished dwellings for the elite. True campaign furniture is made to disassemble easily for shipping and transport during military campaigns, yet also has real style.
The tiny cracks in the paint or varnish of a painting.
Collectible (vs. Antique vs. Vintage)
Collectibles can be any hard-to-find item including limited editions, encompassing vintage and antique. Vintage generally refers to pieces at least 20 years old, antiques are pieces 100 years or older.
The tiny cracks in the glaze of porcelain or pottery.
Damask is a reversible figured fabric of silk, wool, linen, cotton, or synthetic fibers, with a pattern formed by weaving.
A fancy word for getting rid of an item; when a museum decides to sell an object, it’s de-accessioned.
A time-honored method of joinery often used in cabinets and drawers, often to join the fronts and sides of a drawer.
57st design's Simone Table uses irregularly spaced dovetails to add visual complexity to an otherwise understated form. The dovetails are a longtime favorite of traditional woodworkers and are as beautiful as they are strong.
Named for the English architect, Charles Locke Eastlake, the furniture forms were often rectilinear, with geometric ornament, turnings, brackets, trestles, and incised linear decoration. The designs were easily made by machines and meant to be affordable furniture for the middle-class home; being easy to clean was another of its characteristics.
Electro-plated nickel silver, a mark used after 1842 for silver plated goods.
The price an auction house thinks an item will likely sell for. These can be helpful, but if a determined dealer or collector is on the hunt, the price can go unimaginably higher until they win it.
In the United States, items of the period 1789-1823 are termed Federal and in Britain, Georgian.
An age-related process of deterioration that causes spots and browning on old paper documents such as books, postage stamps, old paper money and certificates.
Sterling silver and some silver plate items carry a series of small deep impressions, usually in a straight line, each with a specific symbol that denotes when and where it was made (London, 1922) and, sometimes, its maker. The symbols include a lion’s head (London), a castle (Exeter) an anchor (Birmingham), while the letters, depending on the font and whether they are in upper or lower case, denote the year of manufacture. American silversmiths only used their initials.
What an item sold for at auction – i.e., after the auctioneer’s gavel has struck, closing bidding on that piece.
A chair with a tall back constructed of horizontal slats or spindles between two uprights. The type is utilitarian and often rustic; the seat is often of cane or rush.
This is when two components from different backgrounds (i.e., they are not of the same maker, materials, period, or style) have been joined together to give the impression of an untouched and usually more valuable original. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't!
Mortise & Tenon
One the oldest joints in woodworking, this construction consists of two interlocking parts: a hole (mortise) and tongue (tenon). The two fit together to create a strong bond.
The numbered fan-like object you raise to signal a bid during a live auction; when you register, you’ll be given a number. At less formal auctions you can just raise your hand or nod.
The change of an item’s surface through wear, age, and exposure, e.g. copper turning green or wood darkening.
The tabletop of the Industrial Folding Table speaks to its past. It's been folded and unfolded, painted and repainted many times over during the course of its life supporting hard working individuals in their daily tasks.
Someone knowledgeable about antiques who visits flea markets, estate sales, consignment shops or other dealers to find and “pick” items for potential resale and mark-up.
Items made before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in North America, typically used for Meso-American and Latin American artifacts like pottery and other period objects. Also pre-Hispanic, pre-Cortesian.
The chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object. The provenance of even the humblest antique can add tremendous value for some buyers – like those once owned by royalty or celebrities or by major museums. Clearly documented proof of provenance is important when paying top dollar.
Many “antiques” aren’t – they’re repros, or reproductions. Only by studying carefully, and closely examining any item you intend to buy, and working with trusted dealers and auction houses, can you be sure you’re buying an antique and not something that merely looks old. A reproduction piece can look almost identical, in shape, size, color and materials, to its older cousin. Determined sellers bury some pieces in the earth and even beat them with chains to acquire a persuasively weathered appearance.
The lowest amount an auction house will consider selling an item for, often an agreement with the consignor. If no one bids high enough to meet the reserve price, the piece may not be sold at all.
Perhaps self-explanatory but when looking at antiques, it’s worth asking the seller what they know of previous restoration done to an item or if they have any tips for how to perform your own upkeep. You may even learn a good story or two about where your piece has been.
This Office Supply and Printers Cabinet was originally produced in the 1920s and used in a lawyer’s office in Clifton Park, NY in the 1920s. Upon its second phase of life, this cabinet was used in a local electorate’s office. Imagine the conversations it must have heard behind the scenes!
If you choose to sell at auction, you will be required to pay a seller’s premium, a percentage of the final sale price.
Terms & Conditions
A must-read for anyone planning to buy at auction, in person or online. These can vary and you must know what you’re legally committing to before you bid.
An item made during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837 to 1901.
Use this list as your starting point as you dive into specific categories of interest in the world of antiques... it's full of rich histories, hidden value, and countless surprises.
Caitlin Kelly, a writer in Tarrytown, NY, winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, has bylines in The New York Times, 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.