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The antique market fluctuates as trends change. The things that sold for thousands of dollars a decade ago might only be worth a few hundred today. In addition, the items that people considered vintage twenty years ago are now marketed as full-fledged antiques. But how old does an object have to be to be regarded as an antique? Here’s a quick breakdown.
History of Antiques
Antique collecting has been popular since ancient times. In fact, some believe that the first pieces of collected art were found in tombs dating back to 5000 BC. These early works of art were painted on pottery, stone, metal, ivory, wood, and other materials and kept for seemingly sentimental reasons.
For contemporary collecting, you’ll find antiques from several design periods, including:
- Victorian: 1837-1901
- Arts and Crafts: 1895-1915
- Art Nouveau: 1890-1910
- Art Deco: 1920-1935
Retro and Modern design eras come next, but items from these eras are usually considered vintage (not antique).
How Old Are Antiques?
Generally, antiques are at least 100 years old, although they can range from 50 to 200+ years old. The age of an antique is one of the key factors used in determining its value. Below are some exceptions on what is and is not classified as an antique.
Most antique dealers think any 100-year-old item, like a simple and inexpensive door hinge, would qualify as antique. In this context, a century-old rusty nail would be called an antique.
High Market Value
In general, an item’s value and historical significance does not impact whether it can be called an antique. However, some upscale antique dealers think an antique should have a relatively stable (and high) market value.
In this case, only some century-old items would qualify. For instance, these dealers would consider inexpensive knick-knacks collectibles (and not antiques), even if they were over 100 years old.
Some dealers think anything over 50 years old should be considered antique, but this is less common (and the term might be used to try to make an item seem more important than it is). Usually, these newer pieces would be labeled as either vintage or collectible.
However, some niches have more defined terms that make qualifying an antique less of a gray area. For instance, according to the Antique Automobile Club of America, an antique car is any car over 25 years old.
Antique vs. Vintage
Most antiques are over 100 years old. On the other hand, the term vintage is used much more loosely. Anything that shows a little age can be called vintage, whether that be a 15-year-old tablecloth or a 60-year-old teapot. In most cases, a vintage item is at least 20 years old.
One exception is heirloom jewelry, where anything less than 40 years old is considered estate and should not be called vintage or antique. Vintage jewelry is any item between 40-99 years old.
An item is considered an antique if it is at least 100 years old. This applies to furniture, art, jewelry, and various collectibles.
An item is considered vintage if it is between 20 and 99 years old. This term is often used for clothing, accessories, and decorative objects from a specific era.
The classification of a classic car as an antique varies by jurisdiction and organization. Some places consider cars that are 25 years old as antiques, while others may require the car to be 50 years old.
Estate jewelry refers to previously owned jewelry pieces that are less than 40 years old. These pieces may come from various sources, including estate sales, auctions, or private collections.
Estate items are previously owned goods, often from a deceased person’s estate. There is no specific age requirement for an item to be classified as estate; it simply must have been previously owned.
Antiquing Tips to Determine Age
What does this all mean when you’re antique shopping? When you go into a typical antique shop, you’ll likely find things from all eras and price ranges. Not everything in the shop is technically an antique—and you may even find some antique reproductions. However, this variety might not be the case in a high-end antique shop, which only carries antiques of a particular era or quality.
- Antique malls usually don’t have requirements when it comes to the exact age and quality of items. You’re much more likely to score a deal here by finding something where a dealer “doesn’t know what they have.”
- A high-end online site like 1stdibs has many restrictions in place to ensure only top-quality antiques are listed. These items would have to be old, collectible, and valuable.
Beginner-Friendly Identification Steps
- Look for Marks or Labels
- Many antique items, especially furniture, pottery, and silver, may have maker’s marks, hallmarks, or labels that can provide clues about their age. These marks might include the manufacturer’s name, location, or a specific date. You might need a magnifying glass to see small marks. There are reference books and online databases that can help you decipher these marks and understand what they mean. Even a simple label indicating the country of origin can help you narrow down the time frame, as labeling laws have changed over the years.
- Check the Materials
- The materials used in an item can be a significant clue to its age. For example, certain types of wood, glass, or metal might have been popular during specific periods. Bakelite, for instance, was a common plastic used in the early 20th century. If you find a piece made of Bakelite, it’s likely from that era. Understanding the types of materials used in different time periods requires some research, but there are many resources available, including books, websites, and even museum exhibits, that can help you learn about historical materials.
- Feel the Weight and Craftsmanship
- Older items often exhibit signs of hand craftsmanship that are different from machine-made pieces. For example, hand-cut dovetail joints in furniture might be slightly uneven, whereas machine-cut ones are perfectly symmetrical. The weight of an item can also be a clue. Older glass and silver items might feel heavier (or, in some cases, lighter) than modern reproductions. Feeling the surface for tool marks, chisel cuts, or other signs of handwork can provide insights into the age.
Just because something is called an antique doesn’t mean it’s more valuable. Age is only one factor when appraising antiques; other factors include rarity, demand, and condition. In broad terms, antique terminology is subjective. However, the most widely accepted definition of an antique is any item over 100 years old.