Antique Furniture Shopping: Five Top Tips
Quality antiques are beautiful and add a unique flavor to the home. However, I learned a thing or two on the subject when I used to write a regular column on the antiques market in Savannah, Georgia. Most of all, I learned that dealers, antique malls, and private sellers abound, and their prices can vary wildly. Don't shell out big bucks for antique furniture until you've learned the basics. Here are five top tips to guide you in your search:
1. Carefully examine the finish.
Does the finish look very old (at least one hundred years old) or has the piece been refinished? This could be the case if it the finish is particularly smooth and clean. Newer knobs or drawer pulls are another giveaway indicator of refinishing. This can be detected by searching for indentations on the outside of drawers or cabinets, or by identifying disused screw holes on the inside.
A refinished piece is less valuable, so be aware that this should be reflected in the sale price. A truly old, unfinished piece will be somewhat worn-looking, and you can also expect to see a buildup of wax or oil, and dust or grime in the wood's crevices.
2. Check that all pieces match.
Look carefully and you may see signs that the item has undergone alterations over the years. For instance, drawers could be added to a chest of drawers to create a highboy-style dresser. In that case, you should be able to identify slight differences in the wood, the finish, the pulls, the hinges and, of course, the style of construction. Once again, be aware that this should be reflected in the asking price.
3. Examine the workmanship.
Ideally, an antique piece should be solid and well-made, yet lacking the precision craftsmanship found in modern, machine-made furniture. One key hallmark to look for is dovetail joints, a sure sign of quality woodwork. Very precisely-cut dovetails indicate the piece was machine-made, while less symmetrical work means it was hand-cut and, therefore, more valuable. On the other hand, dovetail joints alone do not necessarily mean that you have a true antique before you.
4. Assess the seller.
Is the seller reputable? How long as he or she (or the Website, if you're buying online) been in business? Does he or she answer all your questions adequately? A good dealer will be able to tell you quite a bit about each piece in store, including the era in which is was made, the wood used, whether or not it has been refinished, and perhaps a little about its history. If you are at all doubtful about the seller's credentials and you are considering a highly-priced purchase, try and get a second opinion (perhaps from a knowledgeable friend) before buying.
5. Don't rush in and buy on impulse.
Concerned an item is over-priced, not a true antique, needs repairs or maybe just won't fit with your other decor? Let it go. At the very least, take a digital snapshot, then go home and mull it over before committing yourself. The antiques market is a gargantuan enterprise in this country, with container-loads of furniture being shipped in from overseas all the time, believe it or not. (For instance, dealers are now tapping new-found antiques gold mines in China and eastern Europe.) Chances are if you let one item go, something you love just as much will come down the pike before too long. Just hang in there!
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