15 Items You Should Be Buying Vintage, But Aren’t
Added age may equal added value.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:40 AM
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Scouring Pinterest and Instagram for design inspiration usually results in hours of online shopping. But in actuality, you could be doing yourself a disservice by buying items such as mirrors, cocktail glasses, and rugs brand new. Instead, try seeking out their older, original counterparts; they may be worth more than you think.
“There is the old rule of thumb that quality antiques and vintage will generally retail at least the value you paid for it, unlike most new items [which] will begin to decline in value immediately after purchase,” explains Sotheby’s Home (previously Viyet) CEO, Elizabeth Brown. “Quality furniture will always be quality furniture and may become even more beautiful over time as it develops a patina. Scarcity is on your side: There is value because there is limited inventory.”
With this in mind, it might be time to ditch your favorite big box retailer and hit the thrift shop or flea market the next time you’re on the hunt for new decor. There are antique shows around the country happening year round, from Round Top in Texas to Santa Monica’s Airport Outdoor Antique and Collectible Market. And of course, there’s always your neighborhood thrifting spot—be it the Brooklyn flea market or Goodwill.
But before you dive in, it’s worth knowing which items are worth the wear and tear and which household essentials you’d be better off just buying new. When have you struck gold and what’s just gold-plated? To answer this, we turned to the experts.
According to Jacquie Denny and Brian Graves, co-founders of Everything But The House—an online estate sale marketplace that lets you bid on everything from antique decor to rare artwork starting at $1—you know you’ve hit the jackpot when the items are either still in the box or have been very well-maintained.
“Even if the items aren’t thoroughly up to par, they’re not a lost cause,” they say. “Small dents or nicks may lower the value a bit, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a market for them.”
Beyond that, there are specific products that appreciate in value as time goes on; so it’s actually better to buy them second-hand than off the shelf at a chain retailer. So, before you fill up your shopping cart (yet again) with straight-out-of-the-factory wares, consider this list of items you should never buy new.
Oil Paintings and Vintage Portraits
Not into the made-for-Instagram, quote-on-canvas colorful wall hangings that seem to exist in the homes of almost every 20-something? Good, because it turns out investing in real oil paintings and vintage portraits are significantly more worth it. “If you love patina and provenance, and the work of masters such as Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt, and van Gogh, then 1stdibs makes the art hunt and finding oil paintings in the likes of those artists a delight. They are a reputable source, where authenticity is verified,” says Heather Basso of Studio H Interiors. “We love using real materials with history in the homes we create. Experiencing luxury is a visual journey for us, and real paintings show age through a chip here or there, or through a yellowed canvas, rather than a stark white reproduction. No two people are born alike, and our interiors should hold true to this same philosophy.” Anna Brockway, co-founder and president of vintage online marketplace Chairish, agrees. “Nothing adds more character than a vintage or antique portrait of an eccentric personality!” Plus, who knows? That oil painting of a random old dude you picked up on a whim might turn out to be worth thousands one day. It’s a financial investment as much an artistic one.
Coffee Table Books
One thing SwatchPop! co-founder Kristen Yonson never buys new for her home? Coffee table books—mostly decorative pieces that act as the finishing touch for an unadorned corner of your living room or bedroom. “These books aren’t for reading, but mostly for filling a shelf, cabinet, or perfectly curated nook,” she says. “An easy tip is to go to garage sales or the library to get hardcover books with neutral-colored bindings for a clean, yet textured shelf accessory. The more the better for shelving, and the bigger the better for coffee and side tables. Bonus points if it’s a coffee table book that relates to your interests, but how often are you going to open it, anyway?”
When it comes to rugs, it’s all about in with the old and out with the new, according to Carter Kay and Nancy Hooff of Carter Kay Interiors. “An antique rug can set the tone of an entire space. We scour the globe for beautiful Oushaks and Serapis style rugs, but often have the best luck in our own backyard at Scott Antique Markets (near the Atlanta airport),” says the designing duo.
“Antique rugs tend to appreciate in value over time, with some doubling in price over a decade of use, whereas modern rugs really have no resale value. Plus, new rugs are not really made today like they used to be, with a higher wool quality and softer texture. Many modern rugs are woven with low-quality wool that sheds and wears quickly.”
So, what should you look at when buying vintage? Craftsmanship (avoid machine-made rugs), care (not overly exposed to sunlight, over-vacuumed, or washed with harsh chemicals), and void of smoke and pet odors. Also, you want a rug that is worn—but worn evenly.
Leather Club Chairs
Leather is officially trendy again—faux is better, of course—but while we’re still taken with the modern pieces on the market right now, some classics are better bought vintage. When looking for the perfect vintage leather club chair, for example, Denny recommends keeping an eye out for ones that have the original leather, or ones that have been rebuilt using vintage leather. “The best types of club chairs show distress to the leather, but don’t have a heavy amount of peeling or cracking. And, of course, you want to ensure that the chair is supportive,” she adds.
This one may not be for everyone, but for those favoring little marble sculptures and figures that look like they were stolen from the MET, Brockway agrees with you. They can often run expensive, but if you’re one for collectibles (and travel a lot—smaller marble busts are easy to find in countries like Greece and Italy, in tiny antique shops away from the touristy crowds) you might want to consider investing in a figural sculpture.
As for where you should put your new marble find? “Atop a pedestal, or placed thoughtfully on a mantel,” says Brockway, adding that “vintage busts add classical gravitas to a room.”
A hand-crafted vintage wooden table can add so much personality to a room—and the best part is, you don’t have to be worried about scratching or nicking it. When buying your side or dining table, Denny says to remember that cracking and warping from shrinkage over time is normal, and an indication that you have an original, handcrafted piece. You should also look for high-quality and rare woods (such as maple, oak, walnut, rosewood, and mahogany), and for the inlays and veneers to also be made from rare woods, in addition to hand-gorged nails or dovetailed joints.
Unique Kitchen Gadgets
Okay—so we’re not suggesting you buy an ice cream maker from the ‘50s, for practical reasons, but picking up something secondhand or at an estate sale might be worth it if you’re just thinking of trying out a new culinary feat. “An ice cream maker, a bread machine, a food dehydrator, and a pasta machine often represent our interest in becoming culinary masters at home, but in reality, our limited schedules often result in these objects seeing little to no use before finding their way to new homes,” says Graves. “So, if you’re ready to try your hat at something new in the kitchen, it might be better if it’s previously owned. Always check cords that need to be plugged in regularly, in order to make sure they’re intact.”
According to Christiane Lemieux, founder and CEO of The Inside, cocktail glasses, barware, and serving ware are much better sourced in a mix-and-matched style from flea markets. Her go-to? Brimfield Antique Flea Market in Massachusetts. “You can curate the best bar this way,” she says.
Same goes for dinnerware and serving ware: “An eclectic grouping makes the table,” Lemieux continues. To tell if these vintage goods are the real deal, look at the patina: The shape and design will give away if it’s provenance, whereas if it’s new, it will have a different color. Lemieux also looks for one-of-a-kind napkins and tablecloths when in Paris, adding, “I’ve found plenty where the embroidery is all hand-done and would break your heart.”
Antique or vintage dinnerware is particularly great for any more eclectic or bohemian decorators. By proxy of being antique, your dinnerware is almost guaranteed to be one-of-a-kind, too. “I love the mix-and-match element of vintage tableware because you can build your own highly personalized collection,” says Brockway. “It’s also an easy way to incorporate pieces that may have been handed down through your family with some of your other favorite finds.”
Especially chandeliers, apparently. “Lighting is really the jewelry of a room. Vintage chandeliers add style, sparkle, and can be very ornamental, like an accessory for your interiors,” says Brockway. Lemieux agrees, adding that “the new [chandeliers] don’t really hold a candle to the old. With crystal, there’s a patina and a depth that new crystal does not have.”
Not feeling the more sophisticated style of (or anxiety around breaking) crystal? There are plenty other cool lighting fixtures that range from the geometric to the colorful to everything in between. Whatever the style, Brown is a big advocate of choosing old lighting over new: “[Light fixtures] can be some of the best buys on the consignment market, since you often find standout fixtures that no one else will have.” Just add a new bulb and you’re good to go.
“Mirrors are some of the best items to buy vintage or antique, as you can find a wide range of styles in good shape that add a touch of history to a room,” says Brown. If you can find a mirror with the original silver or gold—even if it may be a little distressed—it’s so much more interesting than anything you can buy new. To tell the difference, Lemieux suggests looking closely at the glass: “Modern glass is free of bubbles, but old glass can have a slight waviness or random bubbles within. Any manufacturing imperfections may indicate the mirror’s age,” she advises.
Preferably in a set, though if you favor a mismatched look for your dining room table accouterments we won’t stop you. “Pair a great set of vintage dining chairs with a timeless table style (think: farmhouse or tulip tables) to give your space a chic, unexpected look,” recommends Brockway. This method is a great example of high-low shopping; when you have cool antique chairs, you can justify offsetting them with a more affordable table you picked up at your favorite retailer.
Bonus: Older chairs are totally customizable, so if you love the silhouette and charm of a piece but aren’t sold on the fabric, a fix is a mere trip to the upholsterer away. “Vintage chairs are well-made with good bones, so they are easy to reupholster if you wish,” she continues.
“Vintage ceramic stools and accent tables are small in scale, lightweight, and easy to move,” says Brockway. “For this reason, they are chic and useful additions to entertaining spaces where they are the perfect perch for cocktails and guests.” Pick one up in a lively hue to jazz up a drab living space—it’s perfect to house anything from a new plant friend to an old stack of books that just don’t fit on your bookshelves.
If your first thought is not “where can I find an antique case piece?” but “what is an antique case piece?” allow us to explain. Broadly speaking, a case piece is anything non-upholstered that you can store stuff in—cabinets, chests of drawers, credenzas, bookcases, et cetera. And per Brown, these long-lasting pieces should always be bought vintage. The more scuffs, the better, in the name of added charm and character: “Antique case pieces are more durable and tend to largely maintain their condition over time,” she says. “A few nicks and scratches here and there only make them more interesting.”
Furniture by Iconic Makers
This one sort of goes without saying, but if you come across a vintage gem by a famous craftsman or designer (and it’s in your price range), get it! “When in doubt, go with makers that are timeless favorites,” says Brockway, specifically pointing out Ligne Roset and Karl Springer as personal faves. “If you’re looking for good quality furniture that will withstand trends and wear, then this is the way to go. Plus, when you’re ready to re-sell, they hold their value really well. So much better than buying new.”
This story was originally published on February 4, 2018. It has been updated with new information.
See more about vintage decor: What You Didn’t Know About Buying and Decorating With Vintage Art How to Get the Most Money for Your Used Furniture Tour a Boho Bungalow Filled With Worldly Treasures and Vintage Finds