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How to Buy American Antique Furniture: A Guide for New Collectors

Federal Cherry and Bird’s-eye Maple Veneer Bowfront Chest of Drawers, Massachusetts, c. 1810-20,

While I’ve heard some say “the golden age of antiques collecting is over,” in fact, it’s not over, and for some, it’s just beginning. There’s so much opportunity out there, especially for twenty- or thirty-somethings just starting out and setting up homes. Many members of this generation remain unaware of the antiques world, and often head straight to Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, or IKEA for copies of original items we see here at Skinner every day.

Things don’t need to be this way. With a little information and effort, younger collectors can acquire affordable antique furnishings, and enjoy living with distinctive works of art and antiques instead of cookie-cutter, mass-produced furniture. And they can see a solid return on their investments in the future.

Here’s my advice to young people interested in learning how to collect American antique furniture:

 

1. Buy Less, Buy Better

It’s a better investment to have a few really good pieces than dozens of mediocre ones. Even if you’re buying on a budget, you should keep this in mind. I’ve seen houses with large collections, but there’s nothing incredible or fantastic. Commonplace items, even those that are hundreds of years old, don’t really go anywhere in the marketplace, no matter how long you keep them.

 

2. Buy Quality

Beyond that, there’s an argument surrounding quality. When buying antiques at auction you can get solid wood furniture handmade by really gifted artisans for the same amount – or less – than at a brand name, mass-produced furniture store that often sports “distressed” finishes to mimic the character that comes with age and use. Much of the American antique furniture on the market today is an incredibly good buy.

 

3. Consider Restored Furniture

Also, there’s nothing wrong with collecting restored furniture, as long as you know the details about the restoration and pay accordingly. Let’s say you want to buy an average, attractive Chippendale slant-lid desk that’s made from maple, birch or cherry. If you find one with replaced feet, it’ll cost you a fraction of what a comparable piece in original condition would run. We’re talking between $500 and $1,000 dollars. Not only is that antique desk affordable, it will have people commenting, “What a beautiful old desk.”

 

4. Trade up

As you learn more, you can trade your early purchases for something of higher quality. Look for a better desk; sell the restored Chippendale. You might get your money back or even make a profit. Who knows! Don’t be afraid of looking at all the things you’ve collected and thinking about what you’ve learned since you bought them. We learn from our mistakes as well as our successes, and there’s no exception to collecting.

 

5. Cultivate Your Style

Finally, don’t be afraid to play it slow when you start collecting. The best antique furniture is both beautiful and practical; it takes time to learn what you want and can use. Places like Colonial Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, Historic Deerfield, and Winterthur all have remarkable programs that teach the latest scholarship about antique furniture and decorative arts. Museums, antique shows, and auction previews are also great places to learn.

  

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2011 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

38 thoughts on “How to Buy American Antique Furniture: A Guide for New Collectors

  1. I always thought Antique furniture means French or Victorian only. But after visiting this site I am convinced that even American antiques are valuable possessions.

  2. I always thought Antique furniture means French or Victorian only. But after visiting this site I am convinced that even American antiques are valuable possessions.

  3. I am trying to find the worth of my dinning set, made by Berkley and Gay, Roanoke Va. aprox. 1928 ventage. I have the table with pull-out end leafs, 5 chairs and 1 capt. chair. China and buffet, these pices have inlay woodwork and all pices are in excellent condition. Can you help me?

  4. I have a pen. I believe it may be a quill pen. It may be gold or gold plated? It’s shape is a feather with a long point. How can I find out it’s value?

  5. Once you have decided you may have an interest in antique furniture, feed that interest. Visit all types of antiques shops and auction houses. Thanks for providing such a knowledgeable blog about antique furniture.

  6. Pingback: American Antique Furniture | Chippendale Mahogany Bombe Chest-on-Chest

  7. Is it acceptable to haggle on the price in an antique store? I’m interested in a dresser and a framed print at this antique store that rents out space to dealers. I’ve bought inexpensive items so it never came up, but these items are nice but I dont’t want to spend as much as they’re asking. I don’t want to appear rude, but I don’t want to stretch my budget if I don’t have to. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • There is no harm in asking. I think most dealers in the antiques trade are used to respectful negotiations on price. This issue rarely comes up at auction because as soon as a buyer feels the price is too high he or she can simply lower their paddle!

  8. Pingback: How to Buy Antique Furniture | Buying Wooden Furniture

  9. Awesome information regarding importance of antique furniture, and guide a guide for new collectors, as young people interested in learning how to collect American antique furniture, this was very useful information, as i am look for the same kind of information. Thanks for sharing this blog.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Kelly.

  10. Awesome information regarding importance of antique furniture, and guide a guide for new collectors, as young people interested in learning how to collect American antique furniture, this was very useful information, as i am look for the same kind of information. Thanks for sharing this blog.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Kelly.

  11. Stephen,
    I have a client in the West End ( ptown) looking for a queen size wood bed frame for the master. Walnut, mahogany or even birds eye maple ??
    He’s got some nice pieces in there already and would like to help him pull it together.
    Hope you are well and maybe see you in town.
    Margaret

  12. Pingback: How to Buy American Victorian Furniture | Victorian Furniture Guide

  13. Pingback: How to Buy American Victorian Furniture | Victorian Furniture Guide

  14. I own some “Cushman Colonial” furniture, and love it. As I shop for pieces to go with it, I see some “Cushman Classics by General Interiors” furniture. Is that the same maker? If not, is it comparable quality?

    • The Cushman company was founded in VT in the 1890s and acquired by another manufacturing company in the 1970s. Generally speaking, earlier examples will use better quality materials and construction techniques. When you’re purchasing antique furniture, look for good condition and original finish. Good luck!

  15. I own some “Cushman Colonial” furniture, and love it. As I shop for pieces to go with it, I see some “Cushman Classics by General Interiors” furniture. Is that the same maker? If not, is it comparable quality?

    • The Cushman company was founded in VT in the 1890s and acquired by another manufacturing company in the 1970s. Generally speaking, earlier examples will use better quality materials and construction techniques. When you’re purchasing antique furniture, look for good condition and original finish. Good luck!

  16. I have a bedroom set: 2 twin-size head board & foot boards, a 5 drawer vanity desk, 2 wood carved mirrors, a night table, 2 chairs (1 has lower back) and a 4 drawer bow front dresser. I am missing the high dresser, [or is it called a high-boy]From Northern Furniture Co. circa 1920. It is , to be honest, in a mild condition…needs some touch-up. How much can it be worth?

    • Phyllis, Thank you for your blog comment. While the set has modest value as antique furniture, there is another side to the coin. If you had to replace the set with modern reproduction furniture, pieces would likely be of lesser quality & design and come with a much higher price tag. Value is in the older pieces. KAS

  17. I have a bedroom set: 2 twin-size head board & foot boards, a 5 drawer vanity desk, 2 wood carved mirrors, a night table, 2 chairs (1 has lower back) and a 4 drawer bow front dresser. I am missing the high dresser, [or is it called a high-boy]From Northern Furniture Co. circa 1920. It is , to be honest, in a mild condition…needs some touch-up. How much can it be worth?

    • Phyllis, Thank you for your blog comment. While the set has modest value as antique furniture, there is another side to the coin. If you had to replace the set with modern reproduction furniture, pieces would likely be of lesser quality & design and come with a much higher price tag. Value is in the older pieces. KAS

  18. Its good post on the American Antique Furniture. Most people are not aware of the importance of American antique furniture and it is with the Victorian or French antique furniture. Hope this post will reach as many as online users and build awareness.

  19. Minimalistic is the fashionable trend at present and antiques have taken somewhat of a back seat. With the fall in prices now is the time to buy and eventually the antique market will turn favourable
    again. American antiques are a particular passion of mine as my home design is based on a house in Mississippi. I am always on the hunt for vintage American furniture and so far have found several pieces that I have shipped and restored where necessary.My vacations to the USA always include treasure hunting for fine American furniture.Great Blog.

  20. I can’t find out the company that made my bedroom furniture. I don’t even know when it was made. It has a metal tree glued on the side of the pieces. I have looked all over the internet and can’t find it. Would you have any idea? Or would you know who I could contact to find out please?
    Thank you so much for any help you can give me.
    Jenni

  21. Thank you for the information. Sometimes seems basic but now is a great time to buy antique furniture, the market had been soft but is coming back pretty strong. Especially like the tips/reminder you gave about quality and condition. We have really begun trading up antiques. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes easy.
    buy.
    Regards,
    Gregory

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