So you have your eye on that 19th-century horn and hand-carved oak rocker. Or maybe that vintage dentist cabinet — complete with cool, spacious industrial drawers — is just the thing for your bathroom redo. But is vintage furniture an affordable way to decorate? Is it possible to adorn your closet with that 1930s art deco tie rack and still not lose your shirt, financially speaking?
Collecting high-end designer and antique furniture can be a tricky business. The market is both fluid and finicky. The value of similar pieces can vary widely, depending on region. Still, there are definite upsides to collectible furniture. For one thing, as Beverly Solomon of Beverly Solomon Design points out, “The great thing about collectible furniture is that you can use it daily.”
But it can also represent a serious investment. You’ll want to make sure that you’re getting enough bang for your buck — and that, should you ever want to sell, your investment retains and even increases its market value. With this in mind, here are some basic dos and don’ts when it comes to collecting antique and vintage furniture.
AM I INVESTING OR FURNISHING?
This is a question you should answer before you buy anything. As Solomon explains, these goals “need not be mutually exclusive. However, there are great buys in great furniture that may not necessarily be great long-term investments.”
In general, furniture collectors like to advise that you “buy only what you really like,” since the market fluctuates wildly. Although the market right now for collectible furniture is considered on the soft side, the market in general has not been as adversely affected by online competition as the market for many other traditionally brick-and-mortar commodities. This is largely due to the fact that furniture tends to be heavy. Prohibitively high shipping costs keep most sales local except at the most expensive end of the spectrum.
CONDITION IS CRUCIAL
The impact of a piece’s condition on its value is considerable for almost all high-end collectibles — but this is especially true of antique furniture which, more often than not, has spent most of its life being treated as — well, a piece of furniture rather than a priceless antique. According to Solomon, “Condition is always important. A piece in original condition is worth the most, while pieces that are in bad shape or that have been poorly restored have much less value.” Try to keep a particularly close eye out for those pieces that still retain their original finishes, hardware, and — if you can get really lucky — their patina.
And should you buy a slightly damaged piece of furniture with an eye toward restoring it yourself, be forewarned that while doing some regluing and reproduction reupholstering can be inexpensive, replacing missing pieces, redoing veneers, or finding original fabrics can get pretty pricey pretty quickly. And, improper restoration can diminish a piece’s value, so know what you’re doing before you begin.
WHAT’S A GOOD BUY?
Again, styles come and go, but at the moment, midcentury modern is all the rage, says Solomon. She also recommends Danish modern furniture of the 60s, given its timeless combo of style and sturdiness, and arts and crafts/mission styles — as close to a constant as there is in the mercurial furniture world. In general, quality regional furniture usually offers collectors a sound investment, especially if genuine and fairly priced. As Solomon notes, “Texas, Santa Fe, New England, and the Northwest all have beautiful styles that are highly collectible,” with the added bonus that “the best examples can often be bought at the best prices in another region at yard sales and junk stores.”
What not to buy? Stately English pieces that would be appropriate for a turn-of-the century mansion, while solid and often beautifully crafted, have definitely seen better days. Similarly, Oriental furniture should be viewed as more of a niche buy.
SPEAKING OF YARD SALES …
One of the perks of collecting antique furniture is that there are still plenty of bargains to be found out there, be they unsuspected treasures that turn up in yard or estate sales, or the proverbial neglected piece in the attic. Collectors can often flip those items to a retailer and turn a nifty profit.
By all means, though, try to avoid buying pieces at super-high-end galleries and shops, where collectibles are often marked up at two to three times their value to cover overhead costs and/or a sales commission (if the pieces are being sold on consignment).
GET AN EXPERT OPINION/BEWARE KNOCKOFFS
When it comes to art and collectibles, the availability or lack of provenance (documentation/history) can make a huge difference to the piece’s value. The collectible furniture world is literally overflowing with mass-produced reproductions in a wide range of styles. In particular, Solomon cautions, the reproductions currently coming out of Asia are “amazingly good,” but in the end “not worth any more than the furniture at your local home store.”
In general, when dealing with high-end collectibles, it is always wise to obtain an appraisal from a reputable expert. In most cases, you can get this from a major auction house or gallery. However, sometimes you may have to settle for an old photo that pictures the item, or letters from a previous owner describing the item and how it came into his or her possession. Remember, something is always better than nothing when it comes to proving that your pricey collectible is the real thing.