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What is considered a true antique and why is the term so misused?

Posted July 25, 2023

What Is considered a true antique & why Is the term so misused?

To begin our conversation let's review the actual definition of ‘Antique’ – “…a collectible object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its considerable age.” Or “…a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to various customs laws at least 100 years ago.”

 Although I am sure this definition is adequate in some cases, the vague nature of it simply adds to the confusion for many people. Here are my thoughts as a professional executive Appraiser:

A true antique for most serious appraisers and collectors must be 100 years old. Now, a dealer will disagree. A dealer, in general, wants to sell items and if they can attach the descriptor ‘antique’ to an item, in many cases it lends value and prestige to an item, possibly increasing the potential of a sale. That aside, 100 years is the norm. 

There are, of course, a few exceptions. (There always are!). Rugs are considered antique if they are 80 years old and autos can be considered an antique after only 25 years.

Other terms that are often overused, misused, and abused are: Vintage, early, turn of the century, Victorian and Victoriana, Edwardian, and contemporary. There are many more like art nouveau and art deco, but the former terms are the most abused. The English language is an incredible, powerful, and exact language. You can convey a great deal with the right words in the right order.

Vintage – This is a broad, vague, all-encompassing overused term. Most people use the term to be anything with some age, but in the liquidation and appraising fields, we try to be as exact as possible and narrow the time frame during which the item was created. Instead of saying turn of the century, for example, try ‘industrial age’ as an alternative.

Early – I LOVE this term and use it often. Many professionals use this as an alternative to ‘primitive’, but I often use this term to mean an example of an item that is an early example of an age or time frame. For example, if I am selling a hand-wrought artisan copper and enamel bracelet from an artisan community that started in 1960, I would use ‘early’ as an adjective along with ‘arts and crafts movement’ for an item that was created at the beginning of the arts and crafts movement. Basically, if the item you are selling or collecting is an early innovative design of a trend/period then I utilize it.

Turn-Of-The-Century – I usually use this if I am convinced that the item is within 5 years of 1900. Usually, I would use this with men’s cufflinks, and pocket watches. As an alternative you can use Victorian as technically this period fits within that larger identified period, but I think that Victorian/Victoriana/Victorian-era conjures up a completely different aura and connotation. Victorian-era items tend to be heavily decorated, clunky, ostentatious, overstuffed, garish, and turn-of-the-century term connotes a more industrial image with less sentimental baggage.

Victorian – probably the third most misused word in the liquidation, appraisal industry with mid-century coming in second place and vintage in the first place. The Victorian era is a well-defined time frame (1837-1901) but if you ask 10 different people you will get 10 different answers. It is better to use the Victorian-era term when the item you are describing is a good example of that era. For example, Eastlake Victorian furniture. Just the word ‘Victorian’ connotes a very specific type of furniture and prudish table wares, silver service, etc. Although there is a wide variety of items that could be called Victorian there are many better words to describe those items without the inherent baggage that comes along with the word.

Edwardian – Same as Victoriana but less baggage. Usually, items in this era generally are of better quality and many have fitted cases and a shorter time frame (1901-1910). This period for many liquidators and collectors is often confused with the Victorian – era, and many argue that the Victorian era ended about 1910. For those individuals, the assigned arbitrary dates by history buffs and educators simply does not matter.

Contemporary – A valuable word in the liquidation, collector, and appraisal fields. I use ‘contemporary’ when an item was made or produced within the last 30 years and many people alive today would be nostalgic if they see it. A good example today would be a replica of a Michael Jackson leather jacket or a pet rock from the 1990s. Usually, only one generation, if that, removed from the date of origin or manufacture.

There are many descriptive terms you can consider and utilize, and many are very specific to certain collectibles, but the list above can give you a few thoughts to consider next time you are creating descriptions for an auction or looking to buy from an antique dealer. Also, keep in mind that there may be some local and geographic exceptions that have become necessary and prudent with time. Use the words that convey the best meaning and will allow the customer to understand and interpret correctly.

We are SERIOUS about accurate descriptions. We always strive to create the best descriptions in the business. The Maple Leaf Appraisals team is serious about your collections, your art, and your fashion. What makes us tick is what makes you tick – what is important to you. Our proven track record and longevity in the business speak volumes. Our referral rate is second to none and very few in our industry maintain the credentials and knowledge we have accumulated to service all your needs. Give us a call or email us today to see how we may be of assistance and keep checking our auctions for the items that inspire and delight you!

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All content provided by Maple Bids LLC is not legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only. No information should be relied upon or considered legal advice or used as a basis upon which to make legal decisions.