I’ve found that people have been increasingly using the words ‘antique’ and ‘vintage’ interchangeably. Is there a real difference? (spoiler alert: yes) Does it matter for you? Maybe. Let’s delve a little more into the matter, and I’ll lay out the differences, what may drive pricing and collectible value for each, and why you may want to be a little hesitant of buying anything claiming to be ‘vintage.’
Technically an antique is anything more than 100 years old. Pretty straightforward, but why does that age delineation matter? The answer is a more nuanced than something 101 years old being worth more than 99 years old. In the early 20th century the furniture industry began to go through it’s own version of the industrial revolution. While each piece was previously made by hand, machines were brought into the mix to produce furniture faster in higher quantities. Because of the way this timeline hits today, most ‘vintage’ furniture was mass produced, with help from machines (though not to the scale we see today). Most antique furniture was made by hand.
The wood used in bonafide antiques is actually quite different than modern wood. In the 19th century, for example, the wood available at market was usually from large, old trees, with thick planks and more interesting grains. Wood from the 20th and 21st century is different. It comes from younger trees, thus planks are narrower, and there is less interest in the grain. Aged wood has the advantage of character, patina and variation in color, adding warmth and depth to a piece.
All that said, an antique piece will feel quite different than a vintage one, and collectors will throw in additional considerations, like age, maker, rarity, condition, origin, etc. to determine its value. You may hear dealers using the word ‘period’ to describe a piece that was produced in the correct period in history. For example, a Louis XVI period commode was made during the reign of Louis XVI in the second half of the 18th century. A Louis XVI style commode could be anything from a 19th century version to one made yesterday. Period pieces are more collectible and expensive than pieces ‘in the style of,’ and are typically named after the corresponding monarch or ruler from that time period (e.g. Louis Philippe, Queen Anne, Charles X, George III, and so on).
When considering vintage furniture, keep in mind that variation in quality can be huge. A piece of furniture made in the 1930/1940s will have more of the features that we desire in an antique (patina, more handmade construction, better wood), than in the 1980s. However, I’ve noticed dealers, designers, and consumers referring to anything more than 10 years old as ‘vintage.’ I would consider the following when evaluating a ‘vintage’ piece of furniture. First, is it unique to that time frame? A mid-century modern credenza for example, may have collectible value if an example of a specific period. Second, is the construction of better quality than what you would buy new today? One of the benefits of buying an older piece of furniture is better construction and higher quality materials than you could get today without spending a fortune. Otherwise, there really isn’t much difference between ‘vintage’ and used.
Antique and vintage furniture alike can add warmth, depth, and character to a room. There is something special about owning a piece that is unique to you and can’t be purchased in a catalogue or showroom.