Any amateur who has bought an “antique” of even modest value has dreamed of uncovering a surprise treasure that turns out to be a Chippendale or Louis XIV worth millions. But tides are turning when it comes to antiquing. Thirty years ago, collectors bought precious objects as much for the investment as for aesthetic appeal—whether that investment was intentional or hoped for. It’s a concept that’s mostly outmoded, as prices have dropped in recent years, energizing home owners to express individual tastes by breaking rigid boundaries of theme, period or style regardless of a potential payday.
The Art of Layering Rugs
Antique décor and furnishings usually embody a vintage patina and originality that is often lacking in their contemporary counterparts, making these rare beauties more sought-after than ever for the aesthetics alone. “A lot of interior designers and homeowners these days go more modern with their décor, but just as many are going eclectic, which lends itself well to mixing in antique and vintage styles like art deco, chinoiserie and midcentury,” said Adam Zimmerman, a second-generation antiques dealer at his family’s business, Syl-Lee Antiques in Manhattan. “The strategy isn’t about decorating your entire house with antiques, but you can throw in a few pieces here and there and really give your space some depth.” And the legitimacy of the object’s value is just another part of the story.
The 80 20 Rule
There’s no hard and fast rule that all furnishings in one room need to be of the same era. The tactic is striking a balance between old and contemporary, said Elizabeth Plotz, owner of Patchogue’s South Shore Vintage. Think: 80 percent newer furnishings, 20 percent antiques or vintage finds. “If you go completely vintage with your furniture you get that old, stuffy look. Almost like your home is an antiques shop. It makes more sense to get a few nice vintage pieces and mix them in with your existing décor.” A high-impact statement piece is a good place to start. Wall art like a large-scale oil painting or a mirror with an elaborate frame as well as a vintage sideboard or accent table will add gravitas to a space full of newer furniture.
Decorative accents that embody current trends are another way to uniquely punctuate a space. “Right now midcentury modern or Mad Men-esque is very much in style, along with anything farmhouse-style with the chipped-paint, Americana look,” Plotz said. Shopping originals creates an authentic aesthetic that can’t be matched by purchasing new décor designed to look distressed. The theory is, “If you go into someone else’s house you wouldn’t see the same piece,” Plotz said. Brutalist-style wall sculptures, antique Italian chandeliers and Chinese porcelain vases are among the most desired accent pieces, Zimmerman noted.
And not everything has to match. “I have a few different wood colors and different styles like midcentury and art deco in my own home, which keeps the overall effect fun,” Plotz said. “When everything matches it makes [the room] look old and heavy.”
Purchasing antiques can be a roll of the dice. If the goal is to find an original that’s in good condition and priced fairly, heed a few words of advice. Perfection is the first sign something might not be a true antique. “Something that’s antique is never going to be perfect,” Zimmerman said. “If you see something that’s 100 years old and it’s flawless, then it’s usually a copy or it’s been redone and doesn’t have that original integrity.”
High-end collectors know to conduct research regarding authenticity markers before purchasing. “A lot of midcentury modern furniture is signed by the designer and the signatures are easy to find. Herman Miller, George Nelson, Vladimir Kagan…most of those gentleman signed their pieces,” Zimmerman stated. “When it comes to antique décor such as paintings, you can do lot of the research online. It’s very easy to look up the artist and the edition and figure out if it’s original or rare.”
Pay attention to construction. “With furniture, a good way to determine quality is to look at the joinery. Dovetail joints in the drawers, for example, mean it’s probably well made. If a piece is physically heavy, that’s also an indicator of quality,” Plotz said, adding that the bottom line is condition. Wooden furniture can often be revitalized with a coat of inexpensive furniture polish, but larger projects (reupholstering a sofa or items with deep scratches and dings) can be costly. “It depends on what you’re looking for,” she said. “Couches and chairs can be worth taking to an upholsterer if you get them for really cheap, because you can spend a little money on fixing them and have a really nice piece.”
Choose a professional who specializes in antiques to reupholster or restore a prized find.
“You don’t want to go with a generalist here,” Zimmerman said. “You need to fix an antique piece with antique-like parts.”
High-quality pieces (minus the high-figure price tags) are best found at estate sales and antique shops. “Estate sales are great because so many people in the area who are 55-and-older are moving, going to condos or going out of state, and they just don’t have enough room for their items, especially furniture,” Zimmerman recommended. “You can go to an estate sale and end up getting lucky with something since the sellers don’t necessarily do as much research as an auction house.” Patience is a virtue at any venue. It can take a little digging and visits to more than one sale to find the right fit, persevere.
The benefit of looking through local antique shops is that the items are pre-curated. Prices can be higher than at an estate sale, but shop owners often have a pulse on the types of items that customers are after (and the ones they aren’t). Most modern antique shops stock items that complement current styles. And, most importantly, their reputations are on the line to give clients the peace of mind that their newfound style statements also carry the promised lineage.