Buying vintage or antique furniture can add depth and patina to a contemporary interior. But with the proliferation of online re-sellers, alongside the myriad seasonal fairs, auctions, flea markets and estate sales, the vintage shopper might be hard-pressed to separate a George Nelson cabinet or Jean Prouvé chair from more ordinary items.
The Internet has made shopping for vintage furnishings more accessible than ever, but not necessarily easier—how can you be sure you’re getting a quality piece? Jason Stein, chief curator at Viyet, an online destination for designer vintage and contemporary furnishings, recommends shopping at sites with strong curation and thoroughly vetted pieces. “There’s really good, strong editing that happens in this particular space, whether you’re looking for an antique piece or one that is newer and high quality,” he says.
Here are some tips on finding the strongest values in vintage:
Shop Estate Sales and Flea Markets
Estate sales can be a goldmine for the vintage shopper—find sales in your area by visiting Estatesales.net, and hunt for sales in affluent neighborhoods, or where the seller has dropped some telling keywords about the collection. If something piques your interest, show up early. “That’s when the top collectors or dealers or pickers will be there,” Stein says.
Follow the Auction Houses
It’s also worth keeping an eye on what’s happening at the big auction houses too —Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams. Auction estimates tend to be on the conservative side, compared with a piece in a retail setting—but they can always soar to great heights, especially for pedigreed pieces. “Sometimes you’ll find better deals at auction, sometimes not,” Stein says. “On occasion though, some great values come up. If you’re persistent and interested, you’ll find things.”
Look for Gems at Big Events
Some annual design and sales events can yield good finds—Stein recommends FOG Design + Art in San Francisco, Zona Maco in Mexico City, Modernism Week in Palm Springs, the Collective Design Fair in New York, the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show, the Salon Art + Design in New York, and Design Miami, which happens alongside Art Basel. “One of my favorite events is in the summer, at Brimfield in Massachusetts,” he adds. “It’s one of the great flea markets. Much like the estate sales, you should get there early. Wake up at five every morning and hit the fields with your little cup of coffee and a bad Danish. It’s really fun.”
Check for Quality, Provenance
Don’t forget to bring a flashlight to check for scratches and marks—an iPhone flashlight works just fine. Antiques professionals like Stein also carry a jeweler’s loop, to examine a hallmark on a piece of silver or a small detail on an object. Look for gently-used pieces, meaning they can get a “good” to “very good” condition report, and still have value in the secondary market. That doesn’t mean you should completely ignore items in less-than-ideal condition. “For me it depends how interesting the piece is,” Stein says. “If it is an important piece that has had a hard life, it may be worth taking on the project.”
Make Sure It’s the Real Deal
Whether you’re buying a vintage piece online or in person, always ask the seller about the condition, authenticity, history of restorations and provenance (the lineage and history of ownership). “This is important when a piece has been part of a well-known collection or has an interesting past; it’s definitely going to add value and helps establish age,” Stein says.
So, let’s say you come upon the iconic mid-century chair of your dreams, whether at auction, online or an estate sale. You’ve asked all the right questions—and received the right answers: It’s a first or second issue that has been well-cared for; the leather is gently worn, with no tears, and a beautiful wood choice. Now what? “If the price is right, you have a good feeling about the piece, and it works with your style, go for it,” Stein says. “It’s an exciting way to work, following your heart. The thrill of discovery has launched many a wonderful collection.”
Enjoy the Thrill of the Find
You might suffer buyer’s remorse, but it’s not the end of the world. If you bought it at auction, stow it away for six months to a year before you reintroduce it to another auction or another format. “Sending it into the online space will put fresh eyes on it,” Stein says.
Of course, to truly have an edge in this competitive marketplace, it helps to educate yourself. Stein swears by the Thames and Hudson Dictionary of 20th Century Design and Designers, Ann Massey’s Interior Design of the 20th Century, Taschen’s books on furniture, and books on furniture classics published by design experts Charlotte and Peter Fiell. Before long, you might find you’re eating, sleeping and breathing vintage furniture—as Stein well knows. “There’s nothing quite like the challenge of going after a piece, followed by the thrill of the acquisition,” he says. “That ultimate excitement, the sense of being the victor—that feeling’s priceless.