The History of Antique Decor: A Guide for Collectors

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Antique decor provides a glimpse into the past through furniture, art, and objects from bygone eras. For collectors, antiquing offers an intriguing hobby to uncover rare and unique pieces. Understanding the history and key styles of antique decor helps identify valuable finds. This guide will overview major design eras, highlight top collecting categories, provide care tips, and more.

What Classifies as an Antique?

An antique is an item valued for its age, rarity, condition and aesthetic appeal. By definition, an antique must be at least 100 years old [1]. Anything younger than 100 years is considered vintage. Antiques typically have ornamental or functional use versus mass-produced collectibles.

The 100-year standard emerged in the 1930s when dealers wanted to distinguish true antiques from newer retro furniture [2]. Prior to this, the cutoff was around 1830.

Origins of Antique Collecting

Affluent Europeans amassed art, relics and curiosities as early as the Middle Ages. However, antique collecting as a widespread hobby took off during the Renaissance [3]. As interest in classical Greek and Roman culture resurged, the aristocracy competed to acquire antiquities from ancient civilizations.

Later, rising middle classes in Europe and America also partook in antiquing. Scouring flea markets and estates sales for forgotten treasures became a beloved pastime.

The Allure of Antiques

Antique collecting remains popular for several key reasons:

  • Craftsmanship – The superior materials and construction of antique furniture and decor stand the test of time.
  • History – Antiques provide a tangible connection to the past. Their origins spark curiosity.
  • Investment – As certain antiques appreciate over time, they can gain significant value.
  • Nostalgia – Antiques evoke nostalgia and create ambiance when incorporated into decor.
  • Artistry – The artistry and detail of antique aesthetics appeal to design lovers.
  • Individuality – Curating a collection with rare finds is creatively fulfilling.

How to Date Antiques

Determining an antique’s era provides insight into its origins and culture. Some tips for dating antiques:

  • Examine construction methods – Early furniture relied on joinery versus nails or glue.
  • Note materials – Mahogany gained popularity in the 18th century, so antiques using it must be newer.
  • Identify styles – Style elements like Cabriole legs scream Queen Anne.
  • Look for labels/markers – Porcelain often has marks from the manufacturer and year.
  • Consider condition – An item showing heavy patina and wear likely has some age.
  • Research artist marks – Maker’s marks help pinpoint origin.
  • Verify with appraisers – When uncertain, professionals can authenticate age.

Antique Furniture History & Styles

Furniture styling evolved in response to cultural trends and fashions. Becoming familiar with defining features helps identify pieces.

Renaissance (1400-1600)

  • Classically inspired motifs [4]
  • Intricate carved details
  • Rise of the cabinet for storage and display

Baroque (1600-1750)

  • Ornate designs, heavy carving and gilt accents [5]
  • Marquetry floral details
  • Cabriole legs and serpentine shapes
  • Boulle marquetry introduced

Rococo (1720-1760)

  • Asymmetrical, curved “shell” lines and shapes [6]
  • Light pastels and gilt ornamentation
  • Portable, intimate furnishings for apartments
  • Asian and Chinoiserie influences gain popularity

Neoclassical (1760-1800)

  • Reaction against frilly Rococo [7]
  • Harmony, order, and symmetry return
  • Architectural shapes with straight lines
  • Classical Greek and Roman motifs

Empire (1804-1815)

  • Hieratic scale and exotic adornment [8]
  • Materials like mahogany, ormolu, and marble
  • Egyptian and military motifs from Napoleon’s campaigns
  • Oftentimes painted in somber colors

Biedermeier (1815-1848)

  • Practical furniture for the growing middle class [9]
  • Rectilinear, simplified forms
  • Dark woods like cherry and mahogany
  • Incorporation of new materials like cast iron

Victorian (1840-1900)

  • Ornate decoration and over-the-top styles [10]
  • Deeply carved woods, velvets, and dense patterns
  • Gothic Revival style emerges (1830-1860)

Art Nouveau (1890-1910)

  • Whiplash lines and nature motifs [11]
  • Use of new materials like glass and iron
  • Curving shapes and asymmetrical forms
  • Hand-crafted artistry and custom furniture design

Most Collectible Furniture Styles

While furniture from every era holds appeal, certain periods draw avid collectors:

Rococo – The ornate asymmetry and lighthearted motifs embody Rococo whimsy.

Renaissance – Hand-carved furnishings reflect extraordinary Old World craftsmanship.

Art Nouveau – The movement’s dreamy naturalistic style has enduring devotees.

Mid-Century – From 1930-1965, sleek retro modern aesthetics offer function and flair [12].

Identifying Authenticity

Spotting fakes or reproductions prevents paying for counterfeits. Ways to gauge authenticity:

  • Examine joins, carvings and finishes up close. Fakes often cut corners.
  • Look for signs of appropriate age like patina and minor imperfections.
  • Analyze materials and hardware. Modern materials like plastics suggest reproductions.
  • Validate maker’s marks. Verify against databases of marks [13].
  • Consult with seasoned antique dealers who recognize quality detailing.

Caring for Antique Furniture

To maintain the structural integrity and value of antique furniture, proper care is essential.

  • Control humidity and keep away from direct light which can damage finishes.
  • Dust regularly using soft cloths to prevent buildup in crevices.
  • Use furniture wax to nourish wood and prevent drying. Revive veneers with a few coats.
  • Repair lightly with appropriate glues made for antique woods. Avoid refinishing.
  • Retain hardware like knobs or pulls. Replace missing pieces with period-appropriate styles.
  • Upholster sparingly. Patches and minor repairs are better than fully reupholstering.

Antique Ceramics & Glassware

From brilliant cut glass to delicate porcelain, old ceramics capture the eye. Popular categories include:

Porcelain – Hand-painted or gilded porcelain dinnerware or figurines can garner exorbitant sums. Authentication is key, as fakes abound.

Art glass – Vases, glasses and decorative objects in art nouveau styles like Tiffany, Loetz or Daum.

Pottery – Categories like American art pottery by Rookwood, Newcomb College and more.

Cut glass – The elaborate cut crystal patterns etched into glassware made circa 1700-1930s.

Stoneware – Durable handmade stoneware jugs, crocks, and vessels with earthy appeal.

Earthenware – Rustic, multi-colored glazes on handmade decorative and tableware pieces.

Marks & Manufacturers

Hallmarks help identify ceramics. Some key signatures to recognize:

Porcelain: Sevres, Meissen, Royal Doulton

Art glass: Tiffany, Galle, Daum, Lalique, Loetz

American pottery: Roseville, Weller, Rookwood, Fulper

European pottery: Moorcroft

Evaluating Condition

As with furniture, condition greatly impacts value. Look for:

  • Chips, cracks, dents, scratches – Small flaws reduce value, large damage can render worthless.
  • Repairs – Visible glue or staples indicate amateur repairs that hurt value.
  • Missing pieces – Partial sets are worth less than complete place settings.
  • Wear – Signs of use like utensil marks suggest heavy use but don’t negate value.
  • Discoloration – Can indicate damage like metal exposure or heat.
  • Modifications – Altered pieces should be avoided.

Storing Ceramics

To prevent damage, display and store ceramics carefully:

  • Avoid direct sunlight which can fade colors.
  • Place small cushions between pieces to prevent contact and chipping.
  • Shelve heavier items on bottom to prevent toppling accidents.
  • Use felt pads on bases to prevent scratches.
  • Do not overload shelves.
  • Ensure shelves and cabinets are secure and sturdy.
  • Maintain stable temperature and humidity.

Antique Lighting

From elaborate chandeliers to Victorians kerosene lamps, antique lighting brings ambiance along with origins to illuminate. Styles to covet:

Tiffany – Opalescent stained glass shades covering electric or gas fixtures.

Kerosene – Intricate oil burning lamps from the Victorian era.

Candle – Candelabras, sconces and chandeliers fitted for candles.

Gas – Fixtures retrofitted to use electric but designed for gas.

Considerations

  • Functionality – Wiring may need updating to work safely.
  • Missing pieces – Many old lamps are converted to electricity but are missing original glass chimneys.
  • Conversion quality – Check conversions to avoid amateur wiring.
  • Components – Finials, crystals and other elements impact value if intact.

Antique Textiles

From weathered quilts to sumptuous upholstery, old textiles have tactile richness.

Quilts – Hand-stitched quilts display exquisite needlework and patterns.

Rugs – Intricate antique Persian or Oriental rugs with luxury dense pile.

Tapestries – Ornate woven wall hangings prized by Victorians.

Samplers – Embroidered decorative letters and motifs.

Lace – Elaborate antique bobbin or needle lace in white or ecru.

What to Look For

  • Craftsmanship – Finely sewn, intricate details suggest higher value.
  • Materials – Wool, silk, cotton, velvet and brocade were commonly used.
  • Dyes – Natural vegetable dyes suggest older origins versus synthetic dyes.
  • Wear – Some fading is typical but shouldn’t compromise structural integrity.
  • Damage – Small snags or pulls are common. But tears or large missing sections devalue.
  • Odors – Musty smells can dissipate with airing out. Lingering strong odors suggest fabric damage.

Caring for Textiles

To extend their lifespan, antique textiles need delicate handling.

  • Vacuum gently using lowest suction setting or soft brush attachment.
  • Spot clean stains carefully using diluted solution. Never fully submerge.
  • Store flat or gently rolled, away from direct light.
  • Rotate display frequently to minimize light damage.
  • Repair sparingly using reversible methods.

Antique Paintings & Illustrations

A diverse range of fine art qualifies as antiques from Old World portraits to vintage travel posters.

Oil paintings – Created on canvas using oil-based pigments. Earlier pieces used very dark grounds with thin opaque pigments [14].

Watercolors – Pigments suspended in water-soluble gums applied in thin translucent layers.

Pastels – Pure pigment sticks rubbed onto textured paper. Softness allows seamless color blending.

Prints – Printmaking blossomed allowing art reproduction and distribution. Categories include engravings, etchings and lithographs.

Illustrations – Vintage commercial prints, travel posters, and advertisements with collectible graphic appeal.

What to Look For

  • Originality – Search for artist signatures to avoid enhanced reproductions or outright copies.
  • Condition – Some age flaws like minor cracking are typical. But tears, new stretcher frames or relining canvas suggest alterations.
  • Subject matter – More unusual motifs can increase value over common portraits and landscapes.
  • Frames – Original period frames suit the piece. Later additions can detract.
  • Provenance – A traceable ownership history proves authenticity.

Caring for Artwork

To prevent degradation, properly display and handle fine art:

  • Maintain a climate-controlled space around 70°F and 45-55% humidity.
  • Avoid direct sunlight, heat vents or fireplaces that cause expansion and contraction.
  • Use picture lights to illuminate without UV damage.
  • Frame with UV glass and archival acid-free mats and backing.
  • Dust gently and have professionally cleaned when dirt accumulates.

Antique Silver & Metals

Sterling silver and bronze sculptures contribute old-world allure. Key metals to collect:

  • Sterling silver – Antique serving sets, flatware, tea services, and decorative objects marked sterling or 925/1000 purity.
  • Pewter – Vintage handcrafted tankards, dishes and pitchers made of tin, copper and antimony alloy.
  • Bronze – Cast bronze sculptures, bookends, clocks and objets d’art.

What to Seek

  • Maker’s marks – Hallmarks signaling purity, date, origin, and maker [15].
  • Patina vs. tarnish – Even patina adds character. But heavy tarnish suggests neglect.
  • Quality and weight – Finely crafted, heavier pieces boast higher purity and value.
  • Repairs – Visible solder marks or reshaping suggest repairs that hurt value.
  • Components – Missing or replaced parts lower worth of sets like tea services.

Conservation Concerns

Prevent further deterioration and damage by:

  • Polishing gently using non-abrasive silver cream to avoid scratching soft metals.
  • Ensuring marks remain visible when cleaning. Don’t over polish.
  • Keeping away from reactive elements like rubber, perfume, and chlorine that corrode metals.
  • Separating pieces with anti-tarnish strips to avoid contact reactions.
  • Storing in cool, stable conditions to minimize expansion and contraction.

Takeaways

  • Antique decor transports us to bygone eras through well-crafted furnishings and objet.
  • Each period bears unique aesthetic markers to help collectors identify and date pieces.
  • Condition factors like repairs, missing elements and deterioration affect antique value.
  • With care and minor maintenance, the splendor of antique decor endures for generations to enjoy.

The patina and inimitable character of antique decor makes collecting a rewarding hobby full of discovery. Understanding what to look for equips you to curate a collection as individual as you are.

References

[1] https://www.marthastewart.com/2703752/identifying-antiques

[2] https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/how-antique-is-defined-4122019

[3] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aant/hd_aant.htm

[4] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ren_1/hd_ren_1.htm

[5] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/baro/hd_baro.htm

[6] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rococo/hd_rococo.htm

[7] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ndclss/hd_ndclss.htm

[8] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/empr/hd_empr.htm

[9] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bied/hd_bied.htm

[10] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vica/hd_vica.htm

[11] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/artn/hd_artn.htm

[12] https://www.liveabout.com/mid-century-modern-furniture-4126364

[13] https://www.incollect.com/articles/how-to/identify-antique-furniture

[14] https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/artwork/art-forgery10.htm

[15] https://www.invaluable.com/blog/what-do-silver-hallmarks-mean/


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