Antique furniture, a form of decorative art, is considered valuable from both a practical and artistic standpoint. As opposed to buying new furniture, which loses value once purchased, buyers often collect and care for period pieces as long-term investments and prized, beautiful, or historically important possessions.
As is the case in any other investment market, that of antique furniture fluctuates based on taste and consumer demand, sometimes regardless of the maker’s renown. While the desire for mid-century modern pieces is quelling, 1980s American craft furniture, for example, is gaining interest. This kind of ebb and flow is common every 30 or so years, often correlating with changing generations of new buyers.
“Current trends for antique furniture collecting are starting to recover since the 2008 economic downturn, but the growth is slow compared to that of American studio furniture, which is gaining momentum at record pace,” says Deric Torres, Vice President and Director of Furniture and Decorative Arts at Clars Auction Gallery.
Interest in museum-quality antique furniture currently lags behind that of the lively art market due to a number of commercial, personal, and cultural influences, so prices are generally on the lower end of the scale, but exceptional collector pieces can still sell for top dollar.
Types of Antique Furniture
The antique furniture market includes an array of types (e.g. tables, chairs, bureaus, etc.), designs, historical eras, and styles. Broadly speaking, the most popularly collected items are American, European (especially English), and Asian. Within each of these categories are historic periods marked by stylistic movements, each with their own modern-day admirers looking to expand their coveted collections.
A period piece is made during the time the design originally came about, whereas a style piece is one with the same aesthetic of an earlier time, but is made later on.
Antique Asian furniture, also referred to as Oriental furniture, comes in a variety of styles including elaborately decorated Chinese pieces and Japanese minimalist designs, which often exhibit the familiar naturalistic motifs seen in other Asian art forms based on historical and cultural influences. Some of the most widely known types originate from China, Japan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, but Korea, Mongolia, and South East Asian countries also have their own traditions.
Antique Asian pieces are often made from rare and exotic woods; rosewood and bamboo, for example, are highly sought after in Chinese furniture, and nearly-extinct Huanghuali, a type of rosewood used during the Ching and Ming dynasties, is always in high demand because of its scarcity. Japanese pieces date back to the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and iron-decorated chests called Tansu are some of the most coveted Japanese antiques.
“The most sought after pieces in the world right now are Chinese Huanghuali and Zitan examples,” says Torres.
From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, European furniture went through movements of style driven by a series of cultural and artistic rebirths. Most notably, European furniture is crafted with the wood from mahogany, oak, and walnut trees that went extinct over 100 years ago, making antique European furniture impossible to reproduce.
A number of styles, including Rococo and Neoclassicism, were seen throughout Western Europe while other styles were distinct to a particular country such as France (Rococo being a notable type), the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Russia. English is arguably the most sought-after furniture style from Europe.
European styles migrated to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries when crafters reworked them over time into aesthetic movements of their own, though pieces were still visually similar to those of the English, French, and Dutch. Wood and materials used were based on what was available within the settled areas, making American furniture relatively easy to date and trace back to its origins.
Makers located in epicenters like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York took the established design elements and made them even more their own, further differentiating American furniture from some of their European forerunners, where styles are diverse across not only time periods, but specific locations also.
Popular Stylistic Periods
- Jacobean (1600-1690): This English style exhibits a medieval aesthetic that includes straight lines, durable construction, and gothic, elaborate etchings. Jacobean furniture influenced much of the furniture that was made in early America.
- Early American (1640-1700): Made primarily for functional purposes, Early American pieces sourced materials from nearby woods and modeled their designs after European styles including English, French, and Dutch.
- William and Mary (1690-1725): This style of furniture is characterized by high chair backs, trumpet-turned legs ending in a hoof or claw-like foot, and Asian lacquer work.
- Queen Anne (1700-1755): This style is based off of William and Mary furniture, but with more balanced with elegant lines. It has cabriole legs ending in a pad or drake foot, a fiddle-back backing, and batwing drawer pulls.
- Colonial (1700-1780): Colonial-style furniture shares features with William and Mary, Queen Anne, and Chippendale pieces. It’s often described as graceful and refined with less elaboration than other styles of the same period.
- Georgian (1714-1760): Unlike Colonial furniture, Georgian is more ornamented than Queen Anne with carvings and gilding, but similar visually.
- Pennsylvania Dutch (1720-1830): A pragmatic and country style of American furniture, Pennsylvania Dutch pieces were made with German inspiration and often have colorful folk paintings.
- Chippendale (1750-1790): There are three types defined by their influence, including French, Chinese, and Gothic. In the U.S., Chippendale furniture was a more elaborate version of Queen Anne and had cabriole legs with ball or claw feet.
- Hepplewhite (1765-1800): A Neoclassic style, Hepplewhite was reproduced in the U.S. and is marked by a dainty aesthetic, tapered legs and contrasting veneers and inlay.
- Federal (1780-1820): Federal style furniture is very similar to Hepplewhite and Sheraton, sharing the straight lines, tapered legs, and the use of inlay and contrasting veneers.
- American Empire (1800-1840): This style has rustic carving and dark finishes along with an evident classical influence.
- Shaker (1820-1860): Defined by woven chair seating, mushroom-shaped knobs and straight tapered legs, this style is relatively simple and crafted for practicality.
- Victorian (1840-1910): Heavily influenced by Gothic designs, Victorian furniture is elaborately carved and often has a dark finish. This was also the first style of furniture to be mass-produced.
- Arts and Crafts (1880-1910): Also known as Mission and Craftsmen style furniture, these pieces are utilitarian and simple in design.
- Art Nouveau (1890-1910): Curved lines, elaborate patterns and naturalism define this style.
As is the case with most antique investments and works of art, elements such as age, rarity, condition, and provenance drive how desirable and valuable each piece will be. When it comes to furniture specifically, however, there are a handful of specific components that further dictate the worth of a piece, such as amount of restoration, style, materials, and manufacturer.
Quality and condition are of paramount importance when valuing antique furniture. For instance, the less amount of restoration work done, the more valuable a piece will likely be. Many pieces of antique furniture have replacement parts and added hardware because of damage, which significantly lowers the value. Pristine original condition will demand a premium price. The American furniture market is especially selective about condition as opposed to that of 18th-century European furniture.
As with many markets, taste is a primary driving factor for collectors. For quite some time, U.S. collectors coveted 19th-century styles like Queen Anne and Chippendale. More recently, however, modern 20th-century styles like Arts and Crafts have gained interest.
Material-based elements and construction details have a large impact on what a piece of furniture is worth. For instance, common woods include mahogany, oak, pine, walnut, and rosewood, and some woods are extremely rare if not extinct, which drives up value.
When determining age and craftsmanship, details like hand-cut dovetail joints (a sign of a well-made piece) and solid wood (as opposed to plywood) backing are important markers. In some cases, a piece may even have markings, from pencil markings to inscriptions, indicating the manufacturer and origin.
Building Your Collection
For beginner collectors, it’s recommended that you start with smaller pieces and build up to larger and more expensive works over time. No matter what you buy, be sure that your source is reputable and experienced. In addition, keep the following tips in mind.
- Personal taste: Most experienced furniture collectors choose pieces based on more than just potential for appreciation. It’s essential to stay true to your own decor and lifestyle. Ask yourself: Can you still use it? Would it fit the aesthetic of your home?
- Budget: It’s important to first set a budget, and then buy the best pieces that your budget permits. It’s better to have a few really good pieces than a lot of mediocre ones.
- Cultivate: Collecting is a process and your tastes will develop as you learn more and grow, much like the market itself. Don’t be afraid to experiment with mixing styles and periods. For instance, it’s become a trend to blend vintage and modern aesthetics in the same space, though it’s best to try and use similar wood tones.
Both authentic antiques and quality reproductions are very valuable, but imitations still exist, as they do in most every market. However, with furniture, it’s generally simple for an expert to identify whether or not a piece of furniture is genuine.
While it’s not always possible to test a finish, it’s important to attempt to do so. Most pieces from the 1830s and earlier should be purchased with their original patina or finish. There are exceptions, however; Victorian pieces, for example, are fine to buy with cleaned and restored finishes, and some styles even increase in value after cleaned.
While it’s fine to buy restored furniture, it’s important to know what went into the restoration and how that affects the value of a piece. For example, a Chippendale desk with replaced feet will command a fraction of the price of one in original condition. This is not to say it’s not worth buying, but it’s not worth buying at a premium price.
Tips for Buying Furniture Online
You can now easily buy furniture online from auction houses and galleries. Buyer beware, however, as sales are often final and you will likely not have an opportunity to inspect the item in person. Consider following these guidelines:
- Ask to see the condition report from auction house or gallery. What does the documentation say or prove? Are the sources credible?
- If a document serves to authenticate the maker of the piece, who has paid for the authentication? What warranty is extended to you, in the case that the authentication is later demonstrated to be erroneous?
- What is the piece’s provenance?
- Has it been altered, or is it fully intact? What damages or restorations are there? “The most sound advice when buying furniture online is to be certain of age and condition issues,” reminds Torres. “I encourage the buyer to ask for a condition report, and ask a specialist at the gallery questions. There is no such thing as a bad question.”
- If bidding in an auction, register to bid several days in advance. Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid with each auction house on the platform and wait to be approved. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
- If bidding at auction, do your research beforehand to make sure you are confident that your bid is in line with past prices. Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
- Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or sales. Ask:
- How does the seller handle taxes?
- If buying at auction, will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How long do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the seller with questions?
- If you are not absolutely certain you want to potentially win an item at auction, do not bid on it. All sales at an auction are final. If you win, you can pay the auction house the next day and pick up your drawing to carry home. For larger items, the auction house will provide a list of good furniture handling or shipping companies.