One of the most frequently asked questions in the world of antiques is simply “what is an antique?” To some extent the answer is contextual. If you ask the U.S. Customs office, they’ll tell you that it’s anything that was made at least 100 years ago. A museum might limit their definition to pre-20th century furnishings, artifacts and works of art, while the department of motor vehicles classifies any car made at least 25 years ago as antique or “classic.” Clothiers define “vintage” as anything over 25 years old. Antiques classification, then, is definitely not a cut-and-dried issue.
So, how do you define “antique?”
In the world of collectibles the definition can be quite a bit broader than the parameters described above. Today’s antique dealers and collectors can’t seem to agree even among themselves, but if you look at the inventory of most antique shops, you’ll likely see items dating from pre-Columbian times right through to the plastic action figures that your children played with. Thus, a good broad definition might be: An antique is an object from a past era having special value or desirability because of its age, historic significance, nostalgic quality, uniqueness or intrinsic worth.
What’s the difference between vintage and retro?
Sometimes, you will see things described as “vintage” or “retro.” These things can be one and the same, but technically have different definitions. A “vintage” object is something 25 years or older (or close to it…toys from someone’s childhood may be only 20 years old but still have a vintage quality). “Retro” items evoke nostalgia for a bygone era. They may be vintage as well (a Lite Brite toy from the 80s), or contemporary items that look older (My Little Pony toys that look exactly like the ones from 1983 but are sold at Target and Walmart).
Remember: Age doesn’t always equal value.
Regardless of what you call an old object, what’s more important to understand is that not everything old is necessarily desirable or valuable. This goes for early 20th-century antique furniture or 70s vintage memorabilia. Many things are just “old used stuff.” By learning to discern the difference, you’ll be in a better position to make good decisions regarding what to hang onto, what to sell and what to throw away or donate. Many times a tax deduction is worth more than the cash you can realize from a sale.
Two ways to figure out if your antique or vintage item is valuable
Keep these two points in mind when evaluating the desirability of your things. First, consider the law of supply and demand. Take sewing machines for instance. Almost every home had one, and very few people threw them away. Therefore, there are many still out there. Not many folks want them today, so their values are low.
Now old toys, on the other hand, go the other way. Most were played with til broken and discarded. Today, many people collect them, so the supply is low while the demand is high, thus, they command big money.
The second thing to consider is: Is the item common or damaged? Collectors don’t want either, so only expect to sell things that are unusual, in good condition, or that have intrinsic value like silver or gold.
Once you know what you have, you can start figuring out what it’s worth. This can be tricky, but we’re here to help: Other posts will discuss exactly how to do that. If you can’t find the answer you’re looking for, use our “Ask the Experts” form at the bottom of this page, and you may find it the subject of a future blog!
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