Antique, vintage and retro are terms that get bandied about, almost interchangeably. This can be really confusing for the novice entering an antique store or mall. But if you educate yourself, the antique store or mall is not a scary place. In fact, it is a great place to score a special piece of better quality and price than you can find at a department store.
Generally, antiques are at least 100 years old. This was decided, for the purposes of import duties, by US Customs in the 1930’s; so, when US Customs created this designation, it meant the object had to be made before the 1830’s. Purists still hold to this 1830’s timeframe because it is before the Industrial era and mass production.
In the real world of dealers, we tend to call anything that is over 100 years old an antique. But how will you know that the dealer is correct? You need to look at style, materials and construction. This does not mean that you need to learn all styles, just the ones that interest you. If you love Victorian furniture and want to collect it (1830-1890), then learn about that and forget the rest.
But there is one murky area to be aware of—the antique reproduction. Starting the in the 1800’s, many manufacturers starting reproducing older styles. 19th century robber barons wanted houses that looked like European palaces filled with 18th century furniture and objects, but there was not enough of them. Consequently, there was a market for copies. These copies are now over 100 years old, but they are still reproductions. They are worth a great deal less than the real thing. An honest dealer will be up front about it, and these pieces are still well made and can be a real bargain.
This term comes from wine. A vintage is a certain wine made in a certain year. A vintage object comes from a certain time period and reflects the style of that particular era, like Art Deco or Mid-Century Modern. A vintage object is also at least 20 years old but less than 100 years old. Since it is now 2016, a lot of Art Deco objects are about to become antiques and Art Nouveau has already crossed that threshold.
Just like antiques, vintage objects cannot be a reproduction, so knowing your styles, materials and construction still matter. Fortunately, because these objects are newer, the internet can be really helpful. As an example, Mid-Century barware, which is really popular due to Mad Men, was all made by large manufacturers with catalogues. Many of these older catalogues are on-line. It is easy to pull them up and double-check a set of glasses.
A retro object is one that is inspired by an earlier time period or style. A retro object can be new or old, but it not a reproduction. Reproductions are copies. Retro is inspired by, copies some elements of, but also retains newer touches. 1980’s jewelry is a great example of retro. In the 1980’s, Art Deco was very popular. A lot of jewelry was made with an Art Deco aesthetic but in very timely colors and materials (think those big, chunky, bright plastic earrings with Art Deco geometric designs). A pair of earrings like the one I described should be categorized as vintage and retro, because it is both.
Next time, I will give you some pointers on how to judge a piece of furniture.
Sophia du Brul
Sophia is an antiques and vintage dealer at Heritage Trail Mall in Wilmette and Central Street Mall in Evanston. She has a degree in art history and fine art and grew up in the business. She also is an appraiser and an estate liquidator.