Shopping for antiques can oftentimes be a lovely treasure hunt, but others it can be a muddle of indecision about what to spring for and what to pass up. We caught up with three antiques experts across the country for their advice on how to spot a diamond in the rough, where to score the best finds and other top tips that will have you stocking your abode with treasures is no time.
1. Trust your instincts. Shopping for antiques is often about your gut reaction. “If I can’t stop thinking about something after I walk away I better go back and buy it,” Ben Cochrane, partner at Caroline Faison Antiques in Greensboro, NC says. This reaction rarely comes from looking for a specific piece and is often something you just happen upon, so it’s always best to be open to possibility. Whether it’s an unsigned painting or a set of mismatched porcelain, if something speaks to you, snap it up. But always be aware of craftsmanship.
2. Education is key. If you’re not shopping with an antiques expert, it’s important to give yourself a crash course on period styles. Michael Aiduss of Michael Aiduss Interiors + Architecture in Northern New Jersey advises perusing the Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction catalogues. You can also view their extensive websites and sign up for e-newsletters in the area of your particular interest. This is a great way to start becoming familiar with period pieces. “By studying furniture you become adept in knowing the things like nuances of carvings,” Aiduss notes. “Then when you see a good example and a bad one, you can really identify when something is well done.”
3. Know where to go. All of our experts agree that consignment shops are a great place to score some treasures. Carol L. Vargo, co-owner of Gray Antiques and Interiors in Baltimore, MD, suggests making them a part of your routine in every town you visit. If you’re more interested in hitting estate sales, Adiuss recommends seeking out communities where there are grand houses. “You’ve also got to be comminuted to the process: get up early and visit every floor and nook of the home,” he says. “Lots of things get passed up because there’s often a lot of clutter. Look everywhere, even in dark basements.” If you’re willing to go the distance, Cochrane advises visiting Parma, Montpelier, Brösarp and Brimfield for the antique shows. And of course, the Paris flea market is always a delightful stop.
4. Don’t be tied to one time period. When on a shopping foray, try not to look exclusively for any one particular style. “The key element we are constantly looking for is classic design and quality, regardless of time period,” Vargo says. “A mix of time periods provides freshness and avoids a cookie cutter room. Today is all about individual style.” She also shared that pieces must be timeless and of high quality to avoid looking trendy or slap dash.
5. Look for scale and proportion. One great way to spot originals is to keep an eye out for the sizes of pieces. “Furniture from the original time period tend to have better proportions than reproductions,” Aiduss notes. Many reproductions from the turn of the century tend to be more petite than the original. When the scale is correct, that’s when you know you’ve found something great.
6. Always go for a sideboard or credenza. According to Vargo, every home should have one of these items, whether it be 19th century French mahogany or mid-20th century teak. “This piece warms up every room, provides visual contrast and creates wonderful opportunities to display treasured photos, decorative accessories and flower arrangements,” Vargo shares.
“Decorating with antiques is all about the personal. There should be no single or rigid rule about what to buy.”
7. You need a little vision. Try not to discount a piece if it has a wobbly leg or a scratch in the wood. There’s very little that can’t be easily repaired with a quick DIY job or a trip to a furniture repair expert. “If veneers are popping off or there’s water damage, that’s usually a no-go,” Aiduss says. “But if it’s loosened joints that need a little glue, fastening or blocking, that’s a really easy fix.” Also keep in mind that you sometimes have to overlook the rough condition of the wood and look at the shape of the pieces. “The silhouette of furniture is similar to admining a silhouette in fashion,” Aiduss shares. “We are attracted to the lines of a table just like we are the cut of a dress or suit; it’s a personal reaction.”
8. Be prepared to overlook flaws. What some would call a flaw, true antique lovers call patina. Cochrane notes that the only flaw is a style that he doesn’t prefer. Otherwise, if you can’t get over a crack, a staple or a replaced leg on a piece that is supposed to be 300 years old, then it’s best to shop for brand-new furniture. “Today’s discerning clients do not seek perfection and crave rooms that are layered and genuine,” Vargo opines. “Pieces that have heritage and patina are crucial in avoiding an impersonal room.”
9. When in doubt, reupholster. Don’t let worn upholstery dissuade you from purchasing a piece. “Antique or vintage chairs and sofas often have great lines and are the easiest to fix,” Vargo shares. This option is usually more budget friendly, environmentally sound and keeps your purchases local. Why buy a new piece that’s often poorly made in China when you can rescue an antique and update it with a fabulous fabric that perfectly expresses your personality?
10. Don’t take yourself (or your decor) too seriously. There’s so much you can do with a coat of paint. It can transform something that’s ho-hum into a real showstopper. “I love to take a period chair and make it more modern with a bright color,” Adiuss says. He also suggests painting a piece with an ebonized black finish to make an antique look really smart.
11. Have confidence in your own taste and style. This final bit of advice from Vargo bears noting: “Decorating with antiques is all about the personal. There should be no single or rigid rule about what to buy. Albert Hadley, whom my partner and I admire greatly, said it best, ‘Decoration is really about creating a quality of life, and a beauty in that life that nourishes the soul, that makes life beautiful.’ That’s what this is all about, not just what’s in and what’s out.”
Pictured above: Caroline Faison Antiques as featured in The Scout Guide Triad—Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, North Carolina.