Identifying Antiques

I am not an expert in anything. I have however been around a fair amount of time and have learned a few things. In fact, I am still learning everyday in this business..

In the world of antiques and collectibles, I get asked a question a lot. “How do I know it’s real?” There are several ways to identify if an item is real or not. The simplest test is when you are looking at an item or are offered an item, does the deal seem too good to be true. If it does, warning signs should start flashing.

There are very few “undiscovered” treasures anymore. In the car world, there are probably no more Duesenberg barn finds, or my son went to Vietnam and his classic hemi with 25 miles on it is still in the garage after all these years. The “I bought a house in Portugal and found the locked barn full of classic cars, over 75 of them” story resurrects itself online every few years.

In the jewel world there are no more Hope diamonds, and the chance to find a Rolex in a thrift store box of watches is probably not going to materialize. The old frame in the attic with one of the original copies of the constitution is another…you get the idea.

Who is selling, giving or brokering the item? Do they seem legit? Are they nervous or twitchy? Is this someone you have dealt with in the past or someone you just met? Do they act or seem credible? You can spot the signs if you watch closely and let your intuition guide you. If things seem weird, walk away.

If they are offering you something that is supposed to be worth thousands, but are offering it to you for hundreds, why are they being so generous? Why are they not cashing in for themselves? Walk away.


Let’s start with a few giveaways to help educate you in what to look for.

1. Phillips screws. The credited inventor of the Phillips screw was John P. Thompson. After failing to interest manufacturers, Thompson sold his self-centering design to Phillips in 1935. So if the 100-year-old metal cabinet or the antique mechanical bank you are looking at has Philips screws in it, you can be pretty sure it’s a reproduction.

2. Wooden furniture. There are several things you can look for on wooden furniture. Very early furniture, 1700’s will be oak. It was the most common wood. A large amount of early US furniture was made out of pine because it was plentiful and easy to work.

When looking at early furniture there are several things you can look for. The backs of early furniture were almost always unfinished. Furniture was made for use, and most stood against the wall. So when you had 100’s of chores to get finished, you didn’t waste time finishing a surface no one would ever see.

Check the joints. Early furniture was joined with dovetails which were hand cut so they tended to be uneven. If everything is spaced perfectly, they were machine cuts and much newer. Old furniture will have tool marks, nicks, dents and other distress marks on it.

Early furniture was handmade. Not every leg, edge or detail was symmetrical. Even early screws and hardware were handmade, blacksmiths were not machines, so these items are uneven as well.

If you look and its plywood, particle board or has extensive repairs with modern materials and it is premium priced, walk away.

3. Finishes. Early furniture finish was almost exclusively shellac. If the finish dissolves with denatured alcohol, it’s shellac. Lacquer was invented after 1860. Some early pieces were finished with milk paint. Remember, it can be a challenge, as some pieces have been painted, stripped and repainted dozens of times.

4. Check the wood. There are hard woods and soft woods. Your fingernail can leave a mark in soft wood but not hardwood. Look at the grain. Hard woods have a tighter grain structure because the growth rings of the tree are closer together. Soft woods are pulpier so the rings are farther apart resulting in a coarser grain. Hard woods are valued more.

5. Is it veneer? Veneer is a thin layer of expensive wood glued over a piece of lesser quality wood. This allows for a cost savings when building the furniture and allows a manufacturer to stretch the good expensive wood over many pieces. Not all veneers are bad. More expensive and better quality veneers have a seem and seem to mirror itself. This is called “Book matching”. The wood veneer in Rolls Royce dashboard is usually book matched.

6. Does it have inlay work or carving? Inlay is when a design is cut into the wood creating a void that is filled with an “inlay” piece of differently colored or higher quality wood to create a pattern or design. Carving is when designed are carved directly into the word surface giving a three-dimensional look to the wood. Many old gaming tables feature inlays to create the patterns for chess or checkers and many pieces of German made furniture feature carvings that tell stories or define the area it was made with a particular style of carving.


As you can see, there is much to watch out for and this is just scratching the surface. If you take glass for example, many of the old glass companies that went out of business had their molds bought up by newer glassmakers. Why is this important? Because as the years advanced, so did the chemical composition and techniques for making glass. Therefore, you have to be able to distinguish “new” glass from “old” glass. Just because it looks like a piece of 1920’s glassware, it might be much more modern and you could easily get taken.

Not all is doom and gloom! Take your time and become your own expert. There are many books on how to identify furniture, glass, banks, marbles, watches…anything you can collect, someone has written a book on what to look for and what they are worth. If you can’t buy a lot of books, use the internet as a good source of info. Just don’t limit yourself to one website.

Most towns have collector’s clubs and local experts. As you start to hang out at antique stores, yard sales, flea markets and other venues you might start to see familiar faces. Strike up a conversation. Many collectors love to share their knowledge to a beginner to start them off right. Ask questions and learn.  As you start to learn about identifying items, you may even decide that you want to switch to a different category all together!

If one gets past you and you pay too much for something, (it will happen) don’t worry, it’s happened to all of us. Just learn from the mistake and keep moving forward.

My best advice? Learn everything you can and buy what you like. Use your new knowledge to avoid that “too good to be true” deal and wait for the real deal.