Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to tell "Real" Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs - Part 1: Talking to the Seller

Today in Janus Home's installment series "A Primer on Modern Furniture", we will start a “series within a series”, if you will, on a topic of great value to anyone considering buying modern furniture on the secondary market - "How can I tell 'genuine' mid century modern furniture from contemporary knockoffs"? Although this might seem like a daunting task, there are a few easy tips that we can give you that will make distinguishing the wheat from the chaff much, much easier. We are going to break this down into four separate posts: talking to the seller; powers of observation; commonly reproduced vintage designs; and last but not least, how to distinguish “quality” vintage furniture from lower-end or “middle of the road” vintage.

Part 1: Talking to the seller

Over the last five years or so, a little site called has positively revolutionized the way people buy and sell their stuff (in addition to making the newspaper classified section virtually obsolete!). You can find pretty much anything and everything you’re looking for on Craigslist – if you’re patient enough! It has also made it much easier for a buyer to connect directly with a seller without the intercession of a middleman or dealer. Let's say you're going to look at a pair of chairs that you found on Craigslist, and you want to be sure that they are actually vintage and not purchased last year at Target. The most obvious thing to do is simply to ask the seller where and when they got them! If you're at the seller's house looking at the chairs, and you ask them when and where they got them, and they say "Oh, I got them from my Grandmother and she had them for as long as I can remember", that's obviously a good sign. If they say "we got them at Macy's a few years ago", that's obviously not such a good sign. Admittedly, this is a pretty boneheaded example - however, sometimes the obvious solution to the problem is actually the right solution! It's pretty rare that a private seller of a piece of furniture will deliberately try to pass something off as something it's not, so you can usually get valuable information from them .

Things get a little trickier when you're buying from a resale shop, antique/vintage shop or antique mall. Of these three, the small antique/vintage store owner is most likely to provide you with accurate information about a piece. With an antique mall or a resale shop, it's usually almost impossible to talk to anyone who has any direct connection to the piece. Forget talking to the actual person who owned the piece, at that point you can't even talk to the person who bought it from the original owner! Although it’s something of a long shot, it can’t hurt to ask the antique mall staff if they could contact the dealer whose piece of furniture you’re considering. In any case, it's important to know the reputation of the shop that you're buying from! Talk to your friends and see if they've had any experiences, good or bad, with that particular shop. Social media sites like Twitter can also be a great way to get feedback from people on specific shops. These days, if someone has a genuinely lousy experience somewhere, it can get broadcasted to the web for all to see in a matter of minutes.

So, assuming you’ve exhausted all the possibilities listed above and are still unable to squeeze any pertinent information out of anyone with relation to the piece of furniture you’re interested in…you’ll have to fall back on your powers of observation! Stay tuned for our next installment, which will provide you with some great pointers on how to do just that.


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