Four things to consider before paying top dollar for vintage decor and furniture

Joanna Linberg  – June 5, 2018 | Updated July 8, 2019

There it is: A set of gorgeous wishbone chairs, the walnut frames glowing from careful linseed oil treatments, the woven paper cord seats only barely indented from use. But the cost gives you pause. Are these chairs–or any piece of well-known vintage decor–worth the price tag? Ask yourself these four questions to find out.

Is the Item in Great Condition?

If the answer is no, pass. Or at least assess how much money, time, and work it would take to bring the piece back to good condition. If the piece shows significant damage, but you can’t bear to walk away, try to negotiate with the seller by showing price comparisons of items in comparable condition to back up your bid.

Tip: Use eBay, 1stDibs, Chairish, and even Etsy for quick price checks. Search both the designer’s name if you know it and the style, material, or approximate year of manufacture.

Is It Rare or Does It Have Verifiable Pedigree?

A limited-run vintage decor piece is like a cult Burgundy: There’s a lot of demand among collectors and not a lot to go around. So if you spot something you know to be rare–either based on your experience hunting or on information from the seller–and auction houses online show comparable prices, jump.

If you’re not sure, look for the designer’s name or mark (often found on the underside, back side, or in drawers). It guarantees authenticity, but also gives you a tool for research. Again, Google is your trusted companion. Search the designer’s name and the type of piece to see if the item was mass-produced (think: the Eames chair) or not. You should note if a piece has a reproduction on the market. If it does, the real deal’s value as an investment is likely to get weaker.

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Once you’ve verified the piece is authentic or rare, do a gut check. Do you want it because it’s your style and exactly what you’re looking for, or because it’s a status item?

Tip: If you find a designer you love who is seemingly out of your price range, dig into their history to see if he or she designed for other manufacturers before they became household names. Milo Baughman, for example, also designed for Mode Furniture, Thayer Coggin, and Drexel, to name only a few. You could find authentic work for less premium prices.

Is It Exactly What You Need in Terms of Scale, Function, and Look?

In the excitement of finding a recognizable vintage decor piece, it’s easy to say “yes” to bringing it home. But before you do, run through your needs and compare it to the item, particularly in terms of scale, function and look.

Scale: Is there room for this piece in your house? Is it the right size in relation to the other items you own? If you live in a small space, can you fit it through doorways or up stairs?

Function: If it’s a storage piece, will it actually hold everything you intend it to? Does it have glass doors when you’re actually hoping to conceal something? Are there only three chairs available and you really need six?

Look: Is the finish going to clash with what you own? Is the era compatible with your existing decor (or does it mix it up in that cool eclectic way)?

If a piece ticks all your boxes, there’s just one more question to ask.

Does a Reproduction Make More Sense for You?

Yes, there are strong environmental reasons to buy vintage, but if you’re having trouble finding exactly what you want at a price you can afford, look into reproductions. (Design Within Reach is the obvious place to start, but even Target now carries a line of mid-century look-alikes, Project 62). Though some have murky licensing arrangements (or none at all), many famous pieces are legally reproduced and sold at just-above-mass-market prices. If the look or style is more important to you than pedigree, shop around online before hitting vintage furniture dealers.