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The 7 rules of buying vintage furniture online

You probably already know why you should buy vintage furniture: It’s better for the planet, adds character that something mass-produced simply can’t, and it’s often of much higher quality than whatever’s available at big-box stores. But with so much of it being traded online or through social media accounts, there is another question to contend with: How? As in, how can you confidently pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for an item that you’ve never seen in real life and that you can’t return?

We talked with vintage experts to learn the telltale signs that a piece is a good bet – or that you should walk away. Next time you’re tempted by the perfect midcentury credenza on Instagram, they advise following these rules.

Get more photos – and ask for video

When it comes to online purchases, your eyes are your guide. There will be no cushions to sit upon or wood grain to run your hand over. Any online seller will have already posted several photos of the piece you’re eyeing, but always ask for more – including of the item’s interior if it has drawers or doors, and its underside.

Devin Kirk, chief creative officer for Jayson Home, an online seller of both new and vintage furnishings, advises asking for high-quality “close-up photos of details or damage or anything you can’t see well in the (original) photos.” So, if the Scandinavian table you want looks like it may have a scratch on its surface, ask for a close-up.

Zack Herrera, owner of Pickin’ Through Time, an Instagram-based vintage shop, puts a premium on video footage. While sellers can (and do) enhance photos with filters and other effects, it’s more challenging to do the same thing to a video. If the seller refuses to send additional photos or video? Walk away.

Pay attention to the wood

Rita Nehme and Lizzie Trinder, co-owners of Salt Lizard, an antique and vintage store in Brooklyn, say a piece featuring elements not typically found in mass-produced furniture, such as “intricate designs, carvings and subtle features, like brass or bronze mounts,” is likely to be of good quality.

Another giveaway is the type and thickness of wood veneer. You won’t see poor-quality veneer on a well-maintained piece of furniture. Pay close attention to interior photos of drawers as well – Kirk says dovetail joints, a woodworking technique that interlocks two pieces of wood, are a sign of craftsmanship.

Check for stamps and dates

If you’re on the hunt for more valuable or rare items, Nicole Carter, owner of the Millie Vintage, an online shop specializing in high-end vintage furniture, advises checking for markers that indicate a piece’s designer, manufacturer or date. These can look like labels, stickers or stamps. Some items, such as always in-demand Knoll Barcelona chairs, may even have a paper tag attached to them. Knockoffs and reproductions, especially for super-trendy pieces (such as Saarinen tulip tables) are incredibly prevalent. Spotting those markers, Carter says, is the only way to ensure you’ve got the real deal.

Pay attention to time period

Some periods produced higher-quality furniture than others. Midcentury modern furniture, for instance, isn’t just trendy, it is especially well-made, Herrera says. He says anything made before the 1970s is a good bet.

As for antiques that have been around for a century or longer, Nehme and Trinder point out that if a piece has lasted that long, it can almost certainly endure another 100 years. If you’re on the hunt for European antiques, Kirk says, “late 1800s and very early 1900s is a sweet spot of beautifully made furniture that you can still find in really good shape.” He also advises going antique for large shelving units and kitchen islands with stone tops.

Look for well-done repairs

A vintage piece in mint, original condition will often be more expensive than one that has undergone some kind of repair or restoration work. So, unless you’re dead set on finding a true original, you can save money by scouting out furniture that has been carefully fixed up. To the typical buyer (i.e., not a serious collector) a sofa that has been reupholstered in a modern fabric might be more appealing – and certainly more durable – anyway. And as Kirk points out, “You’re buying this for your house, not a museum.”

Don’t compromise on structural integrity

Even if you’ve found the bed frame of your dreams, a major crack in the base means you’ve got to keep searching because you just won’t be able to use it. The experts we talked to all advise double- and triple-checking structural integrity. Everything has to work – for instance, drawers should open and close (ask for video proving they do). Furniture legs should also be level and intact. This is also true if you’re eyeing an upholstered item. Kirk warns: “Major upgrades to springs and cushions of upholstered items can get very pricey, so you want to be sure chairs and sofas are sittable.”

Go with your gut

You know what you like, and you know what works best in your space. Vintage and antique pieces add soul and depth to any room – and their imperfections are a part of that. At the end of the day, trusting your instincts might lead to a surprising win. Carter went with her gut on a pair of unmarked Lucite chairs, only to discover they were ultra-valuable “Daffodil” chairs by Erwine and Estelle Laverne from the ‘60s. Besides, as Kirk points out, “when it comes to vintage and antique furniture, there’s really only one of it – so when it’s gone, it’s gone. Missing out on those special finds can be heartbreaking.”

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