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10 Tips For Buying Vintage Furniture

11th February 2020
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With more and more of us thinking about where our furniture comes from and the resurgence of love for so-called brown furniture and antiques, I thought it might be timely to write a guide with tips on buying vintage.

1 There is no substitute for time spent on research.

set of four original tolix cafe chairs from discover attic

set of four original tolix cafe chairs from discover attic

We’re all familiar with the phrase “to throw money at it”. That’s what happens when you don’t have time to shop and/or to seek out the best prices. I’m often asked how to save money when it comes to furnishing our homes and the truth of the matter is that time is your best friend. You need to be able to set aside a couple of hours to search online or days to visit antique fairs and car boot sales. If you’re in a hurry then you’re just going to throw money at the nearest department store and be done with it. If it really matters to you then take the time to look for it and to find the best deals.

2 Don’t assume that what you are buying is the finished piece

chaise longue for sale on ebay for £70

chaise longue for sale on ebay for £70 can be reupholstered and rebuilt

I have bought many things from eBay, car boot sales and weekend markets. Some of them have stayed as they were when I found them. Some of them have been bought for the shape or the period and then altered to suit my own needs. For example my chaise longue came in fairly good nick and was only reupholstered last year but I have seen similar ones on eBay selling for a tenner. Yes you will have to completely rebuild and reupholster them but that is what I have just had to do to mine anyway and I had to much more for it in the first place. We also grabbed a fabulous table from the side of the road that was hideously varnished and tatty and a quick rub down with some sandpaper and disinfectant and it looks great. So don’t rule out something really cheap if you think you can make something of it. This applies also to painting cheap furniture which is sometimes vintage (but can also be from Ikea although that is not what this post is about so we’ll move on).

3  When shopping online get the search terms right

cesca style chairs but still vintage from peanut vendor

these are cesca style chairs  from the peanut vendor which has been clear they are vintage and in homage to the original

This is one of the key ways to save precious time when you are hunting for something specific. If you want six chairs then say so. If you want mid-century or 1970s then stick that in the search terms. Use the extra filters because there’s an awful lot of “vintage style” which is just irritating to wade through. Try sticking “vintage dining chairs” into eBay and (when I did it) there were over 7,000 hits. But when I put “set of six mid century dining chairs” it came down to six. You can also specify the distance from your postcode (see no 10 for more advice on getting your purchase home) as well as the condition, the materials, the colour and the period it was made. The more precise you are the less irrelevant stuff you will have to wade through. And if you’ve been too precise you can always widen it back out. Also run a search with spelling mistakes as that can unearth hidden gems as things will attract fewer offers as it’s harder to find. There is an app called Fatfingers which tells you the most common spelling mistakes on the thing you are looking for.

4 If you are offline then get there really early. Or quite late. 

vintage rocking chair from doeandhope

vintage rocking chair from doeandhope

It’s tough to find a bargain these days. Sellers know the value of their stock and the demand for it as well. The days of picking up a genuine Eames chair for 50 quid at a car boot sale are well and truly over. But you can score if you arrive at the right time. Get there early when it’s all just warming up and you may score a good deal as you can set the seller’s day off to a good start by offering fast. Alternatively take a punt that there will be good stuff left at the end of the day when a vendor might find it easier to sell it a bit more cheaply rather than pack it up and take it back home again. Don’t rock up at lunch time on a nice day and expect to fill your boots with bargains.

5 Set up Google and EBay Alerts 

bastia ceramic light from thefrenchhouse.net

bastia ceramic light from thefrenchhouse.net

If you know what you want and are prepared to wait for it then this is a good way to sit back and let the internet do the work for you. But be prepared to move fast when the message comes through.

6 Have a conversation

flamingo table and chairs by eero aarnio for asko via punchtheclock

flamingo table and chairs by eero aarnio for asko via punchtheclock

Chat to sellers and ask questions. Many of them are passionate about their wares and appreciate interest from customers. Ask them how to restore it or if they know the history and get chatting. This not only increases your knowledge of what you are buying, which might help with future purchases, but might also result in a friendly 10 per cent knocked off the price.

7 Invest time before money

brass measuring cups via reclectic vintage interiors

brass measuring cups via reclectic vintage interiors

This is about more research and checking the details. When you have seen the piece you like make sure you check the maker’s mark. Can you find the name of the piece and google to see if it actually existed and hasn’t just been made up. If you’re shopping online most buyers will include any relevant marks or labels. Ask to see if not. Look out for words like “style of” or “in the style”. Make sure that it is what it says it is.

And Double check the size of the thing you are buying. I’ve come unstuck with that so many times. Fortunately just one small pieces that don’t matter – vases and pots for example but if you are buying a chair then make sure you check how tall the back is – can you rest your head if you want to, how tall are the legs? Is it a small chair for sitting upright or a wide one for curling up in? All these things must . be checked before you hand over your credit card details because even if you can return it, it’s a right royal pain not to mention a waste of all that time as you will have to start again.

8 Know your measurements

vintage cinema seats from lovelyandco

know your measurements in case you come across something like this: vintage cinema seats from lovelyandco

We’ve all done it – been wandering round the shop or the souk on holiday and seen the perfect piece and realised that we have no idea how big that alcove is where you thought you might put a small chair. Or exactly how wide is the room where you wanted to put a new rug. Or even can you fit that vintage wooden pizza board on the shelf? Obviously you can’t measure everything but key room measurements including alcoves and chimney breasts (in case you find a fabulous picture to hang) are always worth having stored either on your phone or on a piece of paper in your bag. That way if you stumble over the perfect pair of bedside tables you’ll know immediately if they will fit as you have a note of the size of the gap between the bed and the wall. Go and spend half an hour just noting down what might be key measurements and then you’ll have them. It’s like insurance, you may never need it but when you do you’ll be so glad you had it.

9 Enlist help from the experts

six vintage ercol dining chairs via etsy

six vintage ercol dining chairs via etsy

If all this seems like too much, or you fell at the first hurdle of investing time before money then there are lots of places which will hunt for you. I have mentioned  Your Antique Sourcing Studio before which is s one such organisation based in north London. Founded by Samantha Hansard and Tamara Broido, the pair have both spent years sourcing and styling for private clients and commercial projects. They have now teamed up to provide a more dedicated service that, while based in North London, can help anywhere as they regularly travel to fairs all over the country. Sourcing fees vary on a project by project basis so contact them to find out more. But if there is a particular Etsy store or local vintage shop that you know and like then get in touch and tell them what you are looking for.

10  How to get it home?

lamps covered in used detonator flex from Hungary via re-foundobjects.com

lamps covered in used detonator flex from Hungary via re-foundobjects.com

Many of the larger pieces are collection only and if you are shopping from Brighton and see the perfect chairs in Edinburgh then don’t despair. Companies like Shiply and Anyvan are there to help. You explain what needs moving, where from and where to and when by and they come back to you with offers on what it will cost. The model relies on them filling a van with things and dropping off and picking up in a round trip so it’s economically priced and environmentally friendlier as you’re waiting for a whole van to be filled rather than paying for a single journey with one table on board. Usually the more flexible you can be and the longer you can wait the better the price. I paid £50 to get my six mid-century dining chairs from Sheffield to London in three days. I could have paid less but I decided to go with the mid price and the best reviews – interestingly neither the most expensive or the cheapest had better reviews. Once again a quick burst of research will pay dividends – do they wrap the furniture in blankets? Will they bring it into the house or leave it on the pavement. Check the details and choose the courier that meets your needs.

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  • Georgina Alexander 14th February 2020 at 9:18 am

    Great blog! And don’t forget there are now some great online sources of specifically vintage pieces such as vinterior, and of course the wonderful Etsy, which only sells handmade or vintage items. As Kate says, the real bargains are buying pieces in need of some serious tlc, but if you don’t fancy having a go at restoring It yourself then there are lots of pros out there like me who are always happy to do it for you. And that way you get a unique vintage piece, tailored to your exact spec. Happy hunting! Georgina, Revivr Design

  • Renaud 12th February 2020 at 11:54 am

    I love a vintage piece, it adds so much character to a room, but it’s not always easy to find a gem. Thank you for the tips, which I’m sure will come in very handy next time I am hunting for a vintage piece.

  • Mandy 11th February 2020 at 7:30 pm

    Excellent round up of tips Kate – many of which I have realised through trial and many errors – but the only problem I foresee here now is that more people will be competing for that Perfect Thing I Saw At A Bargain Price !

  • Karen Parr 11th February 2020 at 11:55 am

    Thank you for this. More useful tips to add to my ever-increasing list in my notebook. 🙂
    I just need to see if I can find some shipping companies like this here in France as it costs an arm and a leg. It doesn’t help that I also chose to live in the countryside. C’est la vie. 😉

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