Antique or Vintage?

The word “vintage” and “antique,” are often used interchangeably to describe an item that is considered old.  In everyday conversation that might be acceptable, but when used in the buying and selling of items, those two words have distinct meaning. 

So what’s the difference?

While both terms, “antique” and “vintage,” do carry the idea of “old,” understanding the specific meanings that people who are knowledgeable in the area use will go a long way toward a better understanding when you are buying or selling these types of items.  There are more specific guidelines in relation to firearms and some clothing, but for this article goes,we will try to stick to what we know which is furniture and related items.

Antique

“According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, an Antique is “a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to various customs laws at least 100 years ago”.

The Antiques Roadshow guidelines specify that for an item to be considered antique it is “generally speaking, an object of considerable age valued for its aesthetic or historical significance. In the antiques trade, the term refers to objects more than 100 years old.” So, trade standards suggest that the word antique be relegated to items greater than 100 years old. However, some may use an 80 year marker as it reflects the span of two generations, with one generation traditionally considered to be the length of 40 years.

U.S. custom is also in agreement with the 100 year guideline as it pertains to labeling an item an antique. However, it also adds a quality standard to the definition stating that while it is acceptable to repair or restore an antique, the item must retain its original character and be less than 50% restored to be considered an antique.

However, it is important to note that cars are often listed as “antique” after a mere 25 years.

Vintage

Many people assume that if an item is not antique then it must be considered “vintage.” This is not always the case.  Market standards are not as ridged when it comes to use of the word “vintage” due to the fact that it has just recently become fairly common to use when marketing items.

Many trade experts use the term vintage similarly to the way that they use antique, however “vintage” refers to items more than 50 years old, but less than 100.

The term Vintage often causes confusion because it has several different accepted meanings.  One of those “general” meanings implies that the item was popular in a different era. Used in this way, “vintage” may not even mean that it was produced in that era, but simply that it mimics the fashions of that era. This can cause trouble, because most people expect the term to mean something more when applied to something that is being bought or sold.

Many people expect it to have some standard of date applied to it. Accordingly, most experts in the trade have decided that the term “vintage,” when used in a way similar to the term “antique,” refers to items that are over 50 years old, but less than 100. This kind of standard works when dealing with truly old, but not antique, items but falls short when using the term to describe something newer, and from a specific era. Understanding how the term came to be used in this way can help set the path for clearer communication.

The term “vintage” was derived from the dating of a bottle of wine, where the vintage date, or the date the grapes were produced, provided additional information about the value of the wine.  As such, a vintage item should actually be dated. Just as it is used to refer to the exact year a variety of wine was created, it should also when buying and selling goods, be used to detail the date or a similar time frame. However, the term can also be loosely applied to items produced to mimic fashions or items of a certain era, and not necessarily mean the item was produced in said era.

For many items, “vintage” is used to refer to the year or era that the item first gained popularity. “Vintage 1971 Peanuts”, for example, indicates that the item is not a replica of the 1971 Peanuts item, but an item actually produced in 1971.

Trade standards are not as demanding about the use of the term “vintage” as they are the use of the word “antique.” This is likely because the term has only recently become widely used in marketing items. A standard may one day be set more firmly, but for now, the above are considered the most widely accepted uses of the term.

Why should you care?

Well, the value of any particular item can be subjective, but labels attached to the item may influence the value attached to it. An item may simply be old or used and should not be considered “vintage” or “antique” because it holds no additional value due to its age. Putting the label of “vintage” or “antique” on an item implies added value but that doesn’t mean the item falls into the generally accepted definitions and guidelines for the term.

The bottom line for you, the consumer? If at all possible, assess items you want to purchase in person. A once-over may quickly give you a good idea whether a “vintage” or “antique” label truly belongs to the item in question. And when in doubt, ask. Or take a few photos and do a little research yourself.

Armed with a better understanding of what the terms mean, you are ready to buy with confidence.

If you have a question about a particular item we have in stock in our store, feel free to ask a staff member. We often get background information on some of our older items when we get them and can pass a little of its history on to you.  We can tell you if an item is truly antique or vintage, or just a cool secondhand piece that may not be “antique” valuable but would still look great in your home.