A true antique is generally considered at least 100 years old. Were the family matriarch a piece of furniture, she’d likely qualify as an early-century period piece. But just as older humans are valuable fonts of accumulated experience and wisdom, true antiques have a value that far exceeds their worth as mere pieces of furniture or household items.
Indeed, there’s something about the warmth, the heft and the historical resonance of antique pieces that make them great additions to nearly any home and decorating scheme. When you buy an antique, you become part of its story—its history or provenance—which lives on after you. And it so happens that we live in one of the richest antiquing areas of the country, especially for American furniture.
Entry to the world of the old can seem daunting. Prospective collectors don’t always know the names of styles or periods that fit their tastes, lifestyles or budgets. So to get started, “I would recommend doing a little bit of research,” says Dawn Lamb, owner of Lamb’s Loft in Claymont. “There are now plenty of opportunities for gathering information, either via the Internet, bookstores or the library. When you’re dealing with antiques, you really need to know what you’re looking for.”
Some of the major American furniture styles are William & Mary (1690-1725), Queen Anne (1725-1750), Chippendale (1750-1780), Federal (1790-1820), and Arts and Crafts (1895-1920). Each is defined by unique design characteristics, materials and assembly techniques. Smart dealers and appraisers can even identify makers by key techniques.
There is a variety of books that offer advice on dating, rating and purchasing antiques. Magazines such as Antique Week and Antiques Digest and TV shows like “Antiques Roadshow” offer significant insight, dealers say.
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Another great source can be eBay, says Barbara Madora, who sells antiques in several shops around Wilmington. There, consumers can see how items are priced by age, style and condition. However, it’s best used as a guide to the spectrum of pricing rather than a firm idea of what dealers charge, Madora says. “There’s stuff that’s really dirt cheap, and there’s stuff that’s really high-end, too. You just have to do your research.”
If you’re entering the process with a fair idea of what you want, a simple Google search can provide a wealth of detail. “Put in ‘antique cherry table’ and it’ll call up all sorts of stuff,” Madora says. “Then it’s time to go shopping. Still, there’s a bit of research that needs to be done; not everyone who hangs out a shingle saying “antiques” offers quality goods.
Start with a list of reputable dealers—available online—then embark on the process with a willingness to learn, says Josephine Keir of Josephine Keir Ltd. The more knowledgeable and reputable the dealer, the more they will do to educate the consumer.
An open mind will serve you well as dealers assess how to pair their stock with what you say you want, Lamb says. It’s important to consider that many older pieces that had specific uses—pie safes, for instance—have no real purpose in modern homes.
“You have to think outside the box when it comes to antiques, because many of them, especially furniture, may have been used for one purpose when they were made, but could now be used for another purpose,” she says.
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A fine old buffet, for instance, could, with minimal alteration, serve as a beautiful bathroom counter, with only the addition of a modern vessel sink and small holes for plumbing. In her own home, Lamb keeps her grandparents’ antique icebox as a kitchen storage unit. It’s a useful piece of furniture and a fond reminder of family.
In such situations, advance research comes in handy. It pays to know the difference between a piece that would best be re-purposed and one that would hold more value if it were refinished or restored, Lamb says.
With antiques, as with all things, there is a broad spectrum of pricing. As such, there are different kinds of collectors, from those searching for pieces with a bit of charm that fits their style to collectors of rare and valuable items.
Keir suggests that before you begin searching, you set a price limit or budget. It’s also beneficial to keep in mind that, though cooperating on price is often part of antique shopping, only independent owners negotiate. Dealers with booths in antique malls often have to compensate for rental fees, so they may be less willing to flex on marked prices.
That means a personal relationship with a dealer can pay off, Keir says. Not only can you ask to be alerted when a particular piece or style comes through the shop, but many shopkeepers are more willing to offer deals to repeat customers than to strangers.
“Because of the relationship, I’m going to do the very best I can for them,” Keir says. “Certainly, if there’s a deal to be had, the kindness and generosity is going to go to the person that you’ve worked with.”
At the same time, most dealers will go as far as they can to help customers find what they’re looking for. “It’s all about a positive relationship with the buying public, making them as happy as you can make them, because they’ll be back and they’ll bring people with them.”
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Happily, there are many venues to shop for pieces of the past. Most dealers also sell at shows and via the Internet. Here are a few places to start.
At Olivier Fleury (57 W. Lancaster Ave., Malvern, Pa., 610-722-5900, ofleury.com), the accent is on French antiques. The goods include such bonbons as a Provencal painted mirror boasting the original glass to faiences, the colorful pottery shaped into platters and other earthenware, and vaisseliers, cupboards crafted in Provence.
At Joseph C. O’Neal & Sons (11112 Laurel Road, Laurel, 875-5261, onealsauction.com), there are opportunities to bid on antiques just about every week, either on Friday or Saturday. A fixture in Laurel since 1971, O’Neal’s is a favored destination for collectors of art, glass and Americana.
Attic Treasures (2119 S. Dupont Blvd., Smyrna, 653-6566) is one of the few antiques stores on U.S. 13 to survive the advent of Del. 1, which whisks motorists out of the path of commerce and directly to the beach. The shop keeps irregular hours, but the wares are extraordinary, including good pottery, vintage silver and charming oil paintings.
More than 1,000 items go on the block at noon on any given Tuesday at William H. Bunch Auctions & Appraisals (1 Hillman Drive, Chadds Ford, Pa., 610-558-1800, williambunchauctions.com). Bunch is a good source for painted Pennsylvania furniture. But regulars are always on the lookout for a surprise in the jumble of art, furniture and bric-a-brac.
For folks who appreciate wares that show their age or enjoy a bit of fixing up, the non-profit Atlantic Community Thrift Shop (Del. 26, Ocean View, 539-3513) is a great place to find well-priced goodies.
One of a number of noteworthy stops in Centreville’s antiques district, Windle’s Art and Antiques (5716 Kennett Pike, Suite C, Centreville, 651-9222) specializes in oil paintings, jewelry and furniture crafted before 1830, presented in a homelike setting. Visitors will also find accessories such as period fireplace tools and lighting fixtures.
Barbara’s Antiques & Books (5900 Kennett Pike, Centreville, 655-3055) is a longtime purveyor of hard-to-find and out-of-print volumes, books about Delaware, regional Americana, postcards, paper ephemera and vintage photographs.
Folks who like a good rummage are singing the praises of Opera House Antique Center (308 Delaware St., New Castle, 326-1211), a cooperative where shoppers can explore a wide variety of curios, collectibles, art and furniture.
Lamb’s Loft (16 Commonwealth Ave., Claymont, 792-9620) offers antiques, furniture, glass, jewelry and more from estate sales and elsewhere.
For 38 years, the Pennsbury-Chadds Ford Antique Mall (641 E. Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford, Pa., 610-388-1620, pennsburyantiquemall.com) has been a gathering place for buyers and sellers, with more than 100 dealers. The two-story emporium includes vintage furs, antique dolls, sterling silver, Civil War memorabilia and much more.
Conducting auctions and appraisals in the Mid-Atlantic area, Mid-Atlantic Antiques (927 Centre Road, Wilmington, 528-0206, www.mid-atlantic.com) offers everything from furniture to Oriental porcelain to English ceramics. Check the website for schedules and updates on merchandise.
Josephine Keir Ltd. (102 Savannah Road, Lewes, 645.9047, www.jkltd.com) may specialize in fine rugs, but you’ll also find antique jewelry, American and English furniture, and accessories.
H.L. Chalfant (1352 Paoli Pike, West Chester, Pa., 610-696-1862) is one of the area’s premier dealers. It offers American furniture, decorative accessories and fine art from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Looking for a unique blanket chest? This is your place.