Early in 2023, a 33-year-old home-design content creator named Justin Miller bought an old chair on Facebook Marketplace for $50. In June, he sold it for 1,700 times that amount — $85,000 plus $22,000 in seller’s fees — at a Sotheby’s auction.
The elegant high-back wing chair wasn’t just old. It was vintage.
One of only 50 or so ever produced, Sotheby’s called the 1935 relic “a rare and important example” that epitomized the work of “Danish furniture designer Frits Henningsen, who was known for his exceptional craftsmanship and innovative approach to creating beautiful furniture.”
So, how do you know if a dated desk, table or dresser collecting dust in your attic is old and obsolete or vintage and valuable? Here’s how to spot a treasure hiding in plain sight so you’re the person who sells it at Sotheby’s for five figures instead of on Facebook Marketplace for 50 bucks.
The terms “vintage” and “antique” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they denote different ages associated with a given piece of furniture. Some sellers, collectors and professional associations might have slightly varying standards, but the industry publication Veranda says the accepted definition of vintage is a piece that’s between 40 and 100 years old. Antique furniture, on the other hand, was crafted more than 100 years ago.
Produced in 1935, the Henningsen high-back wing chair that Justin Miller bought for a pittance and sold for a fortune is vintage — but in 12 years, it will become an antique.
The following list showcases some of the most valuable pieces of antique furniture, with price estimates based on their list or sale prices from recent auctions and private exchanges. If you think you spot one, call an appraiser right away.
- Federal/Classical Boston inlaid mahogany sofa (early-1800s): $30,000-$50,000
- Monumental classical mahogany bookcase (1830s): $50,000
- Queen Anne Lowboy (1770s): $100,000
- Louis XV ormolu-mounted tulipwood bureau plat (mid-1700s): $200,000-$400,000
- Chippendale carved mahogany highboy (mid-1750s): $425,000
- Chippendale George III Indian rosewood, fustic, tulipwood and marquetry dressing bureau (late-1700s): $400,000-$600,000
- Chippendale carved mahogany tea table (1760s): $2 million-$3 million
- Huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs (17th century): Up to $9.7 million for a complete set
Justin Miller’s Frits Henningsen chair isn’t the only example of rare and valuable furniture that wasn’t crafted in centuries past. These more recent vintage finds made their owners very happy at auction, too.
- 1974 George Nakashima Persian walnut conoid headboard and platform bed: $27,500
- 1958 Wharton Esherick sofa: $273,000
- 1930 Louis Süe and André Mare Furniture in Wood, Art Deco: $360,000
- Danish teak nightstand by Ølholm Møbelfabrik (1960s): $600,000-$650,000
Helaine Fendelman is the founder of the personal property appraisal and sales firm Helaine Fendelman & Associates. A nationally recognized authority in the arts, antiques and collectibles field, she’s a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America, whose board she sat on for more than 20 years. A leading specialist in American folk art, American decorative arts and furniture, and generalist household appraisals, she pens a monthly column in Hearst’s Country Living magazine called “What Is It? What Is It Worth?” and a weekly syndicated column, “Treasures In Your Attic,” for Scripps Howard newspapers.
Here’s what she had to say on spotting valuable furniture.
Maker’s marks are among the best clues for determining a piece’s age, designer and place of origin.
“Look for signatures of the maker,” said Fendelman. “Look for labels from the maker. Knowing the origin helps increase value.”
Remember that maker’s marks can be counterfeited, and the absence of one doesn’t mean the item isn’t valuable.
As With Most Collectibles, Condition Is as Important as Rarity
Like baseball cards, comic books, art and just about anything else that collectors covet, visible wear and tear reduces the dollar value of even the rarest furniture.
“Look for pieces that are in mint or near-perfect condition,” said Fendelman. “Any scrapes, scratches, repainting or repairs lessen the value of pieces of furniture.”
While defects aren’t good, quirks and oddities certainly can be. Just like coins with minting errors, peculiarities can make furniture unique — and therefore extra rare and valuable.
“Sometimes, the more unusual the piece, the more value it may have because it is unusual,” said Fendelman. “It is always a good idea, if the homeowner does think there may be value in some of their furnishings, to hire an appraiser.”
More From GOBankingRates