While, yes, shopping at your favorite haunts like Ikea and Anthropologie can be comforting, you haven’t lived until you’ve scoured through a vintage store or flea market, only to find a one-of-a-kind statement piece you’d never have the luck to pick up elsewhere. There’s just something so satisfying about falling upon an item that you know none of your friends will have, and watching the compliments roll in. Not to mention, sometimes, these items might be much cheaper than similar options at big box retailers.
However, even if you’re a vintage store aficionado, it's hard to know which pieces are actually worth buying vintage—maybe because you think they’ll be too much to care for, or maybe, on the opposite end of the spectrum, because you want to buy every bargain you come across. So read through the expert advice below on the top five pieces you should buy vintage, and find our handy antique shopping guide and graph at the end (pro tip: print it out and take with with you next time you go antiquing).
"Some people may be skittish about buying upholstered chairs vintage, but they tend to be vastly superior to modern creations," says Alison Abrams, general manager of Furnish Green, a vintage store in NYC. "Vintage upholstery charms and tells a story in a way that wood and metal aren't always able to. The colors, patterns, and textures of upholstered pieces give each one a distinct personality. Though they may come with a few stains or imperfections, they are well-crafted to withstand use."
"Though the construction [of] vintage furniture is usually sturdier, it's good to be aware of the fragility of old thread," cautions Abrams. "If [it] hasn't been regularly sat in for decades, you may find small splits in seams within the first few months of use. These can usually be easily repaired with a thick needle and strong thread." Plus, buying mismatched chairs creates a fun look. And if you’re not a fan of the fabric, just switch it out.
"Lighting can be some of the best buys on the consignment market, since you can often find standout fixtures that no one else will have,” says Elizabeth Brown, CEO of Sotheby’s Home. "However, be sure to double check your measurements. All too often, people buy a piece they love, only to realize it doesn’t fit in their space."
Another important factor to be aware of when buying vintage lighting is the voltage of the bulbs you use for them—things were a lot different back in the day! You should avoid using 100-watt or above light bulbs in vintage lamps, as they were not manufactured to run with bulbs that bright: They can short, or even start to burn.
This can be as much of a financial investment as it is an artistic one—not only will you not have the same print that pretty much everyone on Instagram has, but that painting of a random woman might just be worth a pretty penny some day. However, many people shy away from buying oil paintings that aren’t in the best condition, which is where Abrams says the issue lies.
"We occasionally find people looking to buy vintage who demand that a piece be impeccable with no marks or wear," she says. “But part of the joy of buying vintage is that pieces have been used and have lived prior lives. A few nicks or minor chips to a piece usually add to its charm, in our estimation.” While yes, your painting shouldn’t be completely scratched, a few specks on the frame and edges is fine.
While it won’t have that crisp new leather smell of a fresh piece, you’d do well to buy a sofa at a vintage store, as opposed to brand new, according to Brown. "You’re getting way more for your money by going with consignment couches" she insists. "But before going to an antique store or shopping online, it’s important to think through what you’re looking to buy. Are you looking for a specific style, brand, material, or aesthetic? By zeroing in on what you want, you’ll be able to focus in to help make your hunt successful."
It’s important to make sure, however, that the piece you’re buying has original leather, or has been rebuilt using vintage leather. This way, the sofa will have that fun, distressed leather look that’s so desirable, instead of peeling or cracking. And of course, make sure it’s supportive to boot.
Antique rugs are a major find, especially since their value tends to appreciate over time—modern rugs definitely don’t have the same resale value. They will be worn, yes, but as long as they’re worn evenly, they’ll still make an incredible statement in your home.
“Vintage rugs show off a wide variety of colors and techniques. Generally, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck, as you can buy a handwoven oriental rug, a retro hooked rug, or a woven wool flokati rug—the original hygge!—for around what you'd pay for a factory-made rug at a contemporary chain,” says Abrams. “They may have stains or wear, but as long as you know where you're using them and what parts may be covered by furniture, that's usually easy enough to work around.”
A few other things to look for? You want a handmade rug (not made by a machine), as they’re usually better quality, and you also want to make sure that it’s been taken care of—so no exposure to light or pet odors, and it shouldn’t have been washed with harsh chemicals. This will ensure your rugs last for a long time to come.
If you're someone who gets a little spend-happy when surrounded by one-of-a-kind bargains, this vintage and antique shopping guide will you determine what's worth it and what's not. The general rule of thumb: Ask yourself a few questions before you pull the trigger. Does this add character to my space? Am I only getting it because it seems more affordable than contemporary pieces? Will it last a long time?
And if you're in the mood to browse for vintage pieces now, check out some of our favorite online retailers, from Chairish to Dobbin Street, 1stdibs, and Amsterdam Modern, Etsy, and, of course, eBay.