Is It An Antique? Who’s Asking?

This Victor model RC-3 radio was built in the 1920s. Is it an antique?

A topic that invariably generates a lot of heat and a lot less light is the question of what qualifies as an antique. The use of the word itself is a little odd in that it is one of the few words we use to describe an object that doesn’t have anything to do with the physical characteristics of the object.

There are some diehards who stick to the “one-hundred year” rule no matter what. That little bit of foolishness is brought to us by the U. S. Customs Service and has little or nothing to do with the real world, in keeping with a long standing governmental tradition that itself is now well beyond its own definition of “antique.” The Customs Service uses 100 years as the definition of an antique solely to determine if import duties must be paid. So, in fact, that definition is nothing more than a “revenue ruling” pertaining to imported artifacts and has nothing to do with the quality, collectability or value of an individual item. In my case, I have a reproduction of a Federal over mantle mirror dated on the glass as 1903. Does that mean that on Jan. 1, 2004 it suddenly became an antique?

So what is the definition of an antique? There are as many definitions of “antique” as there are “experts” on the subject. One of the primary considerations in determining if something is an antique is who wants to know and why. Is it someone trying to justify or increase a price or an appraisal by tacking on the word “antique” to its description? Is it someone trying to lower a price by using the word “antique” in a derogatory manner to denote something worn out or no longer useful? Or is it someone just looking for another word for “old”?

The definition and use of the word “antique” must always be dependent on the context of the usage and the category of the item being described. Let’s examine a few specific cases:

In the case of radio receivers, I doubt there are any in existence today which would qualify as “antique” by the 100-year rule. But I am sure that antique radios exist. So, how old does a radio have to be to qualify? The earliest working wireless voice transmission was officially recorded in 1906, but it probably happened earlier than that. However, radio as a social phenomenon, did not occur until the 1920s, when it entered the living room. Yet, none of these units would technically qualify as antique. But you would have a major problem on your hands if you tried to tell that to a member of the Antique Wireless Association.

This 1914 Model T Ford is not yet 100 years old. So does that mean you can’t call it an antique?

Automobiles fall in the same category. A relatively new invention, as these things go, the automobile, as a practical matter, has been around for just about a hundred years or so. But saying that a 1914 Ford Model T is not an antique defies reality. Some states even issue “antique” license plates for cars when they reach a certain age, sometimes as young as 25 years.

The same holds true for many of the things invented in the 20th century, such as computers, stereos, microwave ovens, etc. Have you ever seen the original Amana Radar Range? It’s about the size of an upright freezer and has its own power supply. If that’s not an antique then nothing qualifies! And a Commodore 64 computer certainly is archaic enough to be antique.

If you asked 10-year-olds about this Commodore 64 computer, don’t you think they’d call it an antique?

So what about furniture? How old does a chair have to be to be referred to as an antique? Furniture is a little more difficult to get a handle on than radios, cars or computers because it has been around for so long. With the other objects we know the history of the genre with certainty and are familiar with the technological developments that accompany them. But a basic chair hasn’t changed much in design or function in several hundred years. Sure, styles have changed, as have construction techniques and materials, but isn’t a chair still a chair? For some people, antique furniture has to be from the 18th century. For others it just has to be before the Industrial Revolution or before the Civil War or before the turn of the 20th century or before World War II or before or after some other arbitrary date or event which is significant only to the people discussing it.

For some people, furniture has to be completely handmade to be an antique, although the amount of handwork involved in the 19th century American factory system might surprise a lot of experts. “Factory made” from 1850 is not the same as “factory made” in 1970. And craftsmen in England continued to do a lot more handwork than was done in America until well into the 20th century, so there has to be room for discussion on that point.

Perhaps in the end the definition of antique for furniture, as well as the definition of antique for almost everything, else hinges on three points: The artifact, whatever it is, must derive some of its value due primarily to its age; it must be a genuine artifact of the genre; and it must represent the original period of the invention, development or introduction of the object.

A Queen Anne chair from 1720 certainly meets all those criteria, but so does a Queen Anne chair from 1925, if the changes in technology are taken into account. A chair from 1925 incorporates some of the new ideas of the period in wood usage, glue technology and finish composition, very few of which were used in period Queen Anne chairs and very few of which are still in use today. Thus it is as unique in its category as the chair from 1720. And to a collector born in the third or fourth quarter of the 20th century, it is relatively quite old.

Is it an antique? Who wants to know?


Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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  1. Nick Ryan says:

    Hi, interesting article, I would be happy for the Customs Dept. to continue assessing antiques at 100 years old then and keep quiet, if they reduce the age you will all suffer !!!!!!!!!!

    Merry Christmas to the World from Australia

  2. Bill Castle says:

    We kind of bypass the issue in our store signs and website descriptions. We say we carry Antiques, Vintage Items and Collectibles. That way, the buyer determines what they’re looking at.

    On the broader point, we tend to list items from the 20th century as “vintage”, but we’ve seen people searching for “antique computers”. To me, that would be a Babbage Engine, but one of them bought a Vic-20 from us (that’s the little brother to Fred’s C64 above).

  3. Malcolm Overton says:

    It is a well written article but having traveled in other parts of the world, it seams to be more of a world definition as there is a distinction between vintage and antique. Having said that, if it is still an older piece and the buyer likes it, than it is no problem to collect. I do know that Europeans laugh at America’s antique stores showing things at 40 years old to be antique.