(Not) Selling Your Vintage Furniture: The Unwanted Top 5

This typical 1940s-era vanity needs refinishing and doesn’t have much practical use today.

As the owner of an antiques business, I often get walk-in inquiries from people who have inherited old furniture and want to sell it. They usually leave disappointed.

Dealers can only buy furniture that is in good condition and in high demand, because it has to be resold quickly. Good bets include bookcases, benches, chests of drawers and tables—but only if they are made with quality craftsmanship and beautiful wood. Unfortunately, a lot of vintage furniture just isn’t desirable any more. In fact, some of it can’t even be given away. Sometimes it is too worn, but more often than not, it just isn’t practical. I usually tell the unhappy owners to take it to the Salvation Army.

Not surprisingly, thrift stores have an overabundance of the Top 5 castoffs listed here. There are exceptions of course. Antiques with famous provenance and those dating to the 18th century or earlier can have very high value. And examples that are particularly unusual or ornate will usually sell. But, for the most part, this Top 5 list is just… unwanted.

1. Vanities

Vanities reached a height of popularity between 1930 and the 1960s, with a steady decline after that time. In the past, most homes had only one full bathroom. Women and teenage girls couldn’t take time to fix their hair and put on make-up there, because other people in the house needed to get in. Thus, a girl’s bedroom would include a dressing table or vanity for that purpose. Some of the earliest dressing tables were gorgeously hand-carved, but they became much more utilitarian (and thus more affordable) in later decades.

Now, there are enough bathrooms in our homes to allow for the luxuries of time, privacy, blow dryers, curling irons, sinks and running water. Dressing tables just aren’t needed anymore and take up precious space in a bedroom.

Vintage vanities only had a few small drawers (for holding brushes and cosmetics), so they can’t really be repurposed for anything else. On top of that, they almost always require refinishing. Perfume spills, rolling mascara wands, nail polish, styling gel and face powder made a big mess and ruined the surfaces. Some people sand them down, paint them and use them as decorative accent pieces, perhaps in a guest bedroom. But mostly, they remain unwanted.

Antique carved wardrobes are beautiful but too massive for most homes.

2. Armoires

In the 19th and early 20th century, people dressed more formally. They bought (or made) a few articles of high quality clothing and kept them for a long period of time. Men and women may have had only four or five outfits, some for daily use and some for church. Victorian homes didn’t have closets, so heavy wardrobes were used instead.

Now, homes feature huge walk-in closets. People dress casually and own tons of T-shirts, sportswear and jeans that can be purchased relatively inexpensively at all kinds of chain retail stores. Armoires take up way too much space, require rooms with very high ceilings, and can only store a fraction of the clothes in a typical household.

Dealers remember a time when these pieces could be repurposed as entertainment cabinets. They were deep enough to hold a box TV as well as a video tape player and an abundance of 8-inch VHS cassettes. When not in use, that stuff could all be closed away neatly inside a beautiful antique. But that opportunity was short-lived. Today, bulky electronics have been replaced by streaming movies and wall-mounted flat screens. These mammoth pieces of furniture are unneeded and unwanted.

Petite, drop-front writing desks have lost their purpose in the 21st century.

3. Drop-Front Writing Desks

Few people write formal paper letters anymore and these desks are way too tiny to hold computers and keyboards. They were used strictly for paying bills and penning a few dainty thank you notes (by apparently very small people). The desks almost always need refurbishment, due to spilled ink, soiled blotters and legs nicked from feet and chairs. Like vanities, they are sometimes refinished and used as decorative accents, especially if they are distinctive. I admit that I have one in my own dining room, but only because it’s a family heirloom. I use it to hold stamps, pens and coupons. I sure don’t sit and write at it.

Vintage coat racks can be desired if they are unique or embellished, but most people don’t want them today.

4. Coat Racks

Like armoires, coat racks were used in the days when homes didn’t have closets. They might have novelty appeal today, but most people don’t want a mess of hats, jackets and wet mufflers cluttering up their entranceway. Some antique dealers will buy them because they can be tucked away in a corner, but they won’t pay too much. They’ll also buy the more elaborate hall trees, with storage seats, umbrella stands and mirrors. But stick coat racks are pretty unloved. In my business, furniture that doesn’t sell after a certain amount of time gets hauled off to auction, where I usually take a loss. Way too many coat racks have ended up in those truckloads for me to ever gamble on another one.

Rocking chairs take up too much room and are slow to sell, so antique dealers don’t like to buy them.

5. Rocking Chairs

What? Everyone loves rocking chairs. They are so quaint and homey. They look great on a country porch, next to pickle barrels. We rock babies in them! When I first started out in the antiques business, I fell for all those adages too. Then I found out that rocking chairs take up a large amount of space where another more expensive piece of furniture would better fit. Nothing else for sale can be displayed on them. Customers trip over the rockers. And nobody wants them. Look around in any high-quality antique store and you won’t see very many (if any) for sale. That’s because we’ve all learned the hard way.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who appraises books and collectibles.

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