Buying Vintage Furs: A Guideline on How Not to Get Skinned

An Emba Lunaraine mink stroller.

A mahogany mink stole.

Buying vintage fur is tricky. There are so many varieties and not all of them hold up well over time. Most people just look at a fur, or stroke it and say, “soft!” and think that’s all there is to knowing if it’s worthy of your dollars and collecting space. More often than not, you should not buy the ones you find in many thrift/vintage clothing stores, unless it’s a high-end shop where you can be assured that the owner has knowledge of what she is selling and is willing to explain and disclose all to a potential customer.

First of all (here comes a vent), I must address the fact that NOT ALL BROWN FUR IS MINK! There are so many people who see a brown fur with a striped pattern and erroneously label it “Sable Mink.” There is no such thing as a Sable Mink. A sable is an animal with long, silky fur and a mink is another animal with shorter fur (of different lengths, depending on variety and breeding). Sable is at least 10 times more costly than mink, is lightweight, yet warm, while mink is heavy (in a full-length coat), but not as warm, although female skins are lighter and more supple than male skins, as well as being more expensive.

Mink is beautiful in all its colors and types, but Sable is almost indescribable in its opulence, luxury and, dare I say, decadence. There is something delightfully wicked about donning a sable coat and thinking you could buy either the coat, or a house (in some areas of the country). A furrier once draped me in a full-length Barguzin (finest in the world) Russian sable coat with a hood (which was also lined with sable), and after I recovered from the swoon, I of course said I would choose the house, along with the more reasonably priced mink coat he was offering me. The sable, by the way, had a price tag of $275,000.

A black fox shawl collar.

A yellow mink coat.

Quite often, what a fur actually is, rather than mink, is “mink-dyed muskrat”. Muskrat was a cheap alternative to mink and was dyed brown with black stripes to mimic the look of the more expensive fur. It appealed to the masses, as muskrat could be dyed and sheared to look like many other furs that were much more costly. Squirrel and marmot, which are also dark brown, are often confused with mahogany mink, but are shinier and flatter than mink, with no discernible sharp guard hairs that you can easily see on a mink.

The Types of Fur
The types of fur you will find in vintage shops and online auction sites, in order of most likely to find in excellent, wearable condition, are: mouton lamb; sable; mink; fitch (cousin of mink, blonde with brown markings); stone marten (sable family, identified by blonde patches under the chins); raccoon; broadtail lamb (flat, wavy, like ironed velvet); Persian lamb; opossum; fox; squirrel; muskrat; marmot; ermine (white with black-tipped tails); sheared beaver; chinchilla; seal; Hudson seal (actually not seal, but sheared muskrat or skunk); monkey (egads!); and bear (ick). Leopard and Cheetah are rare and cannot be sold over state lines. People mislabel these furs in order to sell them, by calling them “leopard-stenciled fur,” or the now-popular “Geoffrey cat” (spotted bobcat). Lynx, another spotted cat, is not endangered, but is harder to find.

Just a quick aside on fox: Silver fox is NOT silver! Blue fox appears to be silver and is pale gray with a blue cast, caused by the addition of a “brightener” in the processing. Silver fox is black with silver tips.

With fur being a bit unpopular these days (although not with me!), one can acquire a fur for a mere fraction of the original price and be quite happy (I can attest to that personally). One need not live in Siberia in order to enjoy fur, as they come in many styles besides a coat, such as a short jacket, stole, headband, fling/boa, collar, and even a pillow or teddy bear to hug while watching old movies.

The most important thing in judging the condition of a vintage fur is condition of the skins, not the actual hair itself. The fur can be glossy and feel soft to the touch, but if the skins are dried out, you will have a fur that is not wearable because it will split at the seams or worse, tear in the middle of the skins, which is much harder to repair than split seams. When you find a fur you like, assess it the following way:

A broadtail lamb jacket with mink collar.

A Persian lamb capelet.

Feeling the Skins
First, scrunch the piece up in your hands to feel the suppleness of the skins. They should feel like a limp dishrag, with no stiffness, no crunchy noises and no sharply discernible “corners” forming when folded. There should be no dusty feeling in your hands, leaving you wanting to run to the sink to wash.

Next, run your fingers through the fur, searching for splits in seams or other places. In a long-haired fur like fox, blow on the fur to part it in order to find hidden tears in the skin. Fox is particularly fragile when it ages and it is nearly always hiding a tear or two at the areas of the hardest wear, such as the back of the neck, underarm seams, back of shoulder seams and edges of pockets. If you find tears in a fur, in most cases it is not worth buying because it will either cost a small fortune to have a furrier repair it ($65 to sew a tiny tear) or, if you try it yourself, the skin may be too dried out to even hold the needle and it will tear out immediately, making the initial tear even worse. I have even seen the irreparable damage done by people with good intentions and a bottle of glue, as they attempted to fix a tear without sewing. In all but a few cases, glue should not be anywhere near a fur, as it is nearly impossible to keep it off the surrounding hair and will ruin the fur for good. The one exception would be Persian lamb, which tends to have tiny splits where the curls lift from the hide. One can use a tiny drop of glue on a toothpick, hold the curl to the side and dot the glue on the hide, and then press it gently into place, successfully repairing the fur. This is not recommended unless the skin is too thin and fragile to hold a needle without tearing out.

A Russian sable pelt stole.

An opossum stole with mink tails.

The Sniff Test
The next test is the sniff test. If you smell mothballs, cedar, smoke or perfume, you should know that it’s there for good, and is especially important because you now can be sure that the fur was not stored properly. Furs should be stored in a furrier’s cold storage vault, cleaned and conditioned at least every other year ($60), and while in your home, should not be subjected to a cedar chest, plastic bag, mothballs or other clinging odors. Home storage should be a cool closet, with space on either side of the garment to avoid flattening of the fur. A cotton dust cover may be used; a pillowcase or old cotton sheets are ideal.

Light is also bad for fur, as it will fade or oxidize unevenly. I have seen mink stoles with stripes on the shoulder where the light hit them and they bleached out. The person selling one of these furs claimed it was an exotic coloration of the skin. Do not be fooled by that, as no furrier worth his salt would ever make a garment from mismatched skins.

Examine the Lining
The last thing to check is the lining. It is very expensive to replace a fur coat lining ($250 to re-line a mink stole!). I had a coat lining done a few years ago and it cost $600 (at Neiman Marcus). The coat was a one-of-a-kind designer mink, in traffic-stopping canary yellow, so it was definitely worth it, although the original lining was in fine condition. Usually, a deteriorated lining is a sign that the fur is too old and you should probably pass it by. Check the edges of the lining for fraying, which sometimes fools the eye, as it may appear to be part of the jacquard pattern on the silk. What you are really seeing is the fact that the warp threads in the weave are worn away, revealing the darker weft threads. This cannot be repaired and should be avoided. The most common areas of lining wear are the back of the neck (from skin oils), edges of pockets and areas which may have been handled often by fastening shut or clutching with the hands. Now I know why my grandmother always wore a silk scarf with her mink coat. I recommend this to prevent skin oils from damaging the neckline of the lining and fur. Stains are impossible to remove from linings, so if there are very noticeable ones, steer clear of this fur as well.

A raccoon muff purse

All right, now you know quite a bit about identifying a good fur. How much should you expect to pay for it? Here is a list of styles and fur types and the approximate figure you might have to pay (unless you are very lucky):

• Full-length Mink coat: $400-$750
• Mink Stole: $200-$400
• Mink Collar/Boa: $20-$75
• Sable Coat: $12,000-plus
• Sable Wrap/Boa: $120-$200
• Persian or Broadtail Lamb Coat or Jacket: $50-$250
• Muff (Fox, Mink, Lamb): $40 – $150
• Full Pelt Stole (w/heads & feet, Mink, Stone Marten, Sable): $35-$150
• Other types of furs in coats, jackets and stoles will usually range from $50 to $300, although Chinchilla may cost thousands if it’s in excellent condition.

You Have a Fur; Now What?
The last thing I would like to address is how and when to wear a fur. I see so many people come in to my shop, admire a fur and then wistfully say they love it, but they have no place to wear it. My answer is that they should not think fur is just for formal wear. One can wear a mink stole almost anywhere, over jeans worn with heels to dinner, or to a show or even shopping in a nice mall! Why not? It’s fun and you will feel like a million dollars wherever you go.

I particularly like to wear the full-pelt stoles, which I call my “critter stoles,” especially the Stone Marten ones you used to see on “Lucy” and other actresses of the golden age of Hollywood. These stoles were made with an alligator-clip fastened under the chin of one of the pelts. If anybody looks askance at me, I unfasten the clip and make the critter “talk” to the person, in essence, having an impromptu puppet show! I can assure you, it melts the ice and makes for fun conversation, as well as looking very elegant draped across one’s shoulders!

Don’t be afraid to wear your vintage fur with pride. You are recycling, as well as paying tribute to the styles of the past. You are also channeling the happy feeling of the original owner, as you must imagine how excited she was to get the fur in the first place, and how glamorous she surely felt as she wore it to dinner, theatre, parties and the like. The happy and positive energy I glean from these things is what compels me to collect them. I have so many furs, people think I’m a bit nuts, but I love each and every one of them.

Take a chance, buy a vintage fur (carefully) and I know you will soon understand the feeling I’m talking about. You too can be a Vintage Diva in your fabulous vintage fur!

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