What’s the Difference Between “Antique” and “Vintage”?

When referring to something that is old, people often confuse and erroneously use the terms “antique” and “vintage”. Even if the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines antique as “existing since or belonging to earlier times” and vintage as “dating from the past”, these two are not exactly the same.

In the strictest sense, an item is classified as an antique or vintage, depending on its age. For those who are collecting or selling old items, it is very important to know the nuances between the two to know the item’s value.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition and examples of antique and vintage to make their distinctions clearer.

Definition of “antique”

According to the United States of Customs Service, the term “antique” refers to an object that is at least 100 years of age. Items such as furniture, jewelry, carpets, artworks, and housewares can all be antiques, as long as they fall within the given age range.

However, there are instances when an antique object may have undergone repair or restoration where parts of modern manufacture are incorporated into the original item. According to the U.S. Customs Service, if the original character of the object has been retained, it is considered an antique. But if more than 50% of the essential character has been altered, the item is no longer considered an antique.

For items that are above 300 years of age, they may be categorized as either fossils or artifacts. Fossils are natural finds, and they may include animal bones, seashells, and leaf impressions. Artifacts, on the other hand, are made or used by humans. These include bone tools, animal fabric, and wood tools.

Typically, fossils and artifacts are dug up by archaeological work or through modern land development and construction processes. Moreover, they can be unearthed in basements, attics, and private collections.

Examples of antique items

  • Georgian era (1714-1837): Chippendale chairs, oriental-style screens, and Wedgwood ceramic pieces
  • Victorian era (1830-1890): furniture with ornate styling and embellishments, glass table lamps on marble bases, ceramic Staffordshire animal figurines
  • Art deco era (1920s to 1930s): machine-produced objects like mirrors, perfume bottles, and glass vases with streamlined profiles and sharply defined angles

Definition of “vintage”

The primary definition of vintage has nothing to do with collectibles. Taken from the French word vendage, this word actually refers to wine. However, in the world of collectibles, vintage objects are younger than antiques. They come from the period between the 1930s and the 1970s or are simply outdated. They often bring nostalgia to people who have had memories about the item from the past. They are also seen as representations of a specific period in the past.

Examples of vintage items

The most common vintage items include clothing, watches, jewelry, other accessories, and houseware. Old media items such as postcards, cassette tapes, vinyl records, board games, photos, and cameras may also be considered vintage and popular among collectors.

Some more specific examples that represent a specific era include:

  • Hollywood-like 1940s bangles
  • 1960s Jacqueline Kennedy-inspired brooches and necklaces
  • 1950s poodle skirts
  • 1960s minidresses
  • 1970s tie-dye shirts

Many of these old vintage goods can still be functional. People can even incorporate them still in their daily life.

Tips to identify whether an item is antique or vintage

  • Look for signs that indicate whether the piece was machine-made or handmade. Antiques will definitely be handmade, while vintage items could be made with a machine. To know if it is handmade, the item may have signs of imperfections or marks from a handsaw if it is a wooden furniture.
  • If you are in possession of a furniture piece, one clue that it is an antique is if it contains different types of wood. The reason for this is that furniture makers didn’t want to waste valuable wood, so they incorporated it in hidden areas, like on the bottom of a drawer. Vintage furniture, on the other hand, will most likely constitute a uniform type of wood.
  • Check whether the piece or similar versions are still being used at present. If not, then you’re more like holding an antique piece.
  • Search for labels or stamps that indicate the year of production and the name of the maker. These may be commonly found inside a drawer, along the back, or on the underside of the furniture piece. If the item’s patent number is also there, try to search for it, and you will be able to determine the production date.
  • Signs of inconsistent wear may indicate that the piece is truly antique. Newer furniture will have a more even appearance of wear.
  • Before evaluating a vintage piece, check the original photos and research the designer trademarks and techniques. Inaccuracies such as cheap construction materials and shoddy craftsmanship you may notice from the item may indicate that it is a copy. A maker’s mark or manufacturer’s stamp may also indicate the authenticity of the vintage piece.

How antique and vintage items vary in terms of value

The “antique” and “vintage” label has no real effect on an item’s value. As a general rule, the value of an item does not correlate to its age, but rather to its demand in the market. For example, a very rare antique may have a lesser price than a vintage piece that has a higher demand. Take note that this market demand can dramatically change within the span of one to two decades, according to Eric Silver of Antiques Roadshow.

Other factors that determine an old item’s value are its historical significance and condition. Antiques that are still in excellent condition garner a higher value, especially if it comes from a reputable artist or maker and has a record of ownership from a significant person in the past that establishes the item’s authenticity.

If you’re not completely sure of the age and origin of the old piece in your possession, seek out a reputable expert. An antique appraiser or a vintage retailer should be able to identify the time period your item was most likely made.