November 28, 2023

The simplest way to make a room feel cozy and lived-in? Add an antique. Well-worn, patinaed   pieces lend an easy warmth to a home, fostering a sense that the room’s decor has been thoughtfully collected over time—even if the house is brand new. But while an antique’s transformative effects may feel effortless and immediate, shopping for them spurs a host of questions: Where should you be looking? What should you be looking for? How do you know if the price is right? We turned to design experts from across the South for a little treasure hunting know-how.

Do Your Research

“I think the best thing I have done to educate myself on antiques is to begin collecting catalogs from Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions of great collectors like Givenchy, Jayne Wrightsman, and Bunny Mellon,” says Caroline Gidiere, an interior designer in Birmingham, Alabama. “There you can find the very best examples of everything from silver and china to period antiques, antiquities, and art. And I never pass up a museum of decorative arts, like the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg or the Musee de la Marine in Paris. Seeing museum-quality period pieces in person educates your eye like nothing else. After that, it’s easy to spot a winner online or at local antiques shops. With the catalogs, you also learn what the best of the best with a big name premium costs, so you can extrapolate from that whether what you have found is overpriced or not!”

Make a Smart Investment

“Consider your alternatives when deciding if the price is right,” notes Jessica Lev, who owns an antique sourcing firm in Houston. “If you are weighing an antique versus a modern piece of furniture, remember that an antique will hold its value more than something new. They generally also have higher quality materials and construction. Furniture over the last 100 years has been mass-produced, while anything antique was made by hand. In addition to the construction or production of furniture, antique wood is actually quite different from modern wood. In the 19th century, the wood available at market was usually from large, old trees, with thick planks and more interesting grains. Wood from the 20th and 21st centuries is different— the trees are younger, planks are narrower, and there is less interest in the grain.”

Shop Reliable Sites

“For a well-curated online shopping site, I trust the quality of items listed on Chairish and 1stDibs. For these, it’s helpful to ask the seller for additional images,” says Dallas designer Noel Pittman. “You can also find wonderful pieces on estate and auction sites like Invaluable and Live Auctioneers. I try to stay open-minded when shopping for an item; more often than not I find something beautiful that wasn’t on my original shopping list. I’m very much of the mind that if you love something, you can make it work.”

Set Reasonable Expectations

“Understand the antique seller market and their mindset,” says designer Alexandra Howard, who works out of both Charleston, South Carolina, and New York. “The internet has greatly enhanced the shopping experience and enables global access to countless items, but the flattening of the globe makes it more difficult to find incredible deals because the pool of interested buyers has also greatly expanded, so antique sellers can be very patient before agreeing to a sale.” Howard also suggests conducting thorough reconnaissance before pulling the trigger on a piece: “If you are purchasing in person, and even more so if you are buying online, a full gamut of risks is inherently associated with the purchase of an antique. The size, scale, provenance, historicity, and repair status are just a few examples of things to consider prior to purchasing.”

Look for Potential—and Makers’ Marks

“Harness the ability to see the potential in something and look beyond the current state of an item when necessary,” advises Birmingham, Alabama, decorator Sarah Catherine Moore. “Are the bones good? Maybe it just needs new fabric, a paint job, or new hardware. Don’t miss out on a great piece just because its current state doesn’t work. You should also look for manufacturer labels; these will likely be hidden on the bottom of a chair or stamped inside a drawer. Finding an origin name or date on a piece will help you vet the quality, value, and authenticity of a piece. But don’t shy away from something you love if you can’t find a label, either!”

Strike a Balance

“Being a Gemini and a designer, I’m a sucker for a pair. I seriously get weak in the knees when I spot a beautiful pair of English demilunes or French chairs,” confesses Charleston, South Carolina, designer Matthew Monroe Bees. “But I have learned that the most interesting spaces often contain several individual gems to balance out the room. It’s the those showstopper antiques that really are the best.”

Be Willing to Search High and Low

“I often visit sites like Chairish or 1stDibs to keep my eye trained to spot antiques and vintage pieces,” says Rashida Banks, a designer and home and lifestyle influencer in Washington, D.C. “Home decor magazines are very helpful with that too. I then go to either Facebook Marketplace or local shops to find unique pieces.”

If You Love It, Don’t Leave It

“Buy the vintage glassware and find space for it; hang the piece of art that might require rearranging what you already have,” says Raleigh, North Carolina, decorator Maggie Dillon. “You won’t regret a single purchase, but I can guarantee you’ll forever be thinking about that pair of chinoiserie lamps you let get away.”


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