Free Antique Identification Tips

Kate Miller-Wilson
Examining antique books; copyright Flynt at Dreamstime.com

Whether you've picked up an interesting object at a flea market or you'd like to know a bit about the history of an item you inherited, there are lots of great free resources that can help. There's no need to pay a fortune in appraisals simply to satisfy your curiosity.

Identifying Antiques for Free

If you're interested in learning more about an object, the first thing you'll need to do is identify its category. Examine it carefully, and choose one of the following categories to describe it:

  • Furniture, such as chairs, tables, desks, or shelves
  • Silver, such as sterling or silver-plated flatware, tea sets, serving pieces, or dresser sets
  • Glass and china, such as dishes, wine glasses, and vases
  • Printed materials, such as books, pictures, magazines, newspapers, and photographs
  • Toys, such as dolls, cast iron toys, toy cars, and games
  • General antiques, such as hobby and outdoor equipment, household items, and farming implements

How to Identify Antique Furniture

Unfortunately, identifying the style of a piece of furniture won't help you determine if it's an antique. Manufacturers often reproduce pieces from other eras, and some styles, like Shaker wood furniture, never really go out of fashion. According to TLC Home, it's better to look at the construction and finish of the piece instead.

  1. Examine all sides of the piece. If it's a table, turn it over and look for marks or labels. If it's a sofa, remove the cushions to look for a tag or label. Most factory-made items will include some sort of identifier.
  2. Check the surface of the piece. Do you see saw marks? What about underneath or on the back panel of a drawer? If the saw marks appear to be semi-circular, the piece was probably made using a circular saw after about 1880. If the saw marks appear to be straight lines, the piece was likely made before 1910 using a straight saw.
  3. Look at the joinery. Are drawers dove-tailed? How many dove-tails are used to join the panels? Are they all the same, or do they appear to be cut by hand? If the dove-tails are uneven, few in number, and appear handmade, your piece of furniture likely predates the Civil War.
  4. Check the finish of the piece. If possible, find a hidden spot on the bottom or back of the furniture to test the finish. Dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol, and rub it gently on an inconspicuous surface. Does it dissolve the finish? If it does, the piece may be finished in shellac, a popular option before 1860.

How to Identify Antique Silver

Before the invention of stainless steel, sterling silver and silver-plated items were found in every home. Even today, silver-plated picture frames and other decorative items are popular gifts. There are several steps involved in identifying an antique.

  1. First, examine the silver for marks. If it's sterling silver, it will be marked with the word "sterling" or "925." You'll also see a symbol that represents the manufacturer of the pattern.
  2. Use a silver hallmark guide like the ones on Antique Cupboard or the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks to identify the manufacturer.
  3. From there, examine all the patterns made by this manufacturer, and match one to yours. Most silver websites, such as Antique Cupboard, will tell you when your pattern was made. If it's more than 50 years old, you have an antique.

How to Identify Antique China and Glassware

Wondering if your grandmother's china is antique or something she picked up a few years ago? The process for identifying china and glassware is similar to identifying antique silver.

  1. Start by looking for any markings. On many pieces, you'll find a maker's mark stamped on the bottom of the dish or plate.
  2. Use a site like How to Identify Antique Ceramics to match the mark to the maker.
  3. Browse a service like Replacements, Ltd to identify and date the pattern.
  4. For glassware, which often does not have marks, visit the Glass Encyclopedia from 20th Century Glass to find the type, age, and pattern of your piece.

How to Identify Printed Antiques

Identifying antique books or printed materials is often simpler than figuring out the history of other potentially antique objects. Most of the time, it's simply a matter of examining the piece.

  1. Look at the first few pages of an antique book or the back of a picture. Examine the fine print for etchings and newspapers.
  2. Often, you'll see the date of the printing right there on the piece. If not, you can use other markings as clues. Who is the publisher? What is the name of the photographer?
  3. Consult local history books or business history resources at your library to find out when this printing company operated.

How to Identify Antique Toys

Anitque doll; copyright Blackalex at Dreamstime.com

Because there are many reproductions out there, identifying an antique toy can be challenging. Start by following these steps.

  1. Examine the toy to see if it appears to be handmade. Prior to the industrial revolution, most toys were made by hand. If your toy looks carved or hand-painted, it could be old.
  2. Check to see if the toy has any labels or identifiers. This can help you like it to a manufacturer so you can determine its age.
  3. Look at the composition of the toy. Is it made of lead or cast iron? These materials were used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  4. If you can figure out the brand, look up your toy at Grand Old Toys. This site offers information about thousands of antique toys.

How to Identify General Antiques

For other antique objects, the process involves more examination of the item and its construction.

  1. If possible, try to classify the object so you can refine your search. Sometimes, an object, such as a buttonhook, may not even be used today.
  2. Examine it for signs that it may be handmade. Hand stitching, marks from hand tools, and a subtle lack of symmetry are all signs something was made by a person instead of a machine. While a few things are still handmade today, this can often point to an antique.
  3. Look for a patent number. If you find one, you can do a search for it in the database at the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Antique Identification Resources

There are free resources, both offline and online, to use to help identify many kinds of antiques. If you're having problems identifying your object, one of these resources may help.

Local Antique Dealers

Sometimes, local businesses will help you identify an object, especially if you're a good customer at their store. Take your piece to local antique dealers and auctioneers to see if any of them are able to identify it for you. If the item is large, take pictures to bring with you. If there is an antique show in the area, take the item there. In addition to the dealers that may be able to help, there is often an antique appraiser at the event offering free appraisals.

Local Appraisers

Many accredited antique appraisers offer free verbal identification and appraisal services. Check for appraisers in your area, and call them to see if they can help for free. Any information they tell you will be informal, but it can help you identify your piece.

Antique Guides from the Library

Visit your local library or bookstore and look for antique price and identification guides that are relevant to the type of piece you are trying to identify. If your library doesn't carry this book, you may be able to borrow it through inter-library loan. Ask a librarian to help you.

Jason's Junk Website

Jason's Junk is a message board that allows you to post a question and picture of your item. Other members of the community will then help you unofficially identify your object.

Kovel's

One of the most famous price guides and appraisal services, Kovel's can also help you identify your item. You'll find lots of photos and information about all kinds of antiques. Simply narrow down your search by category or brand, and start browsing.

Know Your Item's History

After you've determined whether or not your item is a genuine antique, you can proudly display it in your home and share its story with visitors. The more you know about an item's history, the more you will appreciate its beauty.

Free Antique Identification Tips