Whether you've inherited something mysterious or simply want to know what you're seeing in your local shop, these tips can help you identify what your antique find might be. From there, you can begin the process of assigning a value to your treasure.
How to Find Out What It Is
If you can tell by looking at the item that it fits in a common category of antiques, you can go from there. However, if what you have isn't necessarily furniture or a sewing machine or antique china or a piece of jewelry, you'll need to dig a little deeper to get some answers.
Look for Patent Numbers
Many antiques made in the 19th and 20th centuries feature a patent number. You may see the letter "Pat" or the word "Patent" followed by a string of numbers. This number can be anywhere on the piece, and with smaller items, it's a good idea to turn it upside down to look on the bottom. For any patent since 1790, you can input the number on the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office. In many cases, you'll get a PDF of the original patent application. This will tell you exactly what you have.
Examine the Item for Marks or Labels
Many items also feature maker's marks or manufacturer labels hidden on the bottom or back of the piece. You can use these marks to help you figure out what the item is. For instance, the Victorians had specific tableware pieces for each type of food they served. You may have a piece of antique silverware with a strange spade-like blade. You can find the hallmarks on the back of the piece, look those up on the manufacturer's website or a page about antique identification marks, and discover you have an aspic server. The same goes for strange types of china and other similar items.
Check the Sears Catalog
For many years, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog was the place families would go to find just about anything they wanted to buy. According to the History Channel, it was basically the Amazon.com of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You could buy anything from farm equipment to fine china, plus car parts, mantle clocks, and even kits to build houses. If you have a vague idea of the date your mystery piece was made, check Sears Catalog Archives online. You may find a match!
Look for Similar Items in Antique Shops
Sometimes, you may have a piece that just defies categorization. It's made of cast iron, but is a farm implement or something used in the kitchen? If you can't assign a category to your item, you might have to do a bit more in-person research. Take a stroll through the local antique mall and look for items kind of like what you have. It may not be the exact thing, but if you see similar features, you'll be able to narrow down the item's general purpose. Then you can look on eBay in that category to get more clues about what you might have.
Ask an Older Friend or Relative
Even though many antiques were made before older friends and relatives were born, they may remember seeing something similar in the homes of grandparents. If all else fails, bring the mystery item to your next family reunion or church gathering. At the very least, it will be a conversation piece. At best, you may get exactly the answer you need.
Enjoy Solving a Mystery
While you can quickly identify some pieces, others may take some time to get a sense of what you have. If you have a sense of the category for the item you have, these antique identification tips can help. Take your time researching the item and enjoy the thrill of solving a mystery.