Flip It or Leave It: How to Evaluate Old Furniture For Value

When flipping furniture it’s important to understand the existing value of the piece. If you picked the piece up at a second hand store, flea market, yard sale, or from a pile of freebies on the curb then odds are good–though not perfect–that it is a newer piece and therefore has less value overall. However, you’ll want to always do a thorough check of your piece before you begin refinishing or otherwise making changes. Rule number one in valuing furniture: if there appears to be any chance of the piece being a valuable antique, resist the urge to alter any part of it until you have had it appraised.

So, prior to paying for a professional appraiser, how can you determine whether that lovely piece of furniture you just stumbled upon is an antique and should not be refinished, refurbished, or otherwise altered? According to industry experts, there are a number of tell-tale signs to look for.

1. Overall condition. By their very definition, antiques are old. Unless you’ve stumbled upon an antique furniture in immaculate condition you should expect to see some wear and tear on the piece. You may see chips or cracks in the finish. You may also see water rings or other signs of use.

2. Hardware. Hardware on older pieces can typically show some asymmetry between matching pieces. For example, latches may have been meant to be identical, but due to older, less exact manufacturing processes they actually have minor differences. Antique furniture will often have square nails and/or single slot screws. Partially unscrew a screw and look at the threads. If they have inconsistent widths between them, then the piece is probably pretty old. 

3. Craftsmanship. Newer furniture making techniques allow for exact measurements and cuts which resulted in smooth, even surfaces and identical components. To get a better idea of the age and potential value of a piece of furniture, remove the drawers and inspect the bottoms and sides. If they have irregular or rough joints then the piece is potentially valuable as an antique and care should be taken in deciding whether to refinish it.

4. Maker’s marks. It was quite common back in the day for furniture makers to mark their creations much in the same way as artists usually do. Such a mark, if found, is extremely important in valuing antiques as its presence alone can increase a piece’s value tremendously. (For more on Makers Marks see Appendix A.)

5. Provenance. If you are lucky enough to buy a piece from an original owner or a family member of an original owner then you may need able to get direct information as to the furniture’s origin, age, and value. This is especially true if you’re haunting estate sales looking for your next project.

If your newest project piece doesn’t appear to have value as is (beyond what you paid for it), take heart. That means you can move forward with making it more beautiful, useful, AND valuable with a clear conscience. Grab your tools and let’s go!

As always, I’d love to see your projects as they unfold. Feel free to drop them in the comments below so we can share in the excitement!

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