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Vintage vs Antique: What is the Difference?

Antique and vintage items are both highly sought-after by collectors, but how do they compare? Discover the differences between antiques and vintage items.

What is the difference between vintage and antique?

Simply put, an antique is any item — whether it be a work of art, jewelry, carpets or everyday objects like housewares and accessories — that is over 100 years old. Vintage items are much younger, less than 100 years old, and typically have a collector’s appeal. Vintage clothing, jewelry, watches, accessories, housewares and furniture are all common items in this category. Though both categories of items are undeniably popular among collectors today, each category has its own distinct appeal. Join us on a journey through the different styles and ages of antique and vintage collectible items.

Common Characteristics of Antique Objects

Difficult to find:
For good reason, quality antiques can be difficult to find. As antiques are over 100 years old, most antiques on the market today have wear and other marks of past use. Whether it be scratches on an otherwise pristine veneer or tarnish with the oxidization of metals, it can be difficult to find an item in excellent condition.


Additionally, antique items made by high-quality craftsmen are coveted by designers and are often held in the world’s most prestigious museums, private collections and galleries. Finding quality antiques is not impossible though, and many modern collectors turn to reliable antique dealers, whom are experts at decorating with antiques, to help them furnish their homes with items of character, historical importance and longevity.


Beautiful patinas and craftsmanship:
Antiques have a strong appeal because they were made before the age of mass industrialization, and many required the hand of a careful craftsman. With woodworking, for example, each dominant antique furniture era features different materials and styles of carving and ornamentation. Despite these differences, the craftsmen of each era sought to elevate the wood’s patinas, creating a rich and warm celebration of the wood’s unique natural features.


Please enjoy our quick guide to a few French antique furniture periods:
Graphic made by M.S. Rau research team.


Although this image only illustrates only a few of France’s most popular furniture design eras, almost every region in the world experienced a similar evolution of styles and craftsmanship. These antique furniture periods offer character and originality that are often lost on mass-manufactured furniture pieces. For this very reason, reputable antique galleries have been busy matching clients with the perfect antique piece for their homes. Every era has its own personality, which is why every collector can find a piece that represents their individual taste and style.


Common Characteristics of Vintage Objects

Historical significance:
The term vintage technically just means “old,” and vintage items commonly refer to any item that was created in the last 100 years. Typically, items marketed as “vintage” date to the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s. Although most vintage items can be easier to find than antiques, their value is often most associated with their historical significance, provenance or niche collectability. Common vintage items include fashion, jewelry, watches, accessories, housewares and furniture, as well as media, including postcards, periodicals, photography, vinyl records, or even electronics like cameras and gaming systems. Oftentimes, a pristinely preserved vintage piece gives collectors the nostalgic feel of a bygone era.
The Godfather Ferris Wheel Cocktail Shaker.Circa 1936. M.S. Rau.
The Godfather Ferris Wheel Cocktail Shaker. Circa 1936. M.S. Rau.
Take for example this unique and rare Ferris wheel cocktail service that was a part of film history, making its on-screen debut in a scene from one of the most iconic films of the 20th century: The Godfather Part II (1972). The fully functional Art Deco cocktail service takes the form of a Ferris wheel, and is comprised of a rotating frame containing twelve cocktail glasses and four glass trays for olives and other garnishes. A pair of large cocktail shakers known as "Manhattan Skyscrapers" flank either side of the mobile, acting as the "engines" for the Ferris wheel. Not only does this cocktail shaker evoke sentimental nostalgic feelings, it offers a unique utility as well that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves to entertain with class.
Quality and craftsmanship:
Although mass production dominated the 20th century, the most valuable vintage items, or at least items that have lasted for decades after their inception, are still those which were made by skilled craftsmen. Many handmade vintage items were made to last, and can be considered a piece of art in their own right.
Patek Philippe Solar Dome Clock.1957. M.S. Rau.
Patek Philippe Solar Dome Clock. 1957. M.S. Rau.
This Patek Philippe solar timepiece is a perfect example of the lasting impact of high-quality craftsmanship and can make for a beautiful decorative object in your home. While the prestigious firm has been creating incomparable timepieces since its inception in 1839, the 1950s and ‘60s saw an exciting turn toward more creative designs and technological advancements. The firm developed state-of-the-art solar timepieces that harnessed the energy of the sun to power their movement. While the energy source was cutting-edge, all of the Patek Philippe solar desk time pieces from this era actually use a pocket watch mechanism for movement. Thus, this unique timepiece marries new technology with time-honored 19th-century pocket watch techniques.

How to distinguish between vintage vs antique items

Although the process of identifying a piece’s era may seem daunting at first, makers of antique furniture and objet d’art usually include various clues that identify the item’s maker, era and value.


1. What are the materials?

Victorian Mahogany Rounded End Bar. Circa 1880. M.S. Rau.
Victorian Mahogany Rounded End Bar. Circa 1880. M.S. Rau.

Every era, style and period had its own materials based on geographic availability, financial capabilities and style. Understanding the materials used by the best craftsmen of their times can help you place an antique in its proper period. For example, Victorian furniture designers of the era drew on various influences, including elements of Gothic, Tudor, Elizabethan, Renaissance, English Rococo and Neoclassical styles. With such varied and rich inspirations, it is no surprise that furniture in the Victorian style tends to have ample ornamentation, including carved leaves, floral accents, inlaid stained glass and etched mirrors.


2. Are there markings?

Wedgwood Green Dip Tricolor Snake Handled Vase Markings. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau.
Wedgwood Green Dip Tricolor Snake Handled Vase Markings. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau.


Wedgwood Green Dip Tricolor Snake Handled Vase Markings. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau.

With many antique objet d’art, makers proudly left their mark. With antique vases, for example, the bottom of the vase with usually show the artist’s name, workshop, date of creation and more. Some markings are relatively simple, while others will require background knowledge to decode. Depending on the material of your item, these marks could be painted, etched or stamped onto the edges or base. Learn more about how to identify antique vases.


3. Is it still being used today?

Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina Model B. 1910. M.S. Rau.
Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina Model B. 1910. M.S. Rau.
A final tip for distinguishing an antique from a vintage item is to consider its intended use. If the item is not in use anymore, it can be traced to the time it became obsolete, which can aid in approximating its date. Take for example this incredible Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violina Model B music cabinet, among the rarest and most advanced automatic music players of its time. Before the age of record players, stereo systems and Bluetooth speakers, this music cabinet served a function that had no rival. The remarkable machine, crafted by the renowned Leipzig-based firm of Ludwig Hupfeld, has three self-playing violins accompanied by a self-playing piano. Once made in the thousands to entertain patrons of upscale hotels, restaurants, and cafes, these extraordinary machines have become increasingly rare, and only sixty-three still exist today. Since it is well-known that Hupefeld stopped producing these music cabinets in 1930, that means one can be certain this example, made the golden age of his company’s success, is an antique piece.
Interested in browsing our extensive antique collection? Find a piece of antique jewelry or antique furniture with over centuries worth of stories to tell.
Vintage items boast historical significance and enduring quality, making them sought-after collectibles. Now that you've learned how to distinguish between the two, explore a captivating array of treasures at M.S. Rau, from paintings and jewelry to unique walking canes and other exceptional items. Embark on a journey through history and discover your perfect piece of the past. Looking for a more modern and nostalgic item that exudes vintage style? Don’t forget to peruse our vintage collection as well!


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