The Difference Between Antique and Vintage

How Old Are Antiques?

vintage furniture

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You probably notice a lot of different terms defining “old” while you're out foraging for bargains and shopping online. Is the item you're considering really "antique," "vintage," "collectible," "retro," or "classic?" The answer, of course, depends on what you are buying. Delving further into what these terms actually mean can help you to buy and sell old items with more confidence.

Defining the Term Antique

Buyers in the know understand that an antique is something quite specific, and not just "anything old." A seller who calls something made in the 1950s an antique, for example, is just plain wrong. A seller who uses the term antique when an item is much too new for that designation should raise questions in your mind. Is the seller misrepresenting his wares? Or is he just ignorant about what he's selling?

A true antique, as defined by the United States Customs Service and most professionals in the antique field, is an object that is 100 years of age or older. That bare-bones definition keeps things pretty simple to grasp most of the time. The scale slides each year, of course, as more and more things fall into the antique range.

If you don’t know exactly when a piece was produced, there will certainly be a little more guesswork involved. But, collectors do know that something made in the Edwardian period (roughly 1901 to 1910, but the overall style extended into the teens as well) or older is antique now. Learning the characteristics of objects made during different periods such as Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco, just to name a few, will help you to unblur the line between antique and vintage. It's also good to learn about reproductions and revivals of old styles, especially Victorian and Art Deco.

There are some antique experts that look upon antiques more in terms of historical significance or design, and they may stretch the rule a bit to include some newer items and exclude others based on their personal preference. Most folks in the antique trade, however, stick to the "100 years or older" rule.

Defining the Term Vintage

For many decades, the term “collectible” represented anything that was not old enough to fall under the antique umbrella. The use of the word "vintage" in the 1980s and ‘90s was largely associated with specific collecting genres—such as the aforementioned clothing, costume jewelry, and postcards—that were not old enough to be called antiques. 

These days the term "vintage" covers older items in more of a blanket way, as in going shopping for vintage clothes with your friends. You can look at it as the up-to-date version of “going antiquing.” It is understood that this means shopping for older items that have distinctively vintage styles, whether those things date to the 1940s or to the 1970s.

If you’re selling in an online venue offering a mixture of older wares and handcrafted items—like RubyLane.com or Etsy.com—the term is defined for you. These multi-shop internet businesses have determined that anything 20 years or older falls under the auspice of vintage. So, just like antiques, each year more items fall into the vintage category.

Some die-hard collectors scoff at that definition since they are reluctant to deem something from the early 1990s as vintage. They use the word "collectible" much more often with these newer items. The term "collectible," however, often conjures visions of Beanie Babies, limited edition figurines, and similar mass-produced collectibles that, in most instances, aren’t in great demand or highly valued by today’s vintage shoppers.

Whether you prefer to use vintage or collectible for newer items, just be sure to use antique to describe objects more than 100 years old and you won’t go wrong.