How Old Is an Antique?

Close-up of an antique pocket watch

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The term "antique" is used rather loosely these days and often ends up reflecting the age of the person using it more than being a hard and fast definition. To a youngster, for example, a kitchen tool or gadget from the 1980s seems “antique," while a senior might see antiques as the objects they used or saw in the homes of their parents and grandparents as a child.

According to the official definition issued by the United States Customs Service, antiques are items with at least 100 years of age under their belts. That means the scale slides every year as more objects grow older and fit into that timeframe.

Even so, this can still be a controversial topic among antique dealers, authors, and seasoned appraisal experts.

Defining the Word 'Antique'

The truth is, you can ask a dozen different antique experts about what constitutes an antique and you'll get many different answers.

Some experts look more for high style and upper-crust design when deeming an object to be antique. They see antiques as masterpieces of design and only the highest quality. With this assessment, everything from primitive furniture of all ages to faceless Amish ragdolls from the late 1900s would not be considered antiques, regardless of the rarity of the items in question. Many other authors and experts disagree with these folks.

One way to look at this conundrum is to pinpoint the dividing line when styles dramatically changed from an old-fashioned look toward the modern. Hemlines were shortened and simplified, and angular Art Deco design were all the rage during the 1920s into the 1930s. These fashion and design developments had a forward-thinking bend, providing a stark contrast to the elaborate styles seen during the Edwardian, Victorian, and Colonial periods.

With this in mind, according to one viewpoint, items made before 1920 could be labeled as antiques and newer pieces as "collectibles," meaning less than 100 years old. The antique scale continues to slide regarding the actual age of these objects as we move forward through the calendar, however.

How to Describe Items You're Selling

Even the most honest sellers with the best of intentions can make a mistake describing their wares as antiques when they're not that old. But when sellers use terminology incorrectly, especially when they do it repeatedly, those blunders can undermine their integrity. For this reason alone, it's a good idea to try to get the facts straight.

Identifying an item that is a collectible as an antique makes savvy buyers feel like you're trying to get one over on them. It can make you look ignorant about what you're selling, or even worse, dishonest.

If an object is less than 100 years in age, call it a collectible, or perhaps "vintage" if that's common terminology (such as with clothing and jewelry). If you honestly feel that an item is over 100 years in age after doing your homework, then describe it as an antique. Some online selling venues have specific categories that distinguish antiques from collectibles or vintage. You'll do better by getting it right, since potential customers may check those categories for what they are looking for in addition to relying on keyword searches.

Even if you're selling in an antique mall or at a show, labeling and representing your items accurately will serve you well. Customers will return if you do your best to offer them great merchandise that has been thoroughly researched and is appropriately marked.