danger signs when buying antique furniture?

andreagbMay 26, 2006

A neighbor of mine has a very pretty antique chaise she might be willing to sell. Heavy, carved frame on the bottom, cushion on the top. Badly covered -- staples show where the fabric meets the frame. I haven't touched it, sat on it, or turned it over, so I have no idea what condition it's in. She wants $800 for it, which I think is not realistic, but if I can negotiate for it I might be interested.

Here's the thing: I have never bought antique furniture before. What should I look for, and what are warning signs I should avoid? How can I tell if the frame is sturdy without taking up the fabric and looking? Does it matter what material the cushioning is currently made of, and again, how can I assess its condition without taking the upholstery off to take a look? Is there any way I can estimate the cost of what I'd need to do to it, which will influence how much I'd be willing to pay for it?

Thanks in advance, all.

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Some basic questions that should be answered:

How old is the piece (i.e. is it truly antique and what style and age is it? What's the proof of this?)

What's the price based on?

What are comparable pieces to this one priced at? Research can pretty easily be done on ebay. But it's important to know what to look for.

If the fabric and upholstery are stapled assume the piece is not in good condition. That means improvements will cost additional $$. For upholstery, consider cost of fabric plus the reupholstering. If the underside of the chaise looks like it's falling in or if there's a deep depression that means the foundation will need to be rebuilt -- that's expensive.

I always sit down on something to see if it's comfortable for me. That's a basic and I wouldn't buy anything without that. I like to turn it over and generally inspect the underside. I look at the unstained wood to see what it is made of as varnishes can be deceiving. I want to see how recently it was reupholstered. If the frame wiggles at all, that's $$ to repair.

When you finish assessing everything and figure out what the cost plus fix up costs are likely to be, it's easier to see whether the piece is worth buying and how the cost to you stacks up against what other similar pieces have sold for.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2006 at 7:43PM
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If the upholstery is stapled on you may assume the piece was recovered fairly recently. Stapling, in and of itself, does NOT indicate the condition of the piece is in poor shape. Trust me on this, I do a great deal of stapling. Stapling is simply faster than tacking, and that means the difference between affordability and "not worth it" when the subject of REupholstery come up.

A "jiggly" frame is par for the course with older pieces. Originally, the frames were typically glued with hide glue (and this deteriorates over time) and screwed together. Frames with screws can often be tightened with relatively little expense and it's pretty easy to clean off hide glue and replace it with newer products. I do think, however, that if the piece is old you will likely have to face the reality of some frame work.

As for sitting on a piece... nice in theory, but if you are looking at frame repairs you will also be looking at reupholstery, in which case you can have it reupholstered to reflect all that you prefer in seating comfort.

I absolutely agree that you ought to check the piece out by researching it on the web and in local shops. Just because a piece is old or ornately "carved" doesn't mean it can command major "pork". Much "carved" furniture was borne in the post Civil War years when machinery did much of the carving... it was mass produced and while pretty is really nothing terribly special. Do your homework and remember, "cash is king".

(I love old stuff, BTW; but be careful; ask about this piece on the Antiques/Collectibles forum, too. Lindac and lazygardens are founts of useful information!)

    Bookmark   May 28, 2006 at 10:55AM
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Thanks, these are both really helpful responses. I've been in love with Domino magazine since it started publishing, and in just about every issue they feature antique furniture that's been reupholstered in funky prints, mixes of colors or patterns, etc., so this has become my little furniture-buying fantasy lately. But $800 as a starting price for the chaise, plus probably at least that much in reconstruction/reupholstery... maybe it'll remain a fantasy for now!

    Bookmark   May 29, 2006 at 3:00PM
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Perhaps some upholsters do staple and it's clearly a less expensive method than hand tacking. But if I'm paying for upholstery I'd rather pay a bit more and get hand-tacked. That's why, when I buy an old piece I try to get something in good condition all around so I can do as little as possible.

For a chaise that's $800 to begin with, I would not want to do extensive rebuilding or fabric plus reupholstering that could drive the cost up past $1500 without much effort at all (at least where I live).

I really don't agree that a "jiggly" frame is par for the course. It's something I try to avoid because it involves regluing -- sometimes on a regular basis. Even Gorilla Glue dries out. Joints can loosen again. I'm happy to sell my tiger maple side chairs to anyone who doesn't believe that.

Some older furniture is made with without screws -- so it's not always a matter of tightening those up. Handy when you can, of course.

It really depends on the age and type of furniture one is talking about and how it's made. But the bottom line for me before I buy anything is whether it feels comfortable.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2006 at 5:31PM
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I work in the trade and am on very friendly terms with most of the area professionals. You will not pay "a little more" for hand tacked in my area. EVERY upholsterer I now locally staples and if you insist on tacks, you will pay pretty close to twice as much (it takes nearly twice as long and time is money). Actually, staples do less damage to the frame that do tacks. They spread the load more evenly and fewer are required. Pneumatic guns allow the operator the luxury of adjusting the "set"; you can adjust your technique to accomodate the wood and, more importantly, the CONDITION of the frame.

I wasn't thinking in terms of gorilla glue; I was thinking in terms of epoxy. Some like it, others don't; so much depends on the piece and its historical value (but most furniture is not of great historical value). Depends on what you're looking for in frame repair.

And, the reality IS, when you're dealing with old furniture you have to make choices and you have to make a calculated guess. HOW much are you willing to put "into" a piece? If you pay top dollar and then find out the estimate you were given for reupholstery was "low", what will you do? Never, ever, buy an "antique" piece that has been recently reupholstered... how do you know they didn't "overlook" the too often requisite repairs to the frame.

My advice? get a price for the labor to completey rip down the upholstery, reglue, repair the frame. You then have the "worst case scenario" in numbers. It is my opinion (based on personal history and professional experience), that whenever you buy an "antique" you will, sooner or later, be facing the complete re-hab..

    Bookmark   May 30, 2006 at 6:15PM
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I'm not going to get into a staple vs tack discussion here because I expect it's beyond the scope of what most people even care about and it probably doesn't matter to most people as long as the result looks good.

But I'm not ashamed to say I'm old school about upholstery and greatly admire beautifully done work, especially the way it's done in Europe. Where I live people are quite demanding and an unusual number of craftsmen still do it the old way. If that makes too many holes in the frame then the next owner can deal with that. If tacking is slower and more expensive, that's ok too. I'll look for bargains on other stuff.

I've just furnished an entire new house with old furniture and nothing I bought is wiggly or much more than folks are paying for case goods from NC in some instances. Some pieces are very old and I made sure they were sturdy before I bought them. But depending on how they were made in the first place, and what their life was like, that can vary alot.

So, I sit, open drawers, move around on sofas, test arms, turn things over etc. I really examine before I buy, ask a lot of questions, discount half the answers and walk away from problems. I have 5 chairs that are super charming but wiggly and worrisome and they're not fun and not comfortable. I try not to make the same mistakes twice.

Danger signs:

Split wood
Loose arms, legs, backs
Loose drawers
Badly done patches
Wood that looks wormy

Also, elaborate stories about the "history" of a piece or how rare it is.

My oldest and best piece was just reupholstered but it needed no gluing or bracing at all. It it looks great and is extraordinarily comfortable.

My sofa came out of an auction and I bought it cheaply. Unfortunately the old velvet had been stripped off and it was reupholstered in muslin. It wasn't nearly as old as the chair but needed extensive rebuilding inside -- it was clearly sagging underneath. The upholstery plus the fabric cost me more than I paid for it in the first place. So was it cheap or was it expensive?

To me, the personality of the piece mades it worth an investment though I doubt I'd get my money out of it if I went to sell it. It's the focal point of my living room and it's a piece everyone comments on. I love that sofa.

I would always tell someone to never go out of your comfort zone when you buy something old -- don't pay too much. I agree -- you will probably need to do something to it.

Not everyone is willing to buy old things and some people give them away. Many want new and then they definitely get staples. I'm glad to hear someone thinks they're better.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2006 at 8:22PM
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Where do you live? ;)

I think my assessement of "jiggly frames" was pretty accurate with respect to assessing an "antique piece". ANY "antique" piece that is shakey will require work(and that generally dictates "ripping down" of existing upholstery and REbuilding it)... IF you expect to be able to sit on it with confidence in the future. Hey! the older the frame the more likely it will be to suffer the ravages of the passed years! Rococco, we're on the same team... your responses tell me you lack practical experience, that's all.

I do believe, though, that you are ignorant of modern upholstery techniques. You have have take a class, or two in THEORY, but how much do you really know about the actual construction of furniture or the woods used to provide "framing". How many frames have you assessed/repaired?

I'm "cool" with that, too. But I DO it, I don't just talk about it, and I don't just advise clients about what sort of piece "would look nice", suit their "look". I'm the person they seek out when the the newly acquired piece is "uncomfortable" or "doesn't work" with their decor.

"They" do it the same way in Europe... where do you think the most "efficient" trends originate? They've been dealing with high taxes and the need for EFFICIENCY a helluva lot longer than we have in the USA.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2006 at 9:41PM
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What I was saying is that I try to avoid shaky antiques as they are trouble since the subject of the post was "danger signs" and it appears you'd agree that's a big one.

Some of my earliest memories are of spending time at my father's upholstery and drapery business. He owned a workroom. Both my parents (now deceased) were interior designers. I'm the second generation in my family although I've had two previous careers. Suffice it to say when I want something done in a certain way I know what to specify. I still have my mother's Singer -- the black one with the gold filigree she used to make me skirts from leftover drapery fabric.

You are free to make any assumptions about me you wish but since you don't know me I can't imagine why you'd bother.

As for being on the same team, I was just looking for some pics I took of the underside of some cushions on some early 19th European chairs with the thought that the workmanship (hint: tacks) might be of interest. Can't find them at the moment, though. Too late. Too many pix.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2006 at 12:22AM
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