How to Identify Antiques: Our Guide to Deciphering the Fakes from the Real Ones

A woman smiles as she looks at an antique tea cup.
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No matter what you may be shopping for, no one wants to be taken advantage of. That counts double for antiques.

Whether you’re thrifting, perusing an antique mall or just checking out a local garage sale, it’s likely you’ll come across antiques — and you won’t always know if they’re legit.

The savvy shopper will know they need to keep watch for fakes. But what if you’re new to the antiques world? How can you tell what’s fake and what’s the real McCoy?

How to Identify Antiques

In this article, we’ll teach you how to ID antiques — and fakes — with the most common tricks sellers use so you can spend your money wisely.

Do Your Research

Anyone looking to dive into antiquing should start with research; a healthy interest in history is practically a requirement for this hobby. One great resource is one of the longest running TV shows about antiquing, Antiques Roadshow.

This venerable staple of public access television has been running since 1997, and features professional historians and appraisers studying would-be antiques from all across America. The Antiques Roadshow website has a complete archive of every appraisal they have done on the show. There, you can see what the experts look for in genuine antiques. And the items truly run the gamut: Appraisers have evaluated all sorts of items, everything from Tiffany Lamps to vintage Magic: The Gathering cards.

Otherwise, you will want to see where your curiosity takes you. Google’s shopping tab, Wikipedia, and reputable historical research websites are your best bets.

Hitting the thrift stores for some vintage goods? Before you go, check out our guide on vintage thrifting.

Find Your Genre

Given that practically anything past a certain age can be considered vintage or antique, few people involved in the hobby will have a general interest in just anything vintage. Quinn Ort, a collector of Fenton Ware glass pieces, suggests starting with “whatever catches your eye.”

“Anything from toys, picture frames, glassware, or books will have knowledgeable communities to help you out,” he said.

Whatever it may be, once you have settled on your genre, your familiarity with the subject will provide you with invaluable knowledge of the items you are looking to collect. Pay special attention to unique and characteristic details of whatever you choose to collect.

Find Reputable Sellers

There are many venues to find antiques. Some websites, like Etsy, have large selections of antique dolls, jewelry and other collections, but Ort warns that websites like Etsy can be hit or miss.

In fact, for any online purchase, Ort suggests that you reverse search images of the items provided, to make sure they haven’t simply been taken from somewhere else online.

Ort also recommends checking out your local antique mall. Websites like Yelp can help you find the most highly rated antique stores in your area, and in general, owners and managers of antique stores can be trusted, as they are often hobbyists as well. Still, when in doubt, never hesitate to question an item’s authenticity before buying.

Flea markets are also a great place to find bargain vintage items.

“Flea markets are sort of like panning for gold, you won’t always find what you’re looking for, but you will occasionally find a nugget,” Ort said.

Check for Signatures and Signs

Whatever you choose to collect or buy, every vintage item and antique will have a tell. Be it a maker’s mark, a particular color or shade, or any characteristic detail, every antique will tell its story — if you know where to look.

Ort, being a collector of Fenton Ware, provides many good examples.

“The first thing you want to look for is the Fenton logo, which will usually be at the bottom of the piece,” he said. “The logo will be printed, not painted, and so will always be raised. Looking for original price tags and stickers are also excellent tells, as the original stickers, worn by age, will be very hard to fake.”

Looking for specific shades of color in items is also a great way to tell of an item’s authenticity. This post from hobbydb, a website for collectors, illustrates several examples of collector toys and their original colors and shading, as opposed to their copies and fakes.

Some companies lean into their vintage cult followings. Take Blenko Glass for example, which has published its annual catalogs dating back to the 1950s in PDF format on its website. There, you can compare maybe-Blenkos to items you’ve found in the real world.

Look Out for Common Tells and Dupes

Unfortunately, there are many ways that less-than-scrupulous sellers will try to pass off fakes as genuine pieces. This is where research comes in handy; researching how a particular item was made can clue you in on what defects to watch out for.

Again using Fenton Ware as an example, Ort said shoppers should look out for air bubbles and obvious seems in the glass.

“Fenton would not allow such defects in their pieces, so that is always a big red flag,” he said.

Some sellers also rely on their buyers knowing less about the items than they do, most often to mark up the price beyond an item’s value. Always be aware of what your item should sell for before buying.

Buyers should also know the difference between antique, vintage, and retro, Ort said.

Antiques are typically over a hundred years old, while vintage items are between 20 and 100 years old. Retro, however, refers to newer items that have been made to look old as a style choice. Some sellers may use these terms interchangeably to confuse buyers.

In the end, all of these tricks rely on the buyer being ignorant of the items being sold.

Experience, research, and attention to detail will help any enthusiast or collector from falling for fakes and bad deals.

William Fewox has worked as a freelance writer since 2017, and his work is featured in literary magazines such as The Aquarian, The Navigator and The Historian. He has also self-published a handful of novels. He has worked as a Social Studies teacher and research assistant in local Florida museums and more recently has worked as an editor for a start-up publishing company. William holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Jacksonville University.