Identifying Antique Chairs

Written by frances burks
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By strict definition, only chairs that are more than 100 years old are antiques. The expert craftsmanship found in some antique chairs and their usefulness make them appealing items to collect. However, chair designs have been copied many times over, so learning to identify antique chairs should be a priority for anyone interested in collecting them. The finish, upholstery and construction offer clues about a chair’s history and help expose copies.

Skill level:

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  1. 1

    Determine whether the chair was hand carved or machine made. For example, eighteenth century craftsmen who carved chairs by hand didn’t decorate the parts that weren’t readily seen. Therefore, the backs of chair frames were not carved and look rough in comparison with the rest of the chair.

  2. 2

    Turn a chair over and look for handsaw marks and handmade nails underneath it. Handmade nails have thick heads that aren’t uniform in size. If screws are holding the chair together, there’s a good chance it’s not an antique.

  3. 3

    Check for wear on the wood finish. A chair that’s more than 100 years old should show signs of having been handled. Some of the finish should have worn away on the chair arms where many hands and elbows have rested. The bottom of the legs should show some wear as well, which often results from scooting a chair across a floor.

  4. 4

    Look for a solid wooden seat and a slender chair back with a painted family crest to identify hall chairs. These chairs date back at least to the eighteenth century and were created to line hallways of great houses. They’re typically not comfortable and aren’t often sought after by collectors. However, the more decorative ones are appealing to some collectors.

  5. 5

    Examine the chair legs to spot corner chairs designed specifically to enhance the corner of a room. These chairs have a diamond-shape seat with one leg in the front and back and one on each side. Valuable examples include Georgian pieces made of walnut wood with cabriole legs around the mid-eighteenth century. Cabriole legs have a shallow “S” shape that is thicker on top and tapers to a slim, concave bottom.

  6. 6

    Find wing chairs with the original upholstery intact to get the most for your investment in these pieces. The rarest of them date from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and can be identified by their substantial arms that scroll outward and deep side wings. Those with original tapestry or embroidered upholstery are the most valuable.

Tips and warnings

  • If a chair’s finish doesn’t show wear, it may still be an antique that’s been refinished. However, refinished antique chairs are often diminished in value.

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