How to confidently buy second-hand, retro or antique furniture

Posted by Phoebe Oldrey in Interior Design Advice, Shopping & Stuff

I was a child of the ‘80s! A time where we dreamed of a house full of antiques. We liked it big – swag and tail curtains anyone? – and we liked it old school, turning our backs on the popular g-plan trend of the ‘70s. We loved antiques so much that we even made popular TV about a crafty antiques dealer called LOVEJOY.  Antiques were king!

I grew up in a house full of old stuff as my mother liked to deal antiques. Often my house was full to the brim with furniture and when money got tight I would come home to find most of my living room had been sold to the other antique dealers in the area. My mother said, “Always buy antique because it has a resale value to it, unlike new furniture.” She was right; it was an investment not just a chair. Until the bottom dropped out of the antique market. When it came time to sell all my mother’s furniture after she passed away I practically couldn’t give it away. Times change people, times change.

We are now at the start of an interesting time in our history where the rallying cry for sustainability and wellness in our homes is starting to be heard. But it can be hard to meet a personal need for ethical furniture and keep things looking amazing and at a good price. Sometimes we look at really complicated ways of solving this, but I think the lion’s share of the solution can be found in buying antique, retro or second-hand furniture and homewares.


It is part of what is known as a “Circular Economy”. By reusing something, we don’t waste lots of energy in the production and shipping of a replacement and we prevent something old from going to land fill just because someone else has finished using it. It’s as though all its sins from the past have been washed away. The other thing about pre-used furniture is that if it has held up to life in someone else’s home, it will be able to hold up to life in yours.

This isn’t a radically new concept as we watched the g-plan resurgence grip us during the last recession. After all, back then you could buy someone’s nan’s old g-plan coffee table for £20. It looked amazing, was well built and cost less than something disposable from IKEA. No brainer really. Now retro furniture has become collectable and huge markets have sprung up to supply us, bringing us iconic retro brand names from all over Europe. Even modern furniture designers are echoing this in their designs from leg style to tone of woods used.

But buying antique, retro or second-hand can feel daunting to some, wondering if they are paying a fair price and what the condition of the item is going to be. So here are a few tips to help you feel a little more confident.

Find a Dealer or Supplier you can Trust

There are many ways to buy second-hand but it helps if you have someone you trust guiding you towards making bigger investments. Build that long-term relationship. This also means that they will call you first if something amazing pops up in their shop.

Where can you buy?

Here are a few places to hunt down those gems:

  • Antique fairs pop up all over the place and are packed with dealers from all over Europe. The secret is to go early, like ridiculous in the morning still dark early.  Places to check out near to Tunbridge Wells are Ardingly International Antiques and Collectors Fair or Sunbury Antiques
  • Antique and Collector’s Shops. Some areas in the UK are worth making a weekend of just because they are filled with little antique shops. Yet again for the Kent-based people head to Lewes, Rye, Hastings or Brighton.
  • Why head out when you can sort it online? ebay is still killing it but check out Vinteriors and Pamono who have collections of dealers selling through them.
  • Charity Shops – Far more for your second-hand stuff than your antiques or retro collectables. However, never over-look a charity shop. Lots of the big names now have furniture shops. When you hunt through here, go with an open mind. You will see a lot more ugly than gorgeous but hidden in there are the true finds. Just when you find them, look at them long and hard and try and picture them out of context of the other stuff surrounding them. 
  • Freecycle – Keep your beady eyes open for what pops up on here. I scored big with a pair of Art Deco chairs once and am forever grateful for that lucky spot.

Look for the Craftsmanship

How an item was originally manufactured says a lot about the quality of a piece and its ability to continue being a strong piece of furniture for many years to come. But how do you spot it? Look for the joins. In a chest of drawers look at how the drawers are constructed. Do they have dove-tail joints or are they just nailed together? Turn it around and check the back. If the back piece of wood is paper-thin, cracked and nailed on, it’s a low-quality item.  Are the arms on the chair sculpted and any joins seamlessly connected? That’s not to say that you shouldn’t buy less well made pieces if they fit the job you need them for. Everything can have a place in a home. It’s just you shouldn’t pay top dollar for low quality antiques or retro furniture.

Is it Heavy?

This is especially helpful with upholstered items. If it’s heavy to lift, then the frame inside the sofa or chair is made of hardwood. This means even if you have to shell out to get it reupholstered it’s worth it because the inside is properly made. If it’s light, most likely it’s chip board, which means built out of rubbish and won’t last.

Know your Names

If you are an ebay hunter then knowing the brands and design names that are safe to go for is the key. Of course, you know g-plan, but also check out Nathan and BenChairs. This also counts for ceramics and glass ware. It helps to know your West German pottery from your SylvaC. That way you know what you like and what the going price for it should be.

Hunt for the Unknown

You always get a better price on something that hasn’t been discovered yet. This is why I often like to step away from retro which is so “in” it can hurt your wallet. Victorian furniture is interesting to hunt for. The Victorians and the industrial revolution were the age that started mass production of furniture so you can often find a great looking chest of drawers for a reasonable sum.

If you Love it Buy it

The thing about buying second-hand is that you don’t have much time to contemplate. If you have truly fallen in love with a piece and you think it’s priced correctly, go for it. You might not get a second chance.

Beware the Woodworm!

Live woodworm is a curse. It’s a wood eating lava from a couple of different beetles. You can spot if a piece of furniture has had woodworm by the tell-tale cluster of holes in it that are about 1mm in diameter. If it’s still alive in there you can tell by tapping the holes and seeing if dust comes out. You can treat woodworm which means you can save the furniture and not worry about it. However, untreated worm will spread into anything wooden, which includes your floors, beams and roof rafters. They are hungry; don’t let them live with you!

I hope this helps you step into the world of second-hand, retro and antiques with a little bit more confidence.

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