Antiques and vintage items are often valuable additions, monetary or sentimentally, for collectors. However, your interest in owning a piece of history can morph from a hobby to an investment with the right decision.
A Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase sold for $80.2 million in 2010 and remained the most expensive antique item in the world. You never can tell how much that old vase or pottery your grandparents left you is worth, so it’s best to evaluate before trashing it.
Since it’s not sustainable to appraise every antique item that comes your way, your best alternative is using free identification, value, and price guides. We’ve got you covered.
Table of Contents
Methods of Free Antique Identification
There are thousands of antique items worldwide, and it’ll be like finding a needle in a haystack. However, there are methods for identifying antique items to simplify the process, and you can choose anyone based on your interest.
Tip for Identification/Valuation
Identification by Name
Identification by Categories
Hardware and Tools
Identification by Material
Identification by Patent, Serial and Model Number
Antique Price Guides
Websites for Identifying Antique Items
Tip 1: Identification by Name
You can’t go wrong with a name except for the rare case of fake antique items entering the market. If you know where and what to look for, it’ll be easy to identify an antique piece by its manufacturer’s name.
These names often come with logos and special applications, from unique scripts to engravings and embossments. Knowing which one your item carries is the difference between a regular old junk and a million-dollar-worth historical product.
Watch this video to distinguish between reproductions and original items.
Tip 2: Identification by Category
One of the most efficient methods for identifying valuable antiques is identification by category; this is because they are focus-based. Some of these categories have subdivisions. However, familiarizing yourself with the broad group is a good place to start. Once you identify the type or category of the item, you can narrow your search.
Popular groups include;
Tip 3: Collectibles
General items are made especially for collectors. These include special edition items and memorabilia at sports competitions, festivals, concerts, and other celebrity-based events.
Toys fall under this antique category as they’re often the most collectible items. Most old toys were handcrafted with archaic materials such as wood and had maker marks for identification.
You may also check the clothing for labels, especially if it’s an antique teddy bear or doll. With toys, the composition is the most important indicator of its production era because some items didn’t exist until the 20th century.
Something as simple as using lead instead of cast iron is a big giveaway, as the latter is older than the former. Cast Iron originated from the 5th Century B.C.- the 6th century B.C. China per Britannica.
Other memorabilia, like sports collectibles, are easier to track because manufacturers keep records online. This article on the 60 Most Valuable Antiques in History to Look For has more information on this.
Tip 4: Furniture
Decorating your home with old furniture is an aesthetic that’ll never go out of style, but you need to be able to tell quality items from junk.
While furniture often holds the DNA of the era it was built in, antique designs have become popular again, and modern companies are making new items in those old styles. So, you have to employ different means when identifying its age.
Antique furniture is often rough around the edges with simple assembly. Check the assembly – nuts, bolts, screws, and other products used to join the pieces together. The best giveaway is the construction style because certain techniques didn’t exist until recently.
You can also determine its authenticity through the maker’s mark, which is common with popular brands. To confirm that, however, you’d need a logo guide telling you which belongs to whom and the year it was introduced.
Pro Tip: Old furniture (at least 100 years old) didn’t have mass-produced parts as that came in the mid-20th century. See more at Antique Furniture: Identification & Value Guide.
Tip 5: Hardware and Tools
Collecting antique hardware and tools is a deliberate affair because it’s often about sentimental value rather than money. Anyone can easily get a new and functional tool in any hardware store today; however, choosing an antique piece guarantees durability and efficiency.
Clues to confirm your hardware and tools are antique pieces include visible patina proving wear and tear, ranging from simple tarnish on the Material to severe rust and chips.
Like other antique items, you can use the Material to determine its age since products made of cast iron, sturdy wood, and glass are mostly pre-20th century. While examining the Material also ensures the assembly is archaic and no modern techniques are used.
For more, check Antique Tools: Identification & Values Guide.
Tip 6: Household Items
Household items are an all-encompassing category, including kitchenware, dinnerware, bedroom furniture, and bathroom items. It’s the aisle you visit when stocking up on your new home or renovating.
These items include decorative pieces like clocks, mantel pieces, figurines, and vases. Others are furniture, home accessories like throw pillows, rugs, center tables, home organizers, and more.
Sourcing for antique household items is so fun you can get carried away and select junks instead, so pay extra care when sorting this out.
You can read more on the 15 Most Valuable Antique Dishes: Value and Price Guide.
Tip 7: Printed Materials
Books, Manuscripts, Scrolls, and every other written/printed document that existed before the 1920s fall into this category. The first step in identifying this group is using paper and written text ink.
Naturally, old scrolls would have faded inks, frayed paper, and other tell-tales of aging. You can also examine the binding for old thread and nail techniques notwithstanding restored books. Also, most books note their edition and publishing dates on the first few pages.
When dealing with older scrolls and manuscripts, the identification process wouldn’t be that simple because the art of dating wasn’t yet common. You may confirm with the author’s name by checking when said person was alive and learning their writing history.
For example, the English Playwright William Shakespeare lived between 26 Apr. 1564 and 23 Apr. 1616, and his earliest recorded plays were written in the 1590s. So, any book by Shakespeare purported to be the first edition must’ve been written within that period.
For more information on printed materials, you can browse the internet, as it holds a wealth of information from multiple sources.
Tip 8: Identification by Material
Identification by Material is similar to category identification, except this time, the focus is on the raw products used to make the antique item. Thus, you can find different categories in one material group, like wood which contains furniture and instruments.
Tip 9: Identifying Wood
Antique pieces made of wood before the 1920s didn’t use shiny finish as we’re used to seeing today. Until 1860, wood makers preferred using Shellac as a finish if needed, and you can identify it with a simple test.
Start by cleaning a small part of the surface with rubbing alcohol (methylated spirit works). If the finish dissolves, you’ll know it’s Shellac.
Otherwise, it’s a recent finish and likely not an antique item. Remember, though, that pre-1922 wood is still an antique, so that they may fail the test.
Examine its edges to determine the type of saw used in cutting the woods. Then, you can lift it to feel the weight and guess the wood type used. Note that antique woods such as Oak and Mahogany are often heavy.
Tip 10: Identifying Glass
Glass is one of the oldest raw materials ever used for producing items from mirrors for vanity tables to furniture, kitchenware, and décor such as vases. While the clear-colored glasses are the most popular, other colors range from bright amber to dark amethyst.
Those colors can tell you the production era of the glassware, and if you do further research, the patterns serve as bigger clues. Like wood and Sterling Silver, you can try the easy route and verify its authenticity via the manufacturer’s mark.
However, that’s not always reliable since it can fade, break, crack from stress, or a fraudulent vendor may forge it. Alternative means of identifying glass include studying texture, patterns, and overall designs.
The Depression Glass popular during the Great Depression in the USA is an example of collectible glass. Manufacturers made them in unique colors and models, which you can track with a detailed guide. Check out the 15 Most Valuable Depression Glass: Complete Price Guide.
Tip 11: Identifying Ceramic
Fine China and Ceramic are typical products for making Asian dishware and figurines. They often have marks on the bottom, especially if they come from the Japanese and Chinese Empire eras.
Many antique ceramics were hand-painted by artisans, so you can use the designs on the exterior to determine the year of production.
For a more comprehensive list and information on distinguishing different ceramic dishes check out the Most Valuable Antique Dishes in History.
Tip 12: Pottery
You can identify antique pottery by checking underneath for a maker’s mark, particularly Asian and American pieces. If the mark is faded, check the features from the glazing to the color, texture, weight, size, and materials.
Typically, American potteries are the heaviest, while European and Asian pieces are less weighty. If you’re using color, it’s best for American potteries because different regions have signature hues. Shapes are also good indicators, although they’re not the most reliable.
This Valuable Chinese Pottery Marks: Identification Guide can help.
Tip 13: Silverware Hallmarks
Hallmarks are maker’s marks and signs put on silverware for authentication. Sterling silver is one of the easiest antique pieces to identify because of its hallmarks. It often contains the maker’s pattern, an Assayer’s mark (purity stamp), date, and production city.
You’d often see the word Sterling or numbers 925 (92.5% silver content) engraved on the silverware as the Assayer’s mark. The Passant comes in different variations, but the most common and highly recognized is the Lion.
Also, note that silverware patterns vary based on the manufacturer and model within a brand. You can consult a useful silverware guide to confirm the identity of your piece, from flatware to dishware.
Tip 14: Identification by Patent, Serial, and Model Numbers
Many antique items (not all) have serial numbers, model numbers, patent numbers, or in some cases, one. If you find an antique item with the number intact, then use an inventory for cross checking its authenticity.
For example, items made in the USA are logged in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Full-Text and Image Database. Although it was established in the 1970s, antique items from 1790 until 1920 are on the database.
Apps to Identify Antique Items
The next step is knowing where to look for it. As a new collector, you’d hear a lot of advice telling you to appraise your item if you’re willing to sell it or before buying. However, since appraisals don’t come cheap, it’s best to find a free alternative.
The good thing is that there are free online and offline guides depending on your preferred research mode. While the physical stores have appraisers on the ground for free tips and assessments, online websites and apps are the best for homebodies.
You can download any of these apps on your mobile or desktop devices, and though they don’t offer extensive information, they’re great for starting.
Tip 15: Using Hallmarks
Apple users can download Hallmark on the App Store to access its directory. Its user interface is easy-to-use thanks to the alphabetically arranged information. There’s a catch, though, as it’s a paid app, and you can only access a limited list of hallmarks on the free trial.
The app has a 3.4/5 rating, and the interface contains a search bar and four filter categories, including Letters, Objects, Designs, and Living Beings (Memorabilia of Celebrities). Only the letter A unlocks until you purchase access to the remaining filters.
Tip 16: Antique Price Guides Apps
With an approval rating of 3.6/5 stars on Google Play, Antiques Price Guides, created in 2108 by AntiquesNavigator.com, boasts over 100,000 downloads. It can tell you about antique items sold recently.
The downside is that constant ads and redirects you’ll deal with while using the app. If you don’t mind, you can download it at this link.
Tip 17: Websites for Identifying Antique Items
Alternatively, you can use websites to search for marks and identify your antique items. They’re often free and safer for your devices as you don’t need to download them and risk getting a virus. Some popular websites include;
- What Sells Best
- Forums:Forums are interactive and give insight from fellow collectors worldwide, including picture references and intricate details unknown to regular sellers.
Antique Valuation Apps
Once you identify your antique item, the next step is evaluating it for sale or purchase, depending on what trade end you occupy. For potentially expensive pieces like art, furniture, and jewelry, it’s best to hire an appraiser.
You can find appraisers in your local antique store or via the internet by searching “Antique Appraisers Near Me.”
If you’d rather transact your business online, then some apps and websites have you covered.
Value My Stuff
Although ValueMyStuff is the number one app for evaluating an antique item, it has overall negative reviews from users for its excess ads and software glitches. You can also get a virus on your device from redirection.
So, instead of using the app, we’d advise you to use verified websites like Kovel’s and auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s online services.
Kovels is a premiere Price Guide recognized worldwide for its accurate directory of antique prices. It also comes with visual references to cross-reference your item for authentication.
All you have to do for full service is register for a token and log in.
Then, you’ll get access to the identification and valuation of a wide range of antique items. You can also contact a professional appraiser on its team. Kovels also has a Price Guide book which you can purchase on Amazon for less than $25.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is there a Free App to Identify Antiques?
There are few apps to identify antiques like ValueMyStuff and Hallmarks. You can also use the websites listed above.
Q: Can Google Lens Identify Antiques?
Google Lens is great for reverse searches, especially when you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Open Google on your browser (or any other search engine with a camera icon); tap the camera icon on the search bar to open the lens and capture the antique item you want to identify.
The search engine would bring out every piece of information on the item. You can also use the voice feature and ask Google Assistant or Siri to identify what the lens has captured on an iPhone.
Q: Is there an App for Antique Value?
There are more Apps for evaluating antique items than identifying them, but the good news is that the former also does the latter.
Antique items are fun to collect, making it easy for fraudsters to dupe innocent buyers. Sellers, too, can lose money when offering items they know nothing about because they look like junk.
Save yourself the stress and evaluate your piece before buying or selling. For collectors, you can do a quick appraisal scan when buying physically by Identifying by;
- Patent, Serial, and Model Number.