Thrift Store Treasure Hunting
2/6/2016 by D. Cammarota
Living in a fairly rural part of the Philadelphia suburbs, thrift stores near me can have a surprisingly diverse inventory of items. The population ranges from former townies, to farmers, to suburban "soccer moms" with a penchant for collecting antiques from nearby flea and farmer's markets. You never really know what you'll find when venturing into a local thrift store, but here are a few pointers for identifying hidden treasures and items that will likely hold their value - or increase in value - over many generations to come.
Determining the age or value of furniture can be challenging for the average person. There are not only modern reproductions, but reproductions that are considered vintage or antiques themselves. Early American buildres were copying Victorian pieces and mid-century designers were making French provincial pieces for wealthy homeowners. If you are looking to buy furniture simply as an investment or to resell, it is probably best to defer to an expert. If, however, you are simply looking to decorate your home with authentic, well-made pieces, there are a few things to look for. To start, always look for stamps, labels or manufacturer markings and do a quick internet search. If you find the maker, simply look for the recommended tell-tale signs. If there are no markings, you can still use a few tricks to determine the age of a piece. One thing to know is that very few pieces made before the turn of the 20th century are fastened with nails. Look, instead, for dovetail joints - especially irregular dovetail joints. If they look too perfect, they may be reproductions (but they are at least well made). Another good indication of age is well-worn tracks where the drawers slide to open and close. If it is clear they have been moved over many, many years - chances are it is very old. Also, look at hardware pieces like drawer pulls. Often times with older pieces, they are not an exact match to each other. Finally, look at the backs of drawers for the use of solid wood. Plywood indicates something post 1880's and particle board means it is relatively new.
When looking for fine bone china or porcelain, a hallmark stamp is really key. No reputable company leaves their pieces unmarked, so unless you love the piece solely for aesthetic value, it's not worth the risk. When it comes to china, your smartphone is your best friend. If there is an obvious manufacturer name, do a search and see from what years they were active. If they are modern makers, use whatever information you can (the pattern is most helpful) to determine its age and value. If the watermark is obscure either because it is a logo type or worn away, you can use certain keywords (like "triangle watermark") to get started on a search. If you get nowhere with stamps or marks, hold the piece up to a strong light. True bone china is made partially from bone ash which makes it translucent.
Determining the age or value of crystal is perhaps the most challenging of all. The key component is the lead content, but genuine lead crystal is ubiquitous to this day. Checking to see if it is genuine crystal is quite easy; simply hold the piece up to the sunlight and look for the prismatic pattern. Plain glass will not refract rainbow colors, but crystal always will. Also, tapping a spoon lightly or running a damp finger around the lip of a piece will produce a musical sound obvious to even an untrained ear. Since watermarks and engravings are highly uncommon, a surefire way to determine if a piece of crystal is rare or valuable is through the pattern. Taking a photo (or a rubbed pencil impression) to an expert is a good place to start, and internet searches are imperative. Waterford crystal does have an etched waterwark, but it is somewhat difficult to find. If looking for Waterford, hold the piece up to the sunlight and keep turning until the etching becomes apparent (usually the full word "Waterford." This popular Irish crystal is also markedly heavier than most brands, so this is another good way to rule a piece in or out.
With so many reproductions (and even forgeries) on the market, it is best to bring an expert along if you intend to spend a significant amount of money on an item. Thrift stores (especially thrift stores near me) generally don't carry high-ticket items, but there will be instances where a store will mark something perceived as rare or highly collectible and price it high just in case. If you have a hunch but are uncomfortable with the cost, simply go back with a professional or take a photo, write down any relevant information and go home to do further research.
Happy Treasure Hunting!