The Difference Between Antique and Vintage (and Why It Matters)

The Difference Between Antique and Vintage (and Why It Matters)
Photo: A.Kagan, Shutterstock

With very few exceptions, buying used stuff beats buying new. There’s just one problem: Sifting through page after page of near-identical listings on Ebay, Craigslist, Etsy, and Facebook Marketplace takes time. And if you don’t know what you’re after, you’ll close your tabs feeling more confused than ever.

This isn’t to say that you need to spend years of your life studying antiques to buy secondhand furniture or cool vintage jackets — but it does help to know the absolute basics, starting with what the words “antique” and “vintage” actually mean — both on paper and in real life.

Antiques are much older — and more expensive — than vintage

As a general rule, an item has to be at least 100 years old to be considered “antique.” This really narrows things down: Even though a new crop of stuff earns the label every year, true antiques are still rare. Unsurprisingly, this also means they’re quite expensive.

Pinning down a definition for “vintage” is a lot harder. The word itself comes from winemaking and refers to the time and place something — usually wine — was produced, but it doesn’t say anything about its age. Some dealers consider anything between 20 and 99 years old “vintage;” others are a little stricter. The important thing to remember is that nobody agrees, so “vintage” can mean almost anything.

Tune out the marketing jargon

Unfortunately, learning the basic definitions only makes things more complicated. In a world where typing “antique” or “vintage” into a Wayfair or Amazon search yields thousands of results, have these terms totally lost their meaning? If not, how are you supposed to use them in real life?

The simple (and obvious) answer is that of course these words still mean something — but because they’re buzzy marketing terms now, context is everything. Clearly, all the “vintage” desks on Wayfair are brand-new. In this case, you can safely assume that “vintage” refers to an aesthetic style, not when and where the desk was made.

If you see something listed as “vintage” or “antique” on a massive consumer goods site that only sells new stuff, it’s just marketing. Ignore it and focus on the product’s actual specifications.

If you want the real deal, get really specific

Things that look vintage are extremely popular, which makes finding the real stuff tricky. (We all know that people on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist will slap a “vintage” label on anything to get people to click on it.) Your best bet is to look for vintage sellers that include specific eras (or years) in their listings: “Vintage Major League Soccer hat” could mean almost anything, but “Vintage 1996-97 Major League Soccer baseball cap” zeroes in on the hat’s specific origins — its vintage, if you will.

Whether you’re shopping for vintage pieces, true antiques, or just secondhand stuff that looks cool, keep in mind that the broader Old Stuff marketplace is vast and complex. You’ll definitely have to fall down a few Internet rabbit holes to find what you want — but when you do, it’s all worth it.

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