Recognizing the Difference Between Vintage and Antique

Published May 29, 2020
Senior Woman in Antique Shop

With the way terms are tossed around, it can be confusing to understand the difference between "vintage" and "antique." However, these terms affect the value of items and even have legal requirements for their use. Find out how to tell the difference and which term you should be using to describe your treasures.

Age: The Key Difference Between "Vintage" and "Antique"

Although there are several factors that go into determining whether something is vintage or antique, age is the most important one. In some cases, there are even legal age requirements for using these terms, since value can be highly dependent on age. Identifying the age of your item is the first step in deciding which term to use.

Antiques Are at Least 100 Years Old

According to YourDictionary and US Customs, the definition of an antique item is something that is not less than 100 years old. This means anything less than 100 years old is not an antique. It's worth noting that individual states sometimes have their own definitions of when it's legal to use the term "antique" to describe something. However, if you plan to buy or sell an item online or internationally, assume "antique" means at least 100 years old.

Vintage Items Are at Less Than 100 Years Old

Even if something isn't 100 years old, it may still be highly collectible. In this case, it's likely it could be vintage. The Federal Trade Commission defines a "vintage collectible" as something that is at least 50 years old; however, you'll see this term used for things between 20-50 years old as well. "Vintage" doesn't have the strict legal definition "antique" does.

Vintage vs. Antique: More Factors to Consider

While age of the item is the biggest factor in deciding whether something is antique or vintage, there are some other things to consider. After you've determined the age of your item, think about the following.

Is It Tied to a Specific Era?

To be considered "vintage," an item needs to be emblematic of a specific era. It may feature colors, styles, motifs, or other features that are clearly tied to a certain time. For instance, a pillbox hat is emblematic of 1960s fashion, so it is vintage fashion.

Is It Modified From Its Original Condition?

Tasteful restoration may affect value, but it does not stop something from being an antique. However, if an item has parts that are 100 years old or older coupled with significant alterations that are more recent, it may not be considered antique. An example of this might be a table that has legs that are 100 years old, but the top and any hardware are new.

Other Important Terms to Know

In addition to knowing the difference between "antique" and "vintage," it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the following terms:

  • Collectible - If something is not an antique and isn't really tied to an era, it might not qualify for the term "vintage." This item could be considered "collectible."
  • Estate - This term is generally used with jewelry. It means an item that was previously owned and may or may not be old.
  • Reproduction - A reproduction is an item that is newer but made to look like an antique. They are never as valuable as the real thing.
  • Retro - Something that is "retro" is made in the style of another era, although it may not be a reproduction of a specific item.

How Antique and Vintage Labels Affect Value

It's important to note that being labeled as "antique" or "vintage" can increase the value of an item. The age of an item is a major factor in determining its value, so it's essential to use these terms correctly. This is especially true for items that increase in value as they age. For example, a vintage pillbox hat would be more valuable than a retro-inspired pillbox hat. An antique desk is often more valuable than a reproduction desk in the same style. This is why it's so important to understand the terms and use them correctly.

Know the Difference So You Can Be Confident

Whether you're collecting antiques or simply trying to accent your home with something pretty, understanding the difference between "antique" and "vintage" is part of being a knowledgeable consumer. Now that you know how, you'll be able to buy and sell with confidence.

Recognizing the Difference Between Vintage and Antique