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19 Things to Know Before Buying an Antique Lamp

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Looking for an antique lamp to add some character or beauty to your home? Before dropping a pile of money (or even a little money), here’s a bunch of tips to consider first.

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Antique Tiffany lamp on antique table

An antique lamp can be a fantastic purchase. You might think of it as the perfect piece to tie a room together, or perhaps something that can grow in value over time.

No matter why you’re buying an antique lamp, though, you’ll need to do a bit of research.

Even if you’re just looking for something to add a splash of color to your room, learning more about antique lamps can be quite useful. Below are eighteen things you absolutely need to know about these lamps before you make a purchase.

1. Old Doesn’t Mean Antique

The first thing to consider when buying an antique lamp is value. It’s important to remember that consumer items like lamps don’t necessarily have a great deal of value just because they are old. Electric lamps, in particular, have always been mass-produced consumer items, so there’s a good chance that an older lamp that was made by a major company won’t necessarily have any kind of value except to an exceedingly small number of collectors. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid buying old lamps, of course, but it does mean that the vast majority of older lamps you buy won’t have the kind of value you’d expect from an antique.

2. Lamps Come in Many Shapes and Sizes

Moroccan antique lamps

These lamps come in many shapes and sizes, depending on their initial use and fuel type. How a lamp was used tended to have a huge impact on its size; a bedside reading lamp, for example, wouldn’t ever be as big as a lamp meant to light up a parlor. There were also some lamps that were meant to be transported and even others that were meant to be used for providing lighting to the exterior of a home. The lamps you look at today might not be put to the same purpose as they were used originally, but you’ll still get the benefit of using lamps of many different shapes and sizes in your home.

3. Fuel Types and Uses

Lamps have historically had many different types of fuels. Early lamps tended to be fueled by oils derived from animal fats – the fat used would generally provide an inconstant but useful flame, one that could provide light for a small area. As time progressed, fuels like kerosene would become more common in areas that could access the fuel, which would, in turn, provide for better lighting and a more consistent glow. By the end of the 19th century, production of electric lamps would begin – though even during that time period, many kerosene and even whale oil lamps would still be used in parts of the world that were not tied to the still-growing electrical grids.

4. Old Antiquity

If you’re looking for an antique lamp, you should be aware that antique is a fairly broad term. The invention of the lamp isn’t actually that much younger than the invention of fire – we know that humans have been carving out holes in rocks and stuffing them with flammable material since at least around 70,000 BC. The oil lamp, however, is a relatively recent invention, first coming onto the scene at some point around the 16th Century BC. For those paying attention, that means that you’ve got about eighteen thousand years worth of lamps to look at when you go antique shopping, so make sure that you have enough time to look at them all!

5. Major Danger

Don’t be fooled by how nice these lamps look – some of them can actually be quite dangerous. It’s not the lamp itself that tends to be the problem, of course, but rather the fuel used in the lamps. Errant lamps are often regarded as the causes of both the Great Fires of London and Chicago, so make sure that you keep your lamps far away from angry farm animals and other creatures that might like to see your home look just a little bit warmer.

6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Tiffany lamp on table

It’s hard to talk about lamps without talking about Tiffany’s. These lamps come from Tiffany Studios, which itself was founded by the son of the founder of Tiffany and Company. Lamps from the studio are usually characterized by their glass-blown nature and their fantastic glass lampshades, with products from the company making up most of the list of the most expensive lamps ever purchased. If you’re lucky enough to find a genuine Tiffany on the market (it will read TIFFANY STUDIOS NEW YORK on a bronze base), you’ll have found an absolute treasure.

7. Materials Matter

Want an antique base that will be worth something in the future? If so, you want to pay attention to the material used. Bronze is going to be a go-to sign that you’ve found something that was expensive when it was originally created, though other metals are likely to fetch a good price. Ceramics can sometimes be a smart choice as well, but you’ll want to pay attention to the quality of the construction as well as the decoration of the casing. Avoid plastics when you can, as that’s a good sign that you’re looking at a much later replica of something that might be a great deal more valuable.

8. Look for Signatures

Another good way to determine the value of an antique lamp is to look for the studio signature. While the signature from Tiffany Studios is probably the most famous, many early artists and craftsmen employed similar marks of trade during the era before lamps were mass-produced. Do a little digging online to determine what kind of marks separate the originals from the replicas to determine if you are paying a fair price for the lamp you’ve found.

9. Power Woes

Unfortunately, you may not be able to use the fantastic antique electric lamp you found in your modern home. If you’re looking at a true antique, there’s a good chance that you’ll have to have the unit rewired before you can use it at home. This might be done because the old wiring is too brittle or because it was made for a different voltage than is currently in use, but having this process done will be the only way to ensure that you won’t start a fire or damage the lamp.

10. Major Society Touchstones

When you go out find antique lamp dealers, take a moment to appreciate the major role that lamps have played in human societies. From the genie of the lamp to the torch of the Statue of Liberty, lamps have been important symbols of prosperity and hope throughout the ages. The lamp you buy may not be an important symbol, but it is part of a very proud lineage.

11. Let There Be Light!

The first electric lamps date back to the 1870s, though you’re very unlikely to find one small enough to use in your home. These electric arc lamps were largely used by municipalities in the place of oil lamps, and they were largely phased out after the first World War. It would be the incandescent lamp, which used lightbulbs of a type that would be improved upon until the advent of the modern LED, that would really help electricity to become the primary method of lighting homes in the later 19th century.

12. Look at the Glass

Some antiques feature very impressive examples of glasswork. In some cases, of course, this glasswork as an integral part of the lamp, helping to shield the flame from the elements while still helping it to light up a space. In other cases, the glasswork was used to show off the wealth of the owner or the ingenuity of the craftsman, with beautiful designs and expensive coloring used throughout. If you get a chance to look at an antique lamp from a master craftsman, make sure to pay special attention to the details in the glass – you might be surprised by what you find on a closer inspection.

13. Eternal Lamps

Many cultures have stories about eternal lamps, lamps that either has a flame that continually burns or at least those that burn larger than they ought to. These lamps often have supernatural qualities attributed to them, though some are even considered the result of ingenious human engineering. While the antique lamp you’re looking at probably won’t last forever, one that you can get working can easily be considered a successor to some of these long-burning lamps of ancient mythology.

14. Looks or Utility

Another very important thing to consider when you are looking at lamps is your reason for buying the lamp. Are you looking for something that is purely decorative, or do you need something that’s actually going to provide light? If you’re looking for the former, don’t put much thought into fuel types or even wiring. If you want the latter, though, you may want to talk to the person who owns the lamp to see if it is still in working condition. Many older lamps might seem like they have all of the requisite pieces, but they’re really not meant to be used for lighting any longer.

15. Long-term Investment

Looking for a piece that will truly grow in value? Why not take a look at the world’s most expensive antique lighting piece, the Salviati Chandelier. Valued at somewhere near a million dollars, it’s certainly the kind of investment that will keep growing. Oddly enough, though, that piece pales in comparison to some of the more recent pieces from Tiffany’s that have gone up for auction, with one of the lamps fetching nearly seven million dollars. While lamps might not seem like a big investment for you, they’re clearly in high demand among some.

16. How to Spot Damage

Before your lamp was an antique, it was a common household item that went through a fair bit of wear and tear. While some weathering is usually a good thing in an antique, you want to be on the lookout for any product that looks like it was repaired, especially if the repairs look like they used new parts. The key to spotting repairs will usually be found by looking for differences in paint coloration and wear. If something looks like it was painted later than the rest of the lamp, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at something that has underlying damage.

17. Reproduction Problems

One of the issues that many antique lamp shoppers have is trying to determine the difference between a ‘real’ antique lamp and a reproduction. Reproductions have long been popular among those who love the look of antiques but who don’t want to pay a premium, and many of the most authentic-looking lamps out there today may actually be convincing reproductions. How can you tell the difference? Do some research about the special trademarks used on certain lamps, and be on the lookout for the use of plastics in anything that looks like it’s from before the mid-20th century.

18. Fragility Issues

As anyone with a child can tell you, lamps are fragile and easy to break. If you’re worried about fragility, though, don’t be too alarmed – there are plenty of lamps out there that are quite strong, especially if you’re willing to look at older models. When you discount the glass elements, older kerosene and glass lamps that are used for decor are incredibly hard to break. Somewhat ironically, it’s actually newer lamps – and especially those made out of glass or with major electrical components – that need to be treated with a great deal of care, especially if you’re displaying them around children or animals.

Buying an antique lamp can be a bit of an adventure, but it’s worth the trouble. Make sure you know exactly what you’re buying and why you want it, and then have some fun with the search. Remember, not every antique item needs to be an investment – and half the fun of buying an older product like this can be learning more about the rich history sounding the item.

19. You can buy them online

Antiquing can be fun especially if you make a trip out of it.  Antique stores are usually in nice areas such as quaint, small towns or in rural settings.  It’s a very relaxing activity plus you just mind find something perfect for your home.

However, you can’t always just jet off for a few days to go antique shopping.  Sometimes you want something sooner or later or you want to have access to more inventory.

If that’s the case, be sure to check out these terrific online antique stores.

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