What the difference between vintage and antique?

ResellingRevealed: “Antique” and “Vintage” have got to be some of the most misused words when it comes to selling on eBay.  To the average person, this may not seem like such a big deal, but to many collectors and shoppers, it means needing to wade through mounds of inaccurate listings to find what you want.  It also makes an buyer wonder, if you don’t even know whether what your setting is vintage, an antique, or neither, what else don’t you know?  The more knowledgeable you are about the products you can sell, the more likely you are to find the perfect buyer.  If the extent of your knowledge is “it’s old…” expect very little traffic and even less interest.


“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” or so we are told. As this adage implies, word choice when describing an item can sometimes be subjective, and the item’s value is often relative to the worth placed on it by an individual. With the value of an item being so variable, then, it is important to come to some common understanding of the standard meaning attached to basic labels.

Whether hunting at the antique shop for enjoyment, or surfing listings for just the right item, understanding what is meant by terms such as “antique” or “vintage” will improve the buying and selling process.

These terms join a host of others (e.g. retro, classic, etc.) that have come to be understood as simply meaning “old.” Often, such words are used to imply that it is from another production era and cannot be purchased new today. “Old” is good, as many people seek items with histories attached to them, whether real or imagined, or some standard of quality or style that only truly existed during a certain era. But just being old does not make an item an “antique” or “vintage.”
These terms are so frequently used interchangeably with “old,” that many people do not even know that the words do have more formally, and in some cases, more legally, accepted meanings.

Defining Terms
While both terms, “antique” and “vintage,” do muster connotations of “old,” understanding the specific meanings that people knowledgeable about the trade attach to these words will go a long way toward clearer communication.

It is important to note that, for some specific items, like firearms and some clothing items, there are standardly accepted definitions of these terms that may differ from those discussed here. In fact, for firearms in particular, the word “antique” is very specific, and there are certain laws about the buying and selling of firearms based on whether they meet specific qualification. Specific guides for items provide information on the use of terminology within an individual category.

Today, everything seems to be an antique. The 1980s brick cell phone and a craftsman-style table, handcrafted during the depression are each slapped with the same “antique” label that a 1800’s era family heirloom quilt justly deserves. For those in the trade, however, this word does not just mean “old,” but signifies a minimum specific age and should not be applied to the ‘80s brick cell phone and, perhaps, not even to the depression-era handcrafted table.

The Antiques Roadshow must regularly decide what is and what is not an antique. According to them, an “antique” is, “[g]enerally speaking, an object of considerable age valued for its aesthetic or historical significance. In the antiques trade, the term refers to objects more than 100 years old.”
Thus, when buying or selling an item labeled “antique,” trade standards suggest that the term should be reserved only for items greater than 100 years old. Outside of the practice of buying and selling items, however, use of the word “antique” can be understood to attach no specific age to an item.

Even inside the trade, though, there is some variability as to the exact age that signifies an antique. Generally speaking, it is safe to stick with the 100 year definition, but some hold to an 80 year marker. The 80 year marker considers the heritage of the item in that it reflects the span of two generations, with one generation traditionally considered to be the length of 40 years.

These are all simply trade standards, but it should also be noted that U.S. Customs has set their own legal definition of an antique, and it is in agreement with the 100 year guideline. U.S. Customs also adds a quality standard to their definition in that, while it is acceptable to repair or restore an antique, the item must retain its original character and be less than 50% restored to be considered an antique.

In keeping with these standards, let’s examine the three items discussed above. The brick cell phone from the 80s, while being the oldest cell phone produced, could not be considered an antique for 70 more years. Likewise, as odd as it seems, that depression era, handcrafted table is, as yet, a few years shy of acquiring a true antique status. Indeed, of the three, only the heirloom quilt from the 1800’s is a true antique.

Even if they may not be aware of what the standard is, many people realize that there is some standard for defining an antique. Many people speculate that if an item is not antique it must be at least be “vintage.” Sometimes this is the case, but not always. Often, it is all in the wording.

Vintage has several different accepted meanings, and that can cause confusion. The loosest meaning implies that the item is of a fashion that was popular in a different era. Used in this sense, “vintage” may not even mean that it was produced in that era, but simply that it mimics the fashions of that era. This can cause trouble, because most people expect the term to mean something more when applied to something that is being bought or sold.

Many people expect it to have some standard of date applied to it. Accordingly, most experts in the trade have decided that the term “vintage,” when used in a way similar to the term “antique,” refers to items that are over 50 years old, but less than 100. This kind of standard works when dealing with truly old, but not antique, items but falls short when using the term to describe something newer, and from a specific era. Understanding how the term came to be used in this way can help set the path for clearer communication.

The term “vintage” was originally derived from the dating of a bottle of wine, where the vintage date, or the date the grapes were grown, gives some added information about the value of the wine. If the vintage year was a good one for grapes, it indicates that this wine is of high quality.

This history of the term helps in understanding important ideas about the use of the term “vintage.” It shows us that the term actually dates something. Just as it is used to refer to the exact year a certain wine was produced, it should, when buying and selling goods, be used in accordance with a date, or some other time frame, in its general usage.

If an item is said to be vintage, then, it should, technically state the year, or the era, in which it was manufactured. Sometimes, this type of dating of a vintage item is implied, as in when a manufacturer produced something that is highly praised for only one season. In this instance, the date is often left off because, just like in wine production, when a highly favorable crop is produced, those in the know don’t need the date, but simply adding “vintage” to it signifies that it was from that one really great year.

For many items, “vintage” used in this way refers to the year or era that the item first became popular. “Vintage Peanuts,” then, would refer to items produced in the 1950s era, when the comic strip was first popularized. If the item is not from that specific era, it may still be labeled as vintage, but just like with our wine example, it should have a specific year attached to it: “Vintage 1971 Peanuts.” Labeling as such indicates that the item is not a replica of the 1971 Peanuts item, but an item actually produced in 1971.

Trade standards are not as demanding about the use of the term “vintage” as they are the use of the word “antique.” This is likely because the term has only recently become widely used in marketing items. A standard may one day be set more firmly, but for now, the above are considered the most widely accepted uses of the term.

Why Do the Words Matter Anyways?
To return again to our adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” the value of any particular item is often subjective, depending on the value an individual places on it. In reality, however, parties often need to reach a consensus about the value of an item.

Some look to the labels attached to the item to determine such value, but this only holds true if the attached labels adhere to some standard definition of terms. Sometimes, an item is simply old, or even just “used,” and should be given no extra value for its age. Putting the label of “Vintage” or “Antique” on such an item implies added value, but if the item doesn’t fit the generally accepted definition of the term applied to it, this could be considered disingenuous.

In a physical situation, where one can closely examine an item, it is often easy to decide quickly if the terms being applied are simply colorful ways to indicate that the item is old. In a virtual situation, however, being extra conscious of how terms are used and understanding that the meaning of terms can vary, helps greatly in determining the value placed on an item.

Buying Antique and Vintage Items on eBay
As stated, both terms, “vintage” and “antique,” are often used to describe an item that is simply old. Technically speaking, this usage is reasonably correct, but not what is expected when used in the buying and selling of items. During the buying and selling process, trade standards, however unclear, should be adhered to as closely as possible. Just a quick perusal of the Antiques portal on eBay, however, makes it clear that many are confused about the use of these terms.

It is good to know, then, that an item listed as an antique may simply be old. Further investigation and a thorough understanding of what is being listed is the best way to ensure that it is, indeed, the treasure being sought. But, first it has to be located.

Search by Category
A good place to start a search for “Antiques” on eBay is through the Antique portal. From there, links are available to Asian AntiquesAntique Carpets and Rugs, Antique Books and Manuscripts, and Furniture, among others.

Also through this portal, clicking the Periods and Styles link brings up links to listings in the Aesthetic MovementArt DecoVictorian, and Arts and Crafts Movement, as well as other periods.

Many of these category links bring up options to search for “new,” “used,” or “not specified.” This can help narrow down the listings some, because you clearly do not want a “new” antique.

Keyword Search
Another strategy for locating the item you are looking for is to search eBay listing titles for specific keywords. For example, if the search is for a vintage Peanuts lunch box, type vintage Peanuts lunch box (without quotation marks) into the Search box.

Remember to use a plus sign between consecutive words in a keyword phrase. After conducting the initial search, try different misspellings of the name of the item, thinking up several variations. This will likely bring up additional listings. Visit eBay’s Search Tips page for more tips on searching with keywords.

Advanced Search
eBay’s Advanced Search feature allows for a more precise search and offers the option to search by seller, buyer, or store. The search results can also be narrowed to “All of these words,” “Any of these words,” or “Exact phrase.”

If these search tips are not bringing up the item you seek, search All Categories to find antique and vintage items listed in multiple categories and subcategories on eBay. Some of these categories include CollectiblesJewelry and WatchesClothing, Shoes and Accessories. If the item still cannot be found, try shopping eBay Stores, or tell the eBay Community what you want by creating a post on Want It Now. Or save a search on My eBay and eBay will email you when a match becomes available.

Buy Antique or Vintage Items With Confidence
Armed with a better understanding of what the terms mean, you are ready to buy with confidence. Before making the purchase, though, make sure you know exactly what the item is, research the seller, and understand how eBay and PayPal protect the buyer.
Know The PurchaseCarefully read the details in the item’s listing. If there are unanswered questions, ask the seller a question by clicking on their user name in the upper right hand corner of the listing page. Specifically, it is a good idea to ask how the seller defines the terms used in the listing. If the item is listed as “vintage,” be sure to get the sellers definition of “vintage.” Do the same for items listed as “antique.” It is important that both parties are clear about the meaning of each term used.

If the purchase is expensive, make sure the seller will insure the item when it ships. Do not forget to figure delivery costs into the final price, and always make sure to complete the transaction on eBay (with a bid, Buy It Now, or Best Offer). Transactions conducted outside of eBay are not covered by eBay protection programs.
Never pay for the purchase using instant cash wire transfer services through Western Union or MoneyGram. These payment methods are unsafe when paying someone you do not know.

Know The Seller
Research the seller to feel positive and secure about every transaction. Check that they have a good feedback rating and find out how many transactions have they completed. Look to see what percentage of positive responses they have. It is also important to see what kind of comments buyers leave and if the seller has received praise.

Most top eBay sellers operate like retail stores and have return policies. Find out if the seller offers a money-back guarantee. If so, find out what the terms and conditions are.

Buyer Protection: In the unlikely event that the item is not received or that it is not as described, eBay Buyer Protection will cover the purchase price plus original shipping.

Conclusion: Antique treasure hunting and looking for vintage collectibles is a pastime many enjoy, but some can find frustrating because the terms have such murky definitions. When on the hunt for just the right treasure, arming yourself with knowledge about the terminology used allows you to ask wise questions, and make wiser choices than the rest of the pack.That can mean better treasure hunting. And, as the adage implies, treasuring what another found useless can signify a windfall in some instances.