Would you be able to tell an antique sofa from just a really old one? There is a distinction! In this guide to antique sofa identification, valuation and trading, we’re going to explain everything you need to know about that old couch in your storage unit or basement.
So, before you throw it away or sell it on eBay for a few bucks, find out if it’s genuinely worth something. In the meantime, keep the sofa clean and free of damp and dust… it could be worth a fortune. Did you know that one armchair sold for $26.6 million in 2009?!
Let’s start with the first step – identifying your antique sofa.
The History of Antique Sofa Styles
First, do you call it a sofa or a couch? The terms can be used interchangeably, and they both refer to the same item – a bench-style seat that’s cushioned with armrests and pillows. Couch is the most common name in the US, while sofa is more common in the UK.
There are other terms too, like divan, davenport, chesterfield, and settee. You might have heard the older generations refer to your couch using these terms. Often, there’s no real distinction between them. The different terms rarely refer to different types of furniture, it’s just the name used depending on the country the person is from.
But where does it all originate?
Well, as far back as we can trace. Ancient Greek wall paintings, dating back to 470 B.C. depict Greeks leisurely reclining on backless sofas.
One of the most well-know sofas that began the trend of the low seat with plush quilted cushions, was the chesterfield. The first leather chesterfield sofa was commissioned in the UK by the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, 1694 to 1773.
Exactly what you call your furniture doesn’t matter too much – sofa, couch, settee, it’s all roughly the same. However, it can be an indication of origin and manufacturer. If you’re in doubt about what to call your furniture, then the best thing to do is identify who made it and when. Then you can use the name given to the antique when it was first manufactured.
Antique Sofa Identification
Unlike china plates and porcelain vases, you rarely find a makers mark or stamp on the underside of a couch! Nevertheless, you should still take a peek underneath the sofa to see what it’s like.
To identify your couch, here’s what to do:
Start by identifying the style as there are many different styles available. This gives you an idea of who the manufacturer could be and the period it was produced in. We have a list of some of the most well-known styles below to go through. Another good way to identify your sofa is to take it to a professional antiques dealer or share photos in antiques forums – see valuation below for some helpful links.
Once you know the style of the sofa, turn the item upside down (carefully, so you don’t break anything) to look at how it was created and what materials were used. This tells you several things:
- If it’s authentic and the materials used are the same as what was available at the time. This also applies to the techniques used to create it. Wooden frames are expected of antique couches. If you spot traces of glue or Philips head screws, that’s a good indicator that it’s a fake.
- If the sofa has been repaired, you may see a mix of old and new parts used to build the sofa. In which case, tracking down who repaired it and when may be important for the valuation of it.
- The frame and materials used will also indicate the manufacturer and the year or era it was built. Unless you have time to learn how to identify manufacturers by their production methods, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to identify the sofa from this. However, it is good to mention this when you get a valuation online or ask forums for help.
You should also look at the padding and strings. It’s fairly common for antique sofas to be reupholstered with new padding and cushions over the years, but sometimes you do come across the odd antique sofa that’s padded with down or horsehair. An instant indication that it’s authentic!
You can also tell if the cushion element is the original or if it has been replaced by the type of fabric used. Any kind of nylon or cotton is likely to be very modern. Wool and leather became popular during the late 18th century and into the Victorian era. Tapestry and velvet can be a sign of a very old antique.
Surprisingly, many settees and couches from the centuries before this were likely to be unpadded completely. This is either by design or because the material has naturally eroded away. That’s doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worthless either!
Even if your antique sofa is genuine, features like rotting wood, water damage, and mildew can make a sofa irreparable. If your sofa cannot be repaired, then it’s unlikely to fetch any kind of decent price, regardless of whether it’s an antique or not.
Our advice? Take it to an antiques dealer who will first be able to tell you if it’s even worth salvaging. If the answer is yes, then take the damaged antique sofa to a company that specializes in antique restoration. Ideally, you should find an expert who only handles antiques and understands how to repair old furnishings.
Antique Sofa Styles with Pictures
Let’s take a look at some popular antique sofa styles that you may recognize.
As mentioned above, Chesterfield sofas were first designed in Britain during the 1700s, however they were produced for many decades after that and were popular right through to the 20th century. They are characterized by extravagant leather designs with buttoning, a low seat, and a high back.
Interestingly, the very deep buttoning was only introduced during the Victorian era to improve comfort. If the buttoning is quite shallow on your Chesterfield, that could indicate that it’s much older.
Davenport is actually the name of an American sofa company. But like ‘hoover’ became synonymous with ‘vacuum cleaner’, ‘davenport’ eventually became synonymous with sofas in general. Original davenports were made by a company in Massachusetts and are characterized by a boxy shape that’s still fairly common today. Above you can see the modern version of the davenport.
Davenport & Co even upholstered The White House during the Roosevelt administration, filling it with colonial-revival and federal style furnishings too.
Windsor chairs with their slender design and spindled backs were popular pieces of early American furniture. However, there was also the Windsor bench – the one picture above has been painted and refurbished with added drawers beneath it.
Windsor style antiques were mass produced (or as widely produced as was possible at the time) in the first few decades of the 19th century. Any Windsor bench, settle, or chair that dates before that time will be rare, and perhaps more valuable!
Federal style, also known as neoclassic in Europe, emerged after America gained independence and lasted until the 1820s. Couches made during this period and characterized by concave backs or legs, and very ornate carvings and designs. The inspiration for this period was the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
Mahogany was the most popular material for this era. Many settees had exposed wooden legs, like the Hepplewhite settee and matching chairs pictured above.
Empire sofas are best described as having clean or masculine lines. Originating in the early 1800s, the empire style was very classical in America and is sought after today. Antiques from this period will often be upholstered in velvet and made with mahogany wood – similar in construction to the federal furniture, but very contrasting in style.
This heavy, block-style furniture was very desirable at the time!
Valuing Couches, Sofas and Armchairs
Okay, once you’ve found out which style your sofa is, that’s enough to start finding a valuation. It’s best if you can find out the manufacturer too, as well as discern the materials used to create it. If there are any parts that have been replaced or reupholstered, that may complicate the valuation process.
To value a sofa yourself, the easiest thing to do is compare the sofa to similar examples that have sold in auction and online recently. The antique sofa market isn’t as competitive and watched as other antique markets. For example, a china plate set or antique vase can be very valuable even today. But with large furniture objects, people aren’t too interested in having an antique in their home if it doesn’t fit their current décor scheme.
At the time of writing, Scandinavian and Japanese minimalism are two very popular trends that are leading the market. Bright colors are also popular. Ornate and brown leather sofas, like many antiques that we see on the market at the moment, just don’t work with current décor schemes.
If your sofa is antique and in good condition, store it well. Even if the market isn’t interested in buying your sofa at the moment, that doesn’t mean that it won’t be sold for a high price in the future. Tastes change over time!
How to Value Furniture Yourself
Here’s how we recommend you value your sofa:
- Identify the era and/or manufacturer,
- Look at online auction sites, directories, or even just eBay to find similar (or identical) sofas and settees,
- Based on the condition of your antique and the conditions of those sold, you can work out a reasonable value.
Some professional buyers will only purchase your antique if it has been assessed and valued by a professional antiques dealer. You also need to make sure that your antique is from the correct era. During the 19th century, the furniture market went through phases of reviving old styles that mimic the true antiques. And of course, there may be fakes out there too.
How to Get Your Sofa Valued Professionally
Finding a specialist to value your antique is the best course of action. It gives you as much certainty as possible regarding the identity and value of your antique. This means you can confidently ask for a higher price if you know that your antique is valuable!
One way to get your antique in front of experts is to use a forum or online valuation service. Here are a few that you may want to consider:
- ValueMyStuff – send a phone and their “experts” will give you an appraisal.
- Furniture forums at Antiquers.
- Valuations forums at Antique Marks – although we see more requests for smaller dinnerware items here.
- E-ValueIt is another appraisal website like ValueMyStuff. You will need to pay a fee. Bear in mind that free online appraisals cannot be used for insurance purposes anyway but may be useful just to get a rough idea of what your antique may be worth.
Where to Buy an Antique Sofa Online
Buying antiques online can be a tricky task. When you’re purchasing items from third-party sellers, it’s very hard to tell if the item is authentic or not. However, if you want to take a risk – or find a place to sell your own antiques – then try one of these six websites.
eBay is good for finding a deal. You may be able to find vintage and antique items sold cheap on eBay where a household simply needs to get rid of their belongings in a hurry. However, make sure you keep an eye on the shipping costs for large items and don’t count on every antique sofa being genuine.
Etsy sells many handmade items but also has some antiques. You can expect to find unusual or refurbished antiques on Etsy, where people have already valued or repaired an item and are selling it onwards.
Amazon is not usually thought of as a good place to buy genuine antiques, however you can find many cheap replicas and antique-style items if you want to decorate your home with antique sofa style without paying antique prices.
Craigslist is a good way to find and sell antiques in your local area. This means you can cut down on delivery costs and maybe even meet some other people in the antiques trade. You can also pay with cryptocurrency on some Craigslist listings, which is another draw to the platform.
1stDibs is a website that specializes in just antique and vintage items. One of the things we love most about 1stDibs is that they only select prestigious and reliable sellers to work with them. This ensures that you only get authentic vintage items. However, it does mean that you cannot sell your own antiques on the site as an individual.
Like 1stDibs, Pamono is an online marketplace that specializes in antique items, including antique sofas. We really like that you can filter results by time period, and you can even find some new items on this site that are made to look like real antiques!
How can I tell if my sofa is an antique?
If your sofa was made before 1922 – 100 years ago – it is classified as an antique. To find the age of your sofa, you need to look at the materials and method used to manufacture it. Many old sofas will use dovetail joints. If you spot screws and evidence of glue, it is unlikely to be an antique. However, there’s still a chance that it was once an antique but has been repaired with modern methods. See identifying antique sofas above to learn more.
What makes a couch an antique?
The age is the most important factor, it must have been made over 100 years ago. For it to be a valuable antique sofa, it needs to be in great condition, from a reputable and traceable manufacturer.
Are antique couches comfortable?
If they have been well-maintained, they can be very comfortable. Some of the early chesterfield sofas were very plush and made with comfortable leather. Of course, nowadays it’s best to avoid using antique couches in case you damage them. Other antique furniture items, like old settees made of wood, will be quite uncomfortable!
What was a couch called in the 1700s?
The term settle was used somewhat during the 18th century, however the term settee also became more frequently used during this period and eventually ‘settle’ vanished completely. The chesterfield sofa was also invented during the 18th century; however, it wasn’t used to refer to any couch or sofa until the 1900s in Britain and Canada.
How old should a couch be to be classified as antique?
The general rule of thumb for most items, including sofas and couches, is that if it’s older than 100 years then it can be called an antique. Items that are less than 100 years old are classified as vintage. The problem with old sofas is that the terms ‘sofa’ and ‘couch’ were only introduced in the past 100 years or so – furniture seating before the 1900s came under many different names!