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Buying an Antique Desk? 20 Things You Need to Know

A photo collage of an antique desk.

Most of us need a desk.

If antiques are your thing, why not look for a gorgeous antique option? They’re often built very well. You may save money if it needs some work. On the flip side, you could spend a fortune on some old desk owned by Louis IV or some other monarch or famous historic person.

Regardless of whether you do this to save money or buy a work of art, here are some tips.

Antique or vintage?

If you have ever perused any kind of sale advertisement, you will have noticed that “antique”, “vintage”, and other “retro” adjectives are very popular terms amongst second-hand sellers. Of course, those words sell!

In a world where we all try to distinguish ourselves and enjoy being able to buy a piece of history as opposed to the same IKEA desk that all our friends and their parents have in their living room, old is good! Both “antique” and “vintage” are often used interchangeably to refer to an old desk, but they are not identical. An antique generally refers to an object which is over 100 years old, while a vintage object can be dated between 1910-the 1920s to 1980.

The specifics vary from object to object, but in the case of furniture, including desks, the early 1920s are a good cut-off as that time period marks the beginning of large-scale production and the apparition of new cheaper materials, such as particle board. An antique object has generally a notion of rarity and high quality, which applies to most pieces of furniture older than a century, at a time when they were mostly handcrafted by highly skilled artisans.

What to look for to identify a true antique?

Close-up of engraving details on antique desk

Now that you know the difference between “antique” and the rest, here is how to make sure you are buying the real deal. Like all things, antique styles have come in and out of fashion, and have been copied numerous times. Those more-or-less skilled copies and reproductions often end up in the same places where you might be looking for the desk of your dreams.

Always look for signs of normal wear and tear for an antique piece: if it looks new, it most likely is a reproduction. Another good way to identify a real antique writing desk is to look at the drawers’ joints. If they look uneven there is only a couple, you most likely have found the real deal since joints were made by hand until the late 1890s.

What was old is new again

A lot of older desk designs will certainly look familiar to you, even if you are just starting your journey to finding the desk of your dream. That is because a lot of the big-box stores have been imitating heavily antique styles, whether they are using some distressed finishes or some more trendy ones.

Buying an authentic antique presents the advantage of getting the look that you want for an often more affordable price than some high-end brand stores. The quality of an antique or vintage desk is also often higher than a modern one, which often uses weaker, cheaper materials such as particle boards for their finishes instead of solid wood.

How much does antique furniture cost?

While older desks can be comparatively more affordable than modern reproduction ones, this is not always the case. Some antiques are highly collectible and sought after and come with a hefty price tag. Several factors will determine the right price for the desk you are contemplating. Is it rare? Some antique bureaus are hand-crafted primary pieces.

Others are strictly functional and are more common. What is the quality of the material used? Is it solid wood or veneer? What is the essence used and how rare is it? Is the piece signed? Like brands nowadays, some craftsmen and companies marked their pieces as a gage of quality and some are still very much in demand amongst antique lovers.

Know your personal style

Well maintained antique desk

Antiques come in all kinds of shapes, from simple and functional to ornate and elaborate. When you choose an older desk, keep the bigger picture in mind. What is your personal style and in which room will your antique desk be located? Do you intend to keep it primarily as an ornament, or will it be subjected to heavy everyday use? It is easy to fall in love with an isolated piece staged at an antique show or in a store, but it might not fit your needs and your style in the grand scheme of things.

Before buying a desk, make sure to know exactly the measurements you need, since those custom-made pieces for houses often have unusual measurements and are not always returnable. On the positive side, if your house is older, finding an antique one might help you find the perfect piece to avoid a costlier custom-made route.

Will it fit your needs?

Antique bureaus and desks were used for writing, but not only. Some of them were conceived to fulfill some very specific needs that were once more common than they are today, from a specific place, like a ship or a bank, to a specific profession, like a doctor or attorney.

Antique writing tables usually come with an extensive number of drawers and storage, which can make them very useful even today if you are trying to keep clutter under control. Although those desks were not made to accommodate the number of cables that come with computer desktops that were prevalent until recently, they however come very handy when it comes to wireless devices like tablets, or good old pen and paper. Since they can be difficult and costly to modify, consider what you will be using your desk for.

Don’t look for perfection

Antique writing desk and chair

Antique pieces of furniture have lived long, busy lives before landing in your hands. It comes with defects that certainly make part of their charm: normal wear and tear, but also often a number of repairs and adaptations that can surprise the untrained eye. Some parts of the desk might have been replaced, more or less skillfully and tastefully.

Another common occurrence is that different parts of a piece of furniture might have been replaced during their life to make them more fashionable at a time when buying an entirely new piece of furniture might not have been doable. This includes matching pieces of different furniture that did not originally belong together, like for example a specific desktop with feet belonging to a different time period. That mix-and-match are called marriages. When buying an antique writing desk, consider the whole piece and accept that it might not be perfect.

Is everything in working order?

Depending on how cautiously your antique writing desk might have been cared for and stored over the centuries, some necessary bits and pieces like hardwarehandles , and keys, might be missing or mismatched. Beyond the simple esthetic considerations, this might also affect the overall utility of your new-to-you desk.

Finding a replacement for a missing key or replacing a complete set of drawer hands while maintaining the historical integrality of a piece can turn into a costly ordeal and finding the right number and style of door handles can be equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack. Trying to ensure that your desk is both usable and aesthetically pleasing while maintaining its historical charm can quickly turn in a major headache.

Where to buy an antique or vintage desk?

Finding the perfect antique bureau for you might feel a bit like hunting for the Grail. There are several places where you can go looking for it.

The easiest way to buy an antique piece is directly from an antique dealer, either in a brick-and-mortar store or during a specialized trade show. However, while it will give you the peace of mind of dealing with experts, it also comes with a heftier price tag. Don’t hesitate to explore other options, such as auctions and estate sales, particularly in older neighborhoods.

You can also find some very interesting resources online, which gives you access to a wide range of choices. However, buying an antique piece of furniture online can also expose you to a misrepresentation, voluntary or not, by the seller. Before buying an antique online, make sure to request a large number of pictures so you can get a clearer idea of the condition your purchase will be in. Having an antique writing table delivered can also be expensive.

Check out this list of online antique stores as well.

How to give your desk a second life

Refinishing antique furniture is a trendy way to give a second life to fixtures that would overwise be too old fashioned or in too rough of a shape to be used by most people. This process gives a brand-new look to your antique piece while keeping some of the details that make it unique and allow it to fit better in your home. However, it can also affect its value in the long run.

You can also upcycle a desk: this process describes the conversion of old material that might overwise be useless into something new and beautiful, regardless of its original purpose. Both are great ideas. However, if the antique bureau you are eyeing has a real historical value or is particularly well made, you might want to investigate restoration: this process will make it look like new again while respecting its historical nature.

Restoring your antique can be costly

As tempting as it might be when falling in love with a unique piece of furniture, having it is restored is not always worth it unless it is a rare and valuable piece. Antique furniture in a state of disarray is sometimes sold at very low prices to attract potential clients, but restoration often requires a very specific knowledge only a few craftsmen possessed nowadays. The most menial task can incur large costs that you have to consider before making a purchase you might regret.

Always do thorough research on who can do the work you need and how much you will have to add to the purchase price before buying any antique which might require a little extra love.

How to care for your antique writing table

If you are going to buy an antique writing table, you need to make sure that you can put the time and effort necessary in taking care of it properly to ensure it keeps its beauty and its value. Furniture nowadays is often conceived with ease of use and maintenance in mind to fit into our busy lifestyles, but that is not always the case with antique bureaus. Some of them can be very ornate or use precious wood or metal for ornament. It probably was not a concern for someone who had a maid to take care of those lowly details, but times have changed. Thankfully, you can find guidance online like here to help you care for your antique writing desk. It will all be worth it.

Trust the experts

A lifetime would not suffice to become an antique expert. Most people, professionals or enlightened amateurs, focus on a specific style or era. Before buying any antique, we recommend that you consult someone that specializes in the type of antique writing desk you are considering, to make sure that it is authentic and that the valuation you are given is reasonable, particularly if you have found it through different channels than a traditional antique store.

Educate yourself online or don’t hesitate to contact trusted professional antique dealers.

How to transport your antique writing table?

While modern furniture often comes in pieces conceived to fit in most vehicles and through doorways, antiques can rarely be disassembled. Most are also extremely heavy since they are often primarily made of solid wood.

If you buy your desk online, consider the price of transportation and possibly installation in your home. Measure your doorways and staircases if you have any.

If you must transport your new purchase from an antique store or an estate sale, bring a couple of strong friends with you and hire a truck if your personal vehicle is too small. A lot of vendors will not hold your new acquisition for you, so you must be ready to spring into action.

Buying as an investment

Like art, antique furniture is often considered an investment. However, prices can rise and fall as the styles get in and out of favor. If you are going to buy an antique, make sure it’s a piece you will love rather than a financial venture.