Everyone knows the term antique refers to something being really old, but what exactly is an antique anyway?
Common knowledge automatically qualifies aged treasures from the 1800s as “antiques,” but what about antiquated technology such as rotary phones and VHS players? Are the first ever baseball cards considered antique, or what about a painting drawn right after the turn of the 20th century? These questions aren’t always easy to answer, yet the term “antique” is thrown around everywhere in flea markets, pawn shops, and online marketplaces. Knowing the proper term to identify a collectible isn’t just a fun party trick; it could mean the difference between overpaying for items that catch your eye or getting a bargain on something that’s really valuable.
For this reason, we’re here to set the record straight and explain what exactly constitutes an antique as opposed to a vintage or pop-culture collectible… though, like many things in life, the answers aren’t always as clearly defined as you’d hope.
To shed some light on this nebulous subject, we spoke with Gemr co-founder and Antiques Roadshow appraiser Gary Sullivan. As an owner of an antique store himself, we knew Gary would be uniquely qualified to explain the meaning of the word “antique” as authoritatively as possible.
“The true definition of an antique is something that’s 100 years old,” Gary told us. “People use the word ‘antique’ indiscriminately though and often use it to describe items that are not 100 years old. Everyone’s got their own definition; there’s no definitive line, it’s a fuzzy transition.”
In truth, the definition of antique varies not only from person to person, but from industry to industry as well. Among car collectors, for example, the criteria for a car to be considered “antique” is looser due to the relatively young age of the automobile industry in comparison to, say, the furniture or glassware industries. According to The Antique Automobile Club of America, a 25 year old car would be considered “antique,” though other collectors consider a true antique car to be more than 50 years old. Either way, it’s a far cry from the strict 100 year definition.
This may lead you to ask how the term “vintage” relates to antiques. After all, if the word “antique” is so malleable, then how does another word meaning “old” fit into the collecting space? As it turns out, the terms vintage and antique carry very different connotations.
“To me, vintage means old but not terribly old,” Gary explained. “More or less 20th century, newer than the 1920s.”
“The word ‘vintage’ and the images it conjures are appealing to 20, 30, and 40 year old collectors,” he continued. “To many people of this demographic, antique means ‘too fragile.’ They may find these things interesting, but many don’t see themselves living with the stuff. They prefer vintage items that are not quite as formal and not as valuable. They’re not as old, they’re not as fragile, they’re not as pricey.”
“The opposite is true of 50, 60, and 70 year old collectors, to whom ‘vintage’ is less appealing and antiques are king. It’s a generational thing.”
Since anything from first edition trading cards to Depression Era dolls could be considered vintage, it’s common practice for sellers to specify the date of manufacture (or approximate date) when ascribing the word “vintage.” This point is actually elaborated on by eBay, describing how selling your old-school Peanuts comic and calling it a “Vintage 1971 Peanuts comic” would be more upfront and honest than simply saying “Vintage Peanuts comic,” as the latter term could potentially indicate the item dates back as far as the original Peanuts comic from 1950.
With that said, “pop culture” is a term that is a bit easier to define in the collecting world. As the name indicates, pretty much any item born out of the “popular culture” of a particular generation can safely be considered a pop-culture collectible by enthusiasts. This isn’t to say that pop-culture collectibles are any less valuable, of course. On the contrary, items like the Tournament Black Luster Soldier Yu-Gi-Oh card are literally worth millions despite being less than two decades old. Surprisingly, the correlation between pop culture and vintage items is closer than you may think.
“Pop culture and antique are mutually exclusive terms,” Gary said, “yet the majority of pop culture collectibles fall into the category of vintage. Even 1980s and 1990s items are vintage if they’re no longer being produced.”
Though some collectors may like to differentiate vintage, antique, and pop culture more than others, all collectors are united by their love of collecting. As we’ve seen all across Gemr, collectors of guitars, Funko pops, and WWE memorabilia may have different tastes, but the passion to share and connect with like minded collectors is strong among all of them. To you, words like “antique” and “vintage” may not perfectly align with what we’ve discussed here, and in truth that’s perfectly fine! After all, sharing differing perspectives regarding the value of collectibles is part of what keeps our hobbies interesting. However, understanding the commonly agreed-upon definitions and qualifiers for these terms will enable you to more easily communicate with your fellow collectors: even collectors with totally different interests.
After 41 years of working with collectors in the antiques and collectibles business, Gary Sullivan can personally attest to the commonality among collecting enthusiasts.
“All collectors have the desire to learn more about and see great and rare examples of the objects they collect. Even if they don’t need them, can’t afford them, or don’t have space for them, a true collector continues to pursue their passion by acquiring knowledge.”
“The mindset of the collector and what motivates them is exactly the same among all age groups. The demographics may be different, but the behavior is the same.”