One of the greatest perks of modern design— especially vintage mid century modern design—is that when bought strategically, it holds its value in a tremendous way.
Going to Ikea or West Elm to buy furniture may seem like a fun, trendy, option to furnish a home—and it is—but what those cute hipster sales clerks aren’t telling you is that after a few years of use, your $4000 matching sofa set is worth about a quarter of what you paid for it. I like to think that buying furniture is analogous to buying cars. If you buy a brand-new car, the moment it’s driven off the lot, it already begins depreciating in value. If you buy a ’57 Chevy in mint condition and maintain it with proper care, when you go to sell it in five years, it should have held its value.
So how should beginner buyers invest, and where should they save? Here are some tips to get the best bang for your buck.
Do your research
Just because a seller claims their vintage Vladimir Kagan sofa is worth $6500 and would be a steal for $3500 doesn’t inherently mean it’s a great deal. Before investing in any piece of furniture, especially high-end pieces, you should start by checking comparable sales. eBay has a great tool for this called completed listings. Search for whatever you’re looking to buy, and then narrow your search results to “completed items” and “sold items” by using the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Using these refinements will show you exactly which items sold and what those items sold for (unless a seller accepted a best offer) and will give you a solid baseline for fair market value. If you encounter issues on eBay, LiveAuctioneers has a similar tool to sort by completed lots, and will show pricing if you have an account.
Labels are almost everything
This is a true hazard of buying vintage mid century modern. Many sellers have good intentions and are honest when they believe their chrome chairs are a Milo Baughman design, but without a label they aren’t worth nearly as much. There are so many reproductions out there—it’s incredible. There are even Instagram accounts that poke fun at online sellers and common misattributions (@midcenturygoldmine is a fun one to follow). Having a label on an item is essentially like having a certificate of authenticity. It makes that item more valuable, and people pay a premium for that. That said, simply having a label is not everything. There are so many chairs, desks, case pieces, and other items that have lost their labels or have been reupholstered and no longer have them. You just have to be cognizant of who and where you’re buying from. At the end of the day, trust your research and your gut.
Reputation and Rapport Make a Difference
If you’re taking the time to do your research and invest in modernism, there is a clear hierarchy when it comes to dealers. Most high-end modernism dealers who are featured on exclusive websites have spent decades in the industry and have built rock-solid reputations in modernism. Their years of experience come with rapport, as well as a deep knowledge of the modernism space. These dealers typically charge a premium for their items and have the clientele to be able to support it. Buying from these types of dealers is always the safest option, as they most often guarantee authenticity and are truly experts in their field. This won’t always mean you’re getting the best deal, but it does mean you can buy with confidence.
Don’t Be Afraid To Buy Online
Buying in person is great, but most vintage dealers no longer allow clients to memo (take home to try out in situ) pieces or offer return policies. Buying online can seem overwhelming, but it really offers significant protections you might not otherwise have. For example, the site Chairish has a wonderful return policy on every item on their site! If for any reason you don’t love that item, or it doesn’t fit the bill, you have 48 hours to initiate a return (just know that if you do buy something and have a change of heart, you’ll have to foot the bill for the return shipping). Most dealers on the site 1stdibs also offer return policies, and 1stdibs goes even further by guaranteeing the authenticity of everything on their website. eBay, too, offers a money-back guarantee on items that aren’t as described. The only downside to buying online is the shipping. Shipping and logistics can get a little pricey, but most dealers already have an established network of shippers and can handle the logistics without issue. If you’re really a thrifty shopper, you can try using the website UShip. You can list your shipment online at your price for shipping, and find a shipper yourself.
Avoid Buying Obscure Designers
Unless you’re a dealer with a wide following, investing in obscure designers like Broderna Anderssons or Mario Sabot should be done with extreme caution. These items definitely have value, but the more obscure the designer, the more subjective the price. These types of items have no real baseline for pricing or established market. Not only will resale be difficult, but more likely than not, you’ll actually take a hit when you try to sell. Eames, Paul McCobb, Vladimir Kagan, Karl Springer, Hans Wegner, and Arne Jacobsen, for example, are design masters. Buying pieces of furniture by these designers is like buying blue chip stock; they have intrinsic value and are timelessly chic.
Use Caution When Buying Art
Most mid-century modern art is not a commodity, and the pricing is also very subjective. Of course there are plenty exceptions to this rule, but even Mid Century Art masters like Joan Miro and Alexander Calder have different edition sizes and values and trying to place a valuation on pieces can be both confusing and exhausting to a novice buyer. If you’re set on buying art, I would err on the side of paying for whatever its decorative value is to you rather than counting on an investment value. Furniture is really what holds its worth in the world of mid-century modernism, and I would invest heavily there. Flea markets, thrift shops and eBay are all great resources for inexpensive vintage art for your “finishing touches” needs.
Buy what you love
Finally, it sounds great in theory to view vintage mid century modern furniture as an investment, but in reality, you have to live with it. If you’re buying what you love, your home will be a much happier and more harmonious place to live. So, if you love that vintage, super loud sunshine yellow velvet upholstered serpentine fire sofa, you do you! At the very least, it’ll make a great conversation starter.
Inspired to do some more vintage mid century modern shopping? Check out this roundup of vintage orange finds on Etsy.