We all know how to find the perfect vintage tee at any thrift store, but when it comes to buying vintage art, most people are at a loss. Trust us, it’s not as hard as it looks. Finding the perfect affordable painting, print, or tapestry is in itself an art that requires a little practice and discipline, but you can totally do it. Not to mention, some things are just better bought used, anyway.
We spoke to some of the leaders in the vintage game to get their tips on how to buy vintage art. So, get out the hammer and hooks: Your walls are about to get a lot more exciting.
Pick a Theme and Stick to It
This is a pretty important rule when buying anything vintage. Even if your look is “Eclectic Grandma,” there are some things that you’ll have to pass on. “I would not buy something I like if it doesn't go with our vibe,” says Omima Wolf, owner of Seattle vintage store Beats and Bohos.
For instance, if you're a midcentury devotee, you’re going to want to think twice about that $20 baroque mantel mirror, even if it's a great deal. It’s just going to look out of place next to your Lane credenza because it's a completely different style. Don’t worry: Something else always comes along.
Don’t Plan Ahead, Just Buy It
The tough thing about vintage art is that often, the pieces you find and love are not always going to fit perfectly in that one space you need to fill. So, think of curating your vintage art collection as a kind of puzzle that you don’t have to use all the pieces to complete. Many vintage decor hounds have entire storage units of pieces that they love, but simply don’t have the space for.
“At any given time, we have many pieces that are just not up on the wall,” says Wolf. “It may be just a few pieces of furniture that spark an idea. Then, from there, we create the mood that needs to be complemented with the perfect pieces of art.” Be flexible, as nothing in your home has to stay put forever.
Look. It. Up.
We have a tiny encyclopedia in our pockets at all times (your phone, if you were confused): Use it! If you’re lucky enough to find a piece that has a signature, always look it up. Even if the piece ends up not being valuable, “It’s a great way to find new artists you might just end up loving,” says Carlos Lourenco, owner of Knee Deep Vintage in Chicago.
Look Beyond the Frame
Reframing is a pain, and unless you’re a professional, chances are, you’re not going to spend the time and money reframing. Here’s a thought: You don’t really need the frame. “Great pieces are often overlooked due to ugly or dated framing,” says Anna Brockway of Chairish. “Do not be fooled. Focus on the work itself.”
If you still want an anchor for a piece of art, try unconventional ways to make it look at home: “I took an old, serious, 19th-century portrait of a gentleman, freed him from his dour frame, and layered the portrait atop a larger pale pink linen wrapped canvas,” says Brockway “No frame at all; just a layered look. The old gent got a fantastic facelift, and is now often cited by guests as their favorite thing in my house.”
Know When to Call a Professional
Sometimes, you’ll want something, even if it's a little imperfect. A common issue is moisture or mold damage. “The best thing you can do [for mold damage] is sunlight and light, soapy water,” says Lourenco. However, at the end of the day, you’re not a professional art restorer, and you wouldn’t want to turn a small stain into something worse. “Somebody always knows more than you do, so don’t be afraid to Google or call a professional... especially if the piece is valuable.”
But Character Isn’t Terrible
Unlike couches and vintage items you actually use, a little damage doesn’t necessarily make vintage art a no-go. You’re not sitting on your paintings, so you don’t have to worry as much about their structural integrity. In fact, you can work a few imperfections into your look.
“I love pieces with a little beat-up character,” says Brockway “For my son Fitz's room, I found an old, French oil painting of Napoleon with tattered edges and a little staining. I love the wear and tear.”
Originally published August 2017. Updated March 2018.