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Vintage chairs offer a seating bargain

February 05, 2006|By PENNY GOLDSTEIN

My mother never met an old chair that she didn't like. She took them in the way some people do stray cats. Long before anyone had heard of shabby chic, our extended family sat around the dinner table in an assortment of mismatched Victorian chairs, with several extras lined against the wall should more relatives or friends drop in.

While I broke with family tradition and bought a set of new dining chairs, I do have a number of "strays" in use throughout the house. A painted fancy Baltimore chair next to the piano holds music books. A refinished pressed back in the mudroom is handy for taking off garden shoes. Another serves as a nightstand in a tight spot in a bedroom. Two primitive cane-seated beauties with their original paint offset the formality of a walnut Renaissance Revival dresser in our foyer.

And from time to time, one of the less precious of the bunch ends up on the porch as a plant stand.

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Vintage chairs from the mid 1800s through the early 1900s have survived in quantity, and represent a rare buying opportunity in the antiques world; something truly old that is pretty, useful, and still affordable.

Audrey Harman, owner of Wogan's Antiques in Gettysburg, Pa., says that common Victorian chairs in her multi-dealer shop typically sell for between $30 and $40. At the Fayetteville, Pa. Antique Mall I spotted two not-so-common early 20th century birds-eye maple chairs in top condition for $59 each.

David Sanders, owner of Sanders Furniture Refinishing & Upholstery in Waynesboro, Pa., offers an assortment of vintage chairs from the late 1800s to early 1900s in "as is" condition. They're priced from $25 to $35.

"We're finding that people don't necessarily want their chairs to match," Sanders said.

Sanders might be on to something. Vintage chairs of every kind continue to appear in the pages of leading home decorating magazines, often in rooms furnished in an eclectic mix of styles and periods. The only rule of thumb is to buy what you like; always good advice. But before you head for the nearest antique shop or estate sale, here are a few practical points to consider.

Form - Even if you don't intend to use the chair as seating, take a good look at its structure. Look for pleasing lines and good proportion. If you'll be pulling this chair up to a dining table, don't just sit in it. Wiggle in it, and consider all the things that kids and fidgety adults might do while seated on it. Does it seem sturdy? Is the frame hefty enough to support your linebacker brother? Chairs with dainty frames and small seats are best used as decorative pieces.

Condition - Common problems such as loose rungs and broken cane seats can be remedied, but at a price you'll want to factor into your buying decision. Estimate the cost of replacing a hand-caned seat, for example, by counting the number of holes drilled around the seat frame. Joanna and Ralph Lehman of Lehman's Chair Caning in Chambersburg, Pa., charge $1.10 per hole. Joanna Lehman says a new hand-caned seat typically runs about $60. If the chair doesn't have holes drilled around the cane, but a continuous groove, it takes a pre-woven cane seat, which runs $25 to $30. The Lehmans also fix loose rungs and do other furniture repairs and refinishing.

Finish - Original finish is a factor in preserving the value of fine antiques, but the common vintage chair is purchased for function, not investment. In the price range we're talking about, you're most apt to find chairs already stripped and refinished by an antique enthusiast of 30 or 40 years ago. Even more likely, you'll find some that sorely need a coat of paint. Go for it! Some of the fancier Victorian pieces you'll find stripped and refinished were originally painted in bright colors and sold as "cottage furniture."

What's one of the hottest trends today? The "cottage" look, with whimsical, painted furniture. Once again, everything old is "new."

HomeSource staff writer Penny Goldstein has a certificate in Antiques and Decorative Arts Appraisal Studies from The George Washington University.

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