What to Consider When Buying Vintage Lighting

Vintage lighting can easily be trash or treasure. In fact, a vintage lamp or fixture can be compared to an incredible piece of jewelry – a small accent that transforms the simplest room in a truly memorable way. Whether your taste leans toward Tiffany table lamps, classic mid-century chandeliers or art deco wall sconces, aged fixtures also can infuse a room with period flavor. However, be careful not to simply fall for looks without thought toward functionality. Here are a few tips that will help you become a savvy shopper of vintage lighting:

Determine your priority – style, value or both
Are you simply looking for a fixture to add a unique decorative flourish to your home or are you a collector seeking an investment piece? If you’re looking for aesthetics more than a monetary gain be prepared to do some refurbishment as a decor lighting piece may need extensive cleaning, finish restoration or repairs. Should you be a collector than you’ll want to look for pieces with provenance, pedigree, maker distinction and other important details that bear on value.

Check the wiring and circuitry
A wise safety measure is having a licensed electrician provide an opinion on the soundness of the wiring before putting your vintage chandelier, sconces or other lighting fixture to use. Pieces that are more than four or five decades old likely won’t follow today’s safety or compatibility standards, and even newer fixtures may have frayed cables or other danger spots.

Confirm the wattage and bulb size
While you have access to an electrician, ask about the most appropriate type of bulb for your lighting fixture. Many of today’s standard bulbs may not fit. Find out if you’ll need specialty bulbs or if an adapter can be fitted to the piece.

Find yourself a good parts supplier
It’s unlikely that you’ll find a fixture in perfect condition. Let’s say you’ve come across a vintage lamp with a base that is just what you’re looking for, but the shade is badly stained and threadbare. Or perhaps a chandelier caught your eye but is missing a several crystals. A purveyor that specializes in antique lighting parts can be an invaluable resource. If you don’t have one in your neighborhood or nearby, search online.

Be careful with cleaning and restoration
Ask for advice before you clean the surface of a fixture, especially if you’ve purchased a valuable collectible. The patina that some materials, such as bronze, acquire over time is considered desirable; removing it could diminish the piece’s value. No matter how valuable your piece is, find out whether the finish requires specialized cleaning products or methods to prevent damage. Pieces with significant wear and tear might need professional restoration to make them sparkle again.

Here are descriptions for several of the most popular lighting styles:

Mid-to-late 1800s
A transitional period for lights, the Victorian era saw the shift from gas-power to electricity. This incredible Civil-War era 2-arm pendant above was originally lit by gas, but we converted it to electric for the modern age. Silhouettes are usually curved and flowing, complete with intricate carvings inspired by both Western and Eastern history.

  • Intricate, flowing detail work on fixtures and shades
  • Candelabra-style bulbs and converted gas designs
  • Glass shades with etchings, frosted finishes, and colorful art

Classical Revival
Mid 1800s to early 1900s
Classical Revival draws inspiration from the gilt and glamour of 17th century France. Crystal is a hallmark of the Classical Revival movement, which often treats its lighting with some favorite ancient detailing, like acanthus leaf, Greek Key, and wave motifs.

  • Inspired by gilded designs and luxurious materials
  • Intricate patterns featuring filigree designs and Greek motifs
  • A mix of original gas fixtures and converted electric lights

Art Deco
1920s – 1930s
Art Deco lighting features intricate patterns and elegant materials to evoke the luxurious style of this infamous era. The glamour of the Hollywood golden age is apparent in this vintage pendant above, which features an intricate opalescent shade and an equally ornate cast fixture.

  • A unique mix of geometric lines and elegant materials
  • Intricate patterns and detail work throughout the fixture
  • Reflective accents, cast brass, and glass shades

1920s – 1940s
Although Industrial is a stylistic era, its time period ranges from before the turn of the century through the 1940s. Industrial typically refers more to function than to the time period. This wall-mounted vintage task lamp would have lit a workstation at a factory or garage, and today it brings character and industrial style to any space.

  • A focus on function and utility before style
  • Durable materials like metal, steel, and brass
  • Streamlined, simple designs with unique functionality

Mid-Century Modern
Natural materials often paired with unique forms and futuristic styling during the Mid-Century design movement. This vintage sconce pivots from a wall-mounted teak bracket, and features a lathe-carved teak shade holder with a frosted glass globe shade.

  • Form follows function for this style
  • Streamlined silhouettes inspired by both geometric and organic forms
  • Lack of ornamentation