Antique, Vintage, Retro And Collectible: What Are the Differences?

The words “antique”, “vintage”, “retro” and “collectible” are often used loosely by sellers online, but are there really any differences between them? Experts said that it is not possible to really tell whether a product is antique, vintage, retro or collectible, and although they do convey an added value, buyers have to be careful to assess the product in question properly themselves. Also something that you need to take note of is that for items such as firearms and some clothing, there are universally accepted guidelines of these terms that may be different from those discussed here. For instance, the word “antique” is very specific for firearms, as there are laws about the trading of firearms based on whether they meet specific qualifications.

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An Antique Car (Source: http://cloudmind.info/)

Definition of “Antique”

Debates have been aggressive over the past few years over the three words, but according to dictionary.com, an antique is “any work of art, piece of furniture, decorative object, or the like, created or produced in a former period, or, according to U.S. customs laws, 100 years before date of purchase.” while the Merriam Webster dictionary defines an antique as “existing since or belonging to earlier times”, or “being in the style or fashion of former times” and “made in or representative of the work of an earlier period”. Ruby Lane defines it as an item with “an age of at least 100 years.” However, it is noted that inside the trade, there are some that considers items 80 years or less as “antique”, as they consider that the item reflects the span of two generations. It must also be noted that for an item to be considered an “antique” in the eyes of the US customs laws, it must also retain its original character and be less than 50% restored.

That said, there are some traders and dealers who are trying to lower the standard of an antique. To them, any items that are more than 50 years old should be considered an antique, but reputable dealers rebuked that this lowers the standard, so much so that anyone can sell collectibles as “antiques”, and often for good prices too.

Definition of “Vintage”

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A Vintage Camera

The definition of “vintage” according to dictionary.com is “the wine from a particular harvest or crop”, and secondary definitions include “the time of gathering grapes, or of winemaking or producing wine, or “the class of a dated object with reference to era of production or use”, while Merriam Webster defines it as “a season’s yield of grapes or wine from a vineyard, or a period of origin or manufacture.”

Ruby Lane states that a vintage item “means an item of a certain quality, or qualities, associated with or belonging to that specific era”, and in particular, it should not be used in reference to objects less than 20 years old. Elsewhere on related forums, experts said that the term “vintage” apply to items less than 20 or 25 years of age, and specifically apply to the time period of 1960 – 1979. Others deem “vintage” items as those that are over 50 years old, but less than 100 years old.

Hence, it can be seen that when used loosely, the meaning of “vintage” implies an item of a fashion that was popular in a different era, imitating the fashion of that era. It could refer to the year or era that the item first became popular. Alternatively, a “vintage” item should state the year that it was manufactured, as this indicates that it is not a replica of that year, but an actual item produced in that year.

Definition of “Retro”

According to dictionary.com, retro is “denoting something associated with or revived from the past” or “looking like or relating to styles or fashions from the past”, while Merriam Webster defines retro as “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past: fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.” 

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Collectible Coins

Definition of “Collectible”

This leads us to the word “collectible”, which is defined in Merriam Webster as “an object that is collected by fanciers; especially: one other than such traditionally collectible items as art, stamps, coins, and antiques,” while in dictionary.com. it is an item that “may be collected and sought after by collectors of relics, souvenirs etc. from 1888.”

To experts, a “collectible” describes a valuable object less than a hundred years old, different from antiques.

As can be seen, except for the term “antique”, the terms of “vintage”, “retro” or “collectible” could actually be quite confusing, as there is no real guidelines to when we should use each term for what item. But as in all collecting, it is not the definition but rather the rarity, condition and historical significance of an item that determines its worth and what it is called. It is imperative for the buyer to research a lot before handing over large sums of money to anyone. Be wary of vendors trying to price their items much higher than their original value. Some resources such as Maine Antique DigestArt & AntiquesHeritage Auctions and Bonhams can be used for your reference.

Sourcing for antiques or vintage collectibles is fun, but can be frustrating when the terms turn murky. But just arm yourself with the knowledge of the terms, ask lots of questions about the item, and you are on your way to finding a treasure you will admire for many more years to come. After all, as we have seen, the label “antique”, “vintage”, “retro” or “collectible” has no real effect on the value of the item.

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Kalden Rose
Kalden Rose, the nerdy student which always emerges top in the school. The kind that would rather be burying his nose in a bunch of books than playing a game of football. But he does like to visit garage sales. If you do too, connect with him at kalden@vxotic.com.

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