How To Identify Antique Lamps

top of antique floor lamp

Antique lamps are a stylish and functional addition to any interior space. They are often handcrafted using exquisite materials and feature intricate designs that add character and elegance to any space. The timeless appearance of antique lamps ensures they tie in seamlessly with different interior design styles.

They fetch a small fortune at auctions, antique shops, flea markets and estate sales today. Understandably, getting an antique lamp can be equated to owning a piece of history. They embody a rich cultural and historical relevance that makes them a hot commodity for antique collectors and interior designers. The value of antique lighting fixtures varies widely based on the lamp's age, uniqueness and condition. The demand for an antique lamp may also significantly drive its value and price up.

Repurposing antique lamps also contributes to a sustainable environment because you'll be reusing fixtures that have been in rotation for at least a hundred years and can continue to be used for another century. They make ideal heirloom pieces that can be passed down through generations, where they continue to provide aesthetic and functional value to loved ones.

What Is Considered an Antique Lamp?

An antique lamp is a unique light fixture at least 100 years old. Antique lamps are often confused with vintage lamps, which, although similar, vary in numerous ways. Unlike antique lamps that are at least a century old, a lamp is considered vintage if it's at least 20 but not more than 100 years old.

Antique lamps are incredibly rare because most were invented between the 17th and 20th centuries and their production stopped right after. They remain as popular as they were at the height of their production. Understanding the distinguishing factors of antique lamps will protect you from investing thousands of dollars or more in reproductions or dupes.

These lamps come in different materials, shapes, sizes, styles, forms and finishes. Authentic antique lamps are crafted from high-quality materials, such as copper, bronze, brass, glass, wood and crystal. Antique lamps exist as oil, gas or electric-operated, while vintage lamps are often electric-operated.

You can also distinguish them by their intricate designs, ornate shapes, elegant shapes and detailed patterns. These design elements are typically handcrafted, curved or molded on the lamp shades, mimicking objects of nature.

most common forms of antique lamps

The most common forms of antique lamps include table lamps, floor lamps and sconces. Typically, antique lamps have metal bases, oil burners and delicate glass shades. Antique lamps exist in various popular styles often defined by where and the era they were produced, including:

  • Art Nouveau: Art Nouveau lamps are nature-inspired, so they often feature patterns such as vine tendrils, flower stalks and insect wings.
  • Mid-Century Modern: Lamps from this era incorporate glass, wood and metal components with straightforward designs, clear-cut lines and classic finishes. Mid-century lamp shades take the shape of circles, spheres or crystal shards.
  • Art Decor: Art decor lamps were most popular in the 1920s and 1930s. They're defined by luxurious materials like chrome, glass and brass curved in bold geometric shapes.
  • Victorian: Lamps from the Victorian era are defined by asymmetrical designs, spiraling shapes and floral patterns. They often come with brass, glass and crystal components.

While well-cared-for antique lamps are almost blemish-free, most have chips, scratches and missing pieces that speak of their years of service illuminating spaces.

Antique Lamp Identification

Authentic antique lamps are rare to find and have well-balanced aesthetics. While most are fully functional at the time of purchase, some need a level of restoration to start working. There are several features you can look for to verify the authenticity and value of antique lamps:

Markings

Markings are a top antique and vintage lamp identifier. Being over 100 years old, antique lamps have manufacturer-inscribed marks and some user-infused marks. The manufacturer's marks often include logos, symbols, names, signatures and dates somewhere on the body of antique lamps. These marks are often engraved, drawn, written, stamped or can be embedded using stickers on the lamp or the lampshades.

how to identify antique lamps with inscribed marks

The user-infused marks include scratches, scuffs, chips and cracks, which develop with years of use. You can find most manufacturer markings on the base of the lamp or under the felt covering. Sometimes, you'll need a magnifying glass to zoom into the writings and drawings and other times, you'll need a soft cloth and a gentle cleaning solution to clean the area to reveal the marks.

The absence of the marks may signal a dupe or reproduction. You can find more information about the marks to expect on your antique lamp from the reference books. Here are some examples of manufacturer maps to look for as you shop for antique lamps:

  • The Handel Company signed the bottom interior of their lamp shades with their name “HANDEL” using a dark-colored felt pen.
  • Tiffany Studios lamps had several distinguishing marks on the base or lampshades that often read “TIFFANY STUDIOS NEW YORK" and the model number.
  • Authentic Dirk Van Erp Studio lamps have the company's windmill logo at the center of the underside.
  • Edward Miller and Company have the “EM&CO” logo and model number at the bottom.

Most manufacturers inscribed dates and patent numbers on the lamps, which you can use to confirm authenticity by cross-checking the company's databases. Most times, manufacturers gave unique tracking numbers to lamps made in the same era or in the same design.

Lamp Manufacturer

Knowing the style of the antique lamp you have your eye on helps you narrow down the manufacturer. You can determine the manufacturer by the unique details that distinguish their lamps from others, such as materials, shapes, colors and details. You can also look out for the unique manufacturer's markings.

The most sought-after antique lamps are produced by renowned lamp manufacturers, such as:

  • Tiffany Studios: These were produced by Louis Comfort Tiffany between 1893 and 1913 in his New York City studio and factory. Tiffany Studios lamps are distinguished by their stained glass shades featuring intricate, nature-inspired motifs and hollow bronze bases with additional decorations.
  • Handel Company: The Handle Company was established in Connecticut by Phillip J Handle. They produced conical-shaped lampshades with unique reverse-painted nature-inspired scenes in the 1800s. They are affordable alternatives to the premium-priced Tiffany Studio lamps.
  • Bradley & Hubbard: This Connecticut-based manufacturing company produced lamps and other antique items from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Among their popular lamp creations are their banquet or “Gone With the Wind" lamps.
  • Salviati: The Salviati company was established and initially owned by Antonio Salviati and his partner, Lorenzo Radi, in 1859. They produced artful mosaic glass lamps in a range of colors that resemble chalcedony materials.
  • Duffner & Kimberly: The Duffner& Kimberly Company was another glassmaking company founded and operated in the same area (New York City) and around the same time as Tiffany Studios (early 20th century.) They produced unique stained leaded glass and bronze lamps for about two decades.

Antique lamps from these renowned manufacturers are often more expensive because of the popularity of the brands and exquisite craftsmanship. Additionally, most famous lamp makers produced lamps in limited editions, which made them rare, unique and expensive.

Shade

Antique lamp shades are among their most outstanding features. Different manufacturers used different materials and designs to produce elaborate lamp shades that often imitated natural objects or mimicked expensive materials. Glass and mica were often used to make some of the most expensive lamps, such as Handel and Tiffany Studios lamps.

The unique Tiffany Studios lampshades feature rich colors and textures inspired by objects of nature, such as butterflies, peacocks, fish, wisterias and flowers. The extraordinary colors of Tiffany Studios lamp shades are a result of mixing different glass colors to create an opalescent effect. The stained glass lamp shades were created using the copper foil technique, which involves soldering hundreds of stained glass pieces using thin copper strips. The technique produced colorful lampshades that were stronger than leaded ones and allowed the incorporation of large panels and fine detailing.

In contrast, luxurious Handel lamps have distinct round or conical-shaped shades, which are reverse-painted with detailed, nature-inspired scenes. The Handel Company also produced lamp shades with stylized metal or teroca overlay placed over the glass lamp shades. More of their designs included egg lamps that came in pairs of egg-shaped shades painted with birds and trees and brightly colored hanging glass globes that featured birds and floral designs.

Plug and Cord

A lamp's light source often reveals its era of production. Antique lamps come with different types of lighting technologies, including oil, gas, electricity and batteries. Features like air holes, bulbs, oil reservoirs, plugs, cords and burners reveal the light sources of a lamp.

The production of electric lamps started in the 18th century, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, many gas-powered antique lamps were converted to electric lamps. Initially, electric antique lamps were reserved for the wealthy in society, hence their premium price point today. To date, the most valuable antique lamps are electric and come with a plug and cord.

the look of antique lamp cords and prongs

Many electric-powered antique lamps use incandescent bulbs as opposed to modern-day energy-saving LED bulbs. Most come with high-end Edison and Weston bulbs that contribute to their high price point. Their plugs and cords are also unique to the ancient days and are often used for identifying antique lamps. Here's how to inspect the lamp cord and plug to determine if the lamp is authentic or a reproduction:

  • Lamp cord: Antique lamps use a fabric or cotton-wrapped cord to ensure electricity flows through them safely. The cords also typically have some natural wear and tear on them, plus screws and wires are often exposed where the cord connects to the lamp.
  • Lamp plug: Unlike modern-day lamps that have one prong longer than the others at the end of the plug, antique lamp plugs have the same-sized prongs. Some antique lamps may come with newer plugs that were replaced during the lamp's life span and should be documented in the reference guides.

You can also confirm the type of plug and cord that should come with an antique lamp by looking at photos of similar lamp models. You might need to change the plug and cord after purchase if the socket is blown, but this may grant you a fair discount. We recommend having an antique lamp checked by a qualified electrician before purchase to guarantee that it meets modern safety standards and advise you on any necessary repairs and upgrades.

Age

The history and age of antique lamps determine their value. The age of an antique piece should show on the exterior as patina — a brownish or greenish film on the metal resulting from years of oxidation, wear and tear. You can also expect signs of discoloration, fading, cracks, chips, scratch marks and scuff marks if a lamp is over 100 years old.

Antique lamp reproductions have a shiny metallic finish and clear glass and generally look significantly newer and cleaner than authentic pieces. The materials used to produce a lamp also speak of its age. High-quality materials like copper, bronze and brass are common antique lamp identifiers. These materials were popular in the 19th and 20th centuries and often symbolized wealth and class.

Be keen to notice reproductions and dupes made using cheap materials and painted in a copper-like color. Scraping the surface of a lamp lightly with a nail may reveal whether it's legitimated or a dupe that's been repainted. The designs on antique glass lamp shades, such as those on Handel lamps, are hand-painted, and the brush strokes are quite visible. Smooth and consistent paint strokes may be a sign of machine-painted reproductions.

You can also tell the age of the lamp by assessing its style. For example, Art Nouveau lamps were most popular between 1890 and 1910, Victorian-style lamps were made between 1837 and 1901, and mid-century modern lamps were made between the 1920s and 1950s. The tracking number on lamps may also reveal when a lamp was produced to verify whether it's an authentic antique piece.

Nonetheless, the age of antique lamps makes them fragile, which necessitates caution when cleaning and handling them to ensure you preserve their value.

Buy or Sell Antique Lamps with Fontaine's Auction

If you're looking to buy or sell authentic antique lamps, consider working with Fontaine's Auction Gallery. We are among the oldest antique and fine art auction houses in America, founded over six decades ago. Over the years, we've worked with hundreds of estates, institutions and private collectors, buying and selling antique items at the greatest value.

We have galleries in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut and hold auctions in-person, online and over the phone. Our experts provide complimentary appraisal services to help you evaluate your antique lamps and provide you with an accurate estimation. When you consign your lamps to us, we sign a formal agreement that outlines the details of your item, and it's fully insured and securely stored for the entire time it is in our possession.

We specialize in Tiffany Studios Lamps and other luxury brands like Handel and Pairpoint. Get an idea of what we sell by browsing our past events, and find the next addition to your collection by checking out our upcoming auctions.

buy or sell antique lamps with Fontaine's Auction