This is a common enough question, but basically there is a standard set of elements to consider when determining whether or not your furniture is antique. Many people make the mistake of looking at one or two details while neglecting the rest, but judging antique furniture is a lot like judging a painting: look at the details, but also take in an overall perspective.
For starters, look closely at the hardware—pulls, knobs, hinges, screws, nails, whatever. Does it shine brilliantly or does it look old? Keep in mind that hardware goes in and out of style just like everything else, so a large majority of antique furniture has had its hardware replaced at least once. New hardware can also be made to look antique, so don’t draw too hasty of a conclusion: just keep it in mind. Also, if you can find screws (usually visible on the back, if at all), are they Phillips or flat head? Phillips screws are a 20th-century invention, so if your piece is supposed to be from the 18th century but has Phillips screws, they have either been added in a recent restoration or it’s a fake.
This ties into the hardware issue. If your piece has drawers, take a drawer out and look at how the handles are attached on the inside of the drawer. Nuts are more common for antiques, while screws are a newer convention. Also check to see if the hardware has been replaced: usually there will be marks or holes on the wood around the hardware.
Note whether the drawer has dovetails, and whether they are machine-cut dovetails or hand-cut. Does the back of the drawer have dovetails? This is usually a sign that the piece is indeed antique—and high-quality at that, since rear dovetails are very uncommon even in antiques.
Drawers (and backs) are also usually one of the cheapest components in furniture. Look at the wood used in the drawers. Most modern pieces—even high-quality reproductions that look very genuine on the outside—use plywood in drawer construction. The logic behind this move is simple: why waste expensive, solid wood (which has to be carefully treated and cured) on the inside of a drawer? Plywood, however, is another 20th-century invention, so if you’re looking at composite wood and your antique is supposed to be Victorian, then that plywood was either added in a restoration or you’ve got a reproduction on your hands. Flip the drawer over too, as a true period piece will not only have a solid wood bottom, but that wood will be thick and beveled to fit into the grooves of the frame of the drawer.
This is an easy one. High gloss finishes and polyurethane are 20th-century elements. Antique furniture was usually shellacked, meaning that it typically had a duller finish. This isn’t to say that antique finishes can’t be shiny and reflective, but they’re not going to be high gloss, either. Shellack finishes were very often quite thick (up to a quarter inch!), so that’s another—albeit slightly more difficult—indicator to look for.
This element is a little more nuanced. Basically, if you’re serious about knowing whether your piece is antique, compare it to similar pieces that claim to be antique. Search the internet—or look at our inventory, which serves a very good benchmark for what English antiques should look like. Our reproduction furniture also exemplifies what a quality replica looks like, so be sure to learn the differences between good and bad antique imitations. You may also want to look up Asian furniture manufacturers: they usually produce caricatures of English or European styles, so you’ll find, for example, that ogee feet become ornate and excessively curved, or you may even find Asian motifs carved into the wood.
This one has limited application but can be a life saver in some situations. We’ve already written a great piece on distinguishing between different woods, so you may want to check that out. Basically, however, English furniture is usually mahogany, walnut, oak, pine, yew, or cherry (sometimes with rosewood and satinwood, usually as inlays). In contrast, English furniture is almost never teak, which is a favorite of Asian furniture manufacturers because it is a fast-growing hard wood.
We hope that we’ve answered your questions, but if anything is lacking, please feel free to post in the comments section below!