Your Guide to Buying an Antique Mirror

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Your Guide to Buying an Antique Mirror

Antique mirrors are those dating from a previous era that are considered particularly collectable or valuable. There is no specific time period that counts as antique in the UK, except relating to cars, but, generally, antiques are at least 100 years old. Antique items are sometimes referred to as vintage or collectable. Generally speaking, vintage items are newer than antiques and date from the early to late 20th century. Collectables are items that are valued by collectors and may not necessarily be old, though they often are. Glass mirrors first began to be used in British homes in the mid 1600s. The earliest mirrors were small, as glass was expensive. Gradually they expanded in scope and range, and various materials were used in their construction. Antique mirrors are valued for their history, uniqueness, and collectability, as well as for their inherent attractiveness. They often have beautifully ornate frames and distinctive character. Silver backing is more common, in comparison to modern mirrors which are more frequently aluminium backed.

Choosing Antique Mirrors

If a first-time buyers of antiques, it is worth bearing in mind the following points before making an investment.

Type

There are various types of antique mirror, including wall mounted mirrors, freestanding mirrors, hand held mirrors, pocket mirrors, and vanity mirrors. Wall mounted mirrors are hung from walls and range in size from small designs to grand over mantel mirrors. A specific type of wall mirror is a girandole, which has arms to hold candles. Placing candles in front of a mirror means the light is reflected off the mirror’s surface. This maximises the amount of light and also creates a soothing and tranquil atmosphere. Freestanding mirrors usually come with a frame and can be angled backwards and forwards for convenience. Vanity mirrors are designed to be placed upon dressers and used for applying make up and similar purposes. They are often oval shaped and can also be angled backwards and forwards. Hand held mirrors usually have a small mirror, often oval shaped or circular, atop a handle and are often ornate. Pocket mirrors are amongst the smallest types of antique mirror. They often have a lid so the mirror can be clipped shut to prevent it being damaged while carried in a pocket or purse. The lid is often intricately decorated.

Time Period and Style

Antique mirrors are often referred to by their age, or the time period or the style in which they were made. Time periods may refer to reigning monarchs, as in the case of Georgian, Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian periods. Or they may refer to specific styles of the time, such as gothic, baroque, rococo, neoclassical, and art nouveau. There is overlap between different time periods and styles. The table below describes typical mirrors of each style.

Gothic

12th – 16th century also known as Medieval Gothic, revival in 19th century also known as Victorian Gothic

  • Pointed arch at top
  • Frames typically dark wood, especially oak
  • Ornate carving or scrolling

Baroque

17th century

  • Oval shaped
  • Frames typically oak, sometimes walnut
  • Gilded gold or silver frames
  • Less ornate carving

Rococo

Early to mid 18th century

  • Rectangular shaped
  • Frames typically walnut or mahogany
  • Gilded gold frames
  • Carving at top, typically of flowers

Neoclassical

Mid to late 18th century

  • Rectangular or oval shaped with flat base
  • Gilded gold frames
  • Slightly less elaborate than rococo

Georgian

1714 – 1837

  • Often rectangular shaped
  • Emphasised symmetry
  • Often paler colours

Regency

1811 to 1820

  • Oval shaped with narrow frames
  • Mahogany and gold gilded frames
  • Elaborate carving, typically floral and leaf motifs

Victorian

1837 - 1901

  • Often dark wood or white
  • Ornate and heavy designs, often with Gothic inspired forms

Edwardian

1901 - 1910

  • Delicate style and colours
  • Draws upon different styles from past eras

Art Nouveau

1890 – 1910

  • Sinuous lines, swirling designs and nature motifs
  • Pewter frames
  • Black lacquered frames
  • Stained glass

Early antique mirrors were ornate and elaborately carved, many featuring dark wooden and gilded frames. Gilding involves applying very thin layers of gold or silver leaf to wood or other materials. It gives a very elegant and attractive finish. Mirrors in the early 18th century were sometimes partially gilded on ornate features such as crests. Specific types of antique mirror include Chippendale mirrors, made by the London cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale. He designed ornate mirrors in the Georgian, rococo, and neoclassical styles. They often featured nature motifs such as birds. Early materials were typically wood, but later frames were made with plaster and known as composition frames. These were more economical but are prone to chipping, so they may not be in as good condition as solid wooden frames.

Identifying Antique Mirrors

There are a few points to look for when purchasing an antique mirror.

Frame style

The frame style will reflect the general furniture style of the period. Frames may be made of wood, plaster boarding (later styles), or metal. The frame might be chipped or the gilt worn away in places.

Mirror shape

The shape may give an indication as to its date of origin.

Trademarks

Look for any trademarks or dates.

Screws

The screws on the back of the mirror frame may indicate the mirror’s age. Older handmade screws have more irregular threads and heads, with different sized gaps between threads and off centre slots on the head. There may also be empty screw holes present.

Veneer

Antique veneers are thicker and more irregular than modern veneers.

Glass

Older glass is thinner, greyish or yellowish, and not as sharp in reflective ability. Modern glass is thicker, colourless and gives a more accurate reflection. The thickness can be demonstrated by holding a coin to the surface - if the coin almost touches its reflection it is thinner, older glass. Older glass was poured or pressed, giving it a curved appearance with some areas thicker than others. Newer glass is cut and has a neat, even appearance. Older glass may have markings and indentations whereas newer glass is smoother with fewer markings. Older bevelled edges were worked by hand with pumice and are irregular in comparison to modern bevelling, which is performed by machine.

Buying Antique Mirrors

Which antique mirror is chosen will depend upon factors such as budget, the type of mirror, individual taste and existing decor. Large over mantle mirrors can be very expensive, while smaller hand held or pocket mirrors may be relatively cheap. Of course, factors such as the time period it dates from, level of detailing and condition will also affect the price. Antique mirrors may be bought as a one off item or as part of a collection. They can look stunning when arranged together on a wall. Consider the placement of the mirror carefully if starting a collection, thinking about how it may fit in with future purchases. Read the mirror’s description carefully to evaluate its condition. Reputable sellers will give as much detail as possible, stating whether there is any damage or if the product has been re-gilded or re-silvered. It is not always obvious or possible to tell if this is the case and it may be necessary to seek further advice from an antiques specialist. Re-gilding mirrors was commonplace throughout the 1700s and 1800s and older re-gilding does not detract significantly from the mirror’s value so long as it has been done well. The presence of the original glass adds to the mirror’s value, but so long as replaced glass is in keeping with the style it is generally considered quite acceptable.

Caring for Antique Mirrors

The seller may be able to provide information on how to care for the mirror. It may be better to use homemade and natural cleaning products, such as a solution of water and rubbing alcohol or vinegar, rather than stronger commercial products. When cleaning the glass, avoid contact with the frame. The mirror may require restoration, and antique restorers can re-silver mirrors, replace glass and restore frames.

Find Antique Mirrors on eBay

Scroll over the All Categories tab to the left of the screen and select the Antiques link. Under Antique Furniture select Mirrors. Scroll down to Original/Reproduction and for original antique mirrors select Original. The listings can be refined by age, with options for pre-1800, 1800-1899 and 1900-1950 as well as post-1950 items. They can also be refined by style, with numerous options. Alternately, antique mirrors can be found by typing keywords such as “antique mirror” or “antique Victorian mirror” into the search bar. Be sure that the item is a genuine antique and not an “antique effect” mirror when using this method.

Conclusion

Antique mirrors range from collectable pocket mirrors to grand over mantle or freestanding mirrors. Glass mirrors first began to be manufactured several hundred years ago and have passed through a number of different styles and time periods, such as baroque, rococo, Georgian, and Victorian. There are several points to remember when identifying antique mirrors, such as the thickness and colour of the glass and the type of screws. The price of an antique mirror depends upon various factors, such as its age and condition. Always read the product description carefully and if there are further queries, ask the seller or seek further advice.

 
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