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How to Buy Vintage Furniture Like a Pro

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Justin Dorset sells industrial and midcentury furniture, lighting, and miscellany out of Dorset Finds, his showroom space in Fort Greene. His clients include everyone from Brooklyn home stores to set designers to global fashion companies, but his prices aren't outside the reach of private citizens. A lamp affixed to an old factory gear might be $300-$400, while a vintage microscope—a perfect gift for a med student—is just $35.

We sat down with Justin for the third interview in our series about how to shop vintage for the holidays. Get his tips below, or head back to the earlier interviews to bone up on buying historic jewelry and vintage clothing.

First, let's talk a bit about your background and how you got into this business. Would you call yourself an antiques dealer?

Well, I wear a few different hats. I do the picking, I sell to stores, and I sell privately as well. And I think today, if you don't have a brick-and-mortar store, you need a good online presence. If you're working within a particular style—which in my case is just stuff I like, that I would have in my own home or restaurant or bar—then it's important to reach likeminded people.

It's tough because when people ask what you do, the tendency is to say that you're an antique dealer, but technically an antique is 100 years old. So I generally say that I'm a 20th century collectibles dealer.

As a fan as well as a buyer, is it hard to let go of stuff?

That's part of the reason why I do this. I'm a recovering collector, and I've been collecting since I was a child. I always wanted a Coke fridge, I always liked old bikes, and this allows me to buy whatever I want, keep it for an amount of time, and then pass it on to people who will appreciate it.

Can you talk about where you find stuff?

I think it's important to cast the net wide, and I think New York is a great place to look, just because of the volume of people and objects that find their way here. I've found things two blocks from where I live, and I've found things in Ohio. For me the appeal of seeking out industrial age pieces and Americana is that enough time has passed that it's everywhere. You just have to have time to look for it.

And who are your clients?

It's a mixture. I've had young couples come buy an industrial lamp because they really like it and they're going to have it for a long time. I've had set designers and art directors who are working on a particular project, and they'll come and buy a couple of things and then ask me to seek out specific things as well. So really it's a combination. Stores in Soho, fashion labels.

That makes sense—all those stores with the reclaimed wood and the Edison bulbs.

Yeah, and that will pass, but there are some characteristics of vintage that will always appeal to the consumer: things that are made well, and that show past usage. And people understand the eco benefits of buying things that aren't new. The footprint is so much more minimal.

Which brings me to the question of buying environmentally responsible holiday gifts. If you're buying someone a reclaimed lamp, or table, what should you look for?

I have a couple philosophies. One, he who hesitates is lost. If you really like something and it's perfect for the person, buy it. Don't kick yourself three days later because you hesitated and decided to try to find it somewhere else for less.

Also, people often ask me about the value of items. The way I buy for myself, if the assigned price is something that I'm happy with, then that's its value. As long as you're happy with the price, that's what matters. Everyone wants a good deal, but I've probably overpaid for things that I love so much and know I'll always love. If it's an extra $20 and I know it's an important piece, then so be it.

Anything to stay away from?

Well, it all depends on the object. There are a lot of reproductions out there. With something like a stool, aside from turning it upside down and seeing the original maker's mark, you can tell by the weight. The older ones are heavier. Particularly factories out of China, Japan, and India are getting so much more skilled at copying industrial items, creating a patina that suggests significant wear. That can be difficult for the layman. In a lot of ways you have to trust your gut. If it seems too perfect, it probably is.

With electrical items like lamps, if they say it's a 20th century lamp, but it has a plastic plug, it's probably been rewired. Look for original stamps, any kind of maker's mark. If it's made in the US, chances are it's either vintage or decent quality. Some of the lamps I sell, the companies that made them are still in business today and they make a version still.
· Vintage Buying Tips from Sierra Fromberg of Grey Era [Racked NY]
· Jeweler Erica Weiner on Buying Vintage for the Holidays [Racked NY]
&3183; Dorset Finds [Official Site]