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Buying an Antique Sofa

When you buy an antique sofa, you are buying the frame. You want an authentic, quality antique frame in good condition. Just because you see old feet doesn't mean you have an old sofa. The internal frame could be entirely rebuilt and just have the original legs tacked onto it. When you buy an upholstered piece, have someone show you the frame if possible. If not, ask to see pictures of the frame. Many dealers leave the underside of a sofa or wing chair open so that you can see the construction. Sometimes dealers leave the back fabric attached with Velcro so that you can see the back frame.

If you can't see the frame, get a written description of what you are buying and a written guarantee of its authenticity.

The parts of the frame you need to examine include:

  • Back frame: Look for signs of repair and replacement. Look for anything that doesn't feel right, such as a chunky floral carving added on that doesn't go with the original piece.
  • The legs: Lots of stuff can happen to the legs. Look carefully to see whether the legs are all the same. Examine the feet. Look for signs of wood being added. The legs should mirror the furniture styles of the period, as they do in chairs. Look at the condition of the legs. Have any been replaced, spliced, or have they had carving or inlay added on that doesn't make sense with the period?
  • Stretchers: If the piece has no stretchers, look for stretcher marks (signs on the legs that stretchers were once attached). If the piece has stretchers, look at how they are attached to the legs. Does it make sense for the era? Earlier sofas will have mortise and tenon joints. When you start getting into the machine age, they throw in the dowel. (The dowel rod goes into a hole that's in the stretcher and the leg; it's not as sturdy a joint.)
    Stretchers are the pieces of wood that stretch between chair legs and a great place to look for wear marks and repairs. Old stretchers were home to a lot of restless feet. As the unofficial "foot rest," the front stretcher of an old chair or sofa should have considerably more wear than the other stretchers.
  • Arms: Have the arms been replaced, repaired, or added to?

As far as the upholstery goes, don't expect to find the original. Antique sofas will typically have been reupholstered at least once. If the piece needs revitalizing, you need to factor in that cost.

Of course, you want to see whether you and the sofa have love at first sight. Does the sofa speak to you? Is the form appealing? Are its proportions pleasing? Do you like its style? When you sit on it, does it feel like the beginning of a long-term relationship? If you answer yes to these, you might need to look no further.

Here's some couch trivia for you: Why did some Victorian folks have a fainting couch at the bottom and the top of the stairs? Some say it's because women were laced so tightly they were out of breath both coming and going. No wonder being around a handsome man kept your great-greats breathless: They were laced up so tightly they couldn't breathe!

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