Knives are fascinating objects with an incredible history of use dating back to the stone age. These items have been used as tools, weapons, in ceremonial situations, and as decorations. Certain styles or brands of knives are synonymous with important periods of human history including wars, or used for specific purposes such as pre-industrial hand crafts, and culturally significant ceremonies.
Whether you have found an antique knife at a yard sale, inherited an antique knife from a relative, or become interested in building a collection of antique knives, you have come to the right place. Here, we will provide 3 guides: a guide to antique knife identification, a guide to antique knife valuation, and a guide on where to buy antique knives and buyer’s tips.
Join us to discover more about these incredible tools!
Antique Knife Identification Guide
Brief History Of Antique Knives
Knives have been used as a vital tool by people for approximately 2.5 million years. They are still an essential item now and can be found in households all over the world. The first knives invented by people were honed from stone, bone or even wood. People would adjust the size, shape, and sharpness of the blade to suit specific purposes like hunting, cutting food, and clearing vegetation.
With the discovery of metals and how to manipulate them, knives become more sophisticated. The first single-edge blade was made in the Bronze Age around 4000 years ago!
Fast forward in time to the manufacture of knives and we find knives made from more durable materials including bronze, iron, steel, and titanium. People started to use knives as cutlery only around 500 years ago.
Find out more about the history of knives here!
How To Identify Antique Knives
First, as with all antique items, it is important to note that a knife is only classed as an antique if it is over 100 years old. If it is between 20 and 100 years old, it is technically a vintage knife. While it may not be possible to find knives that are thousands of years old (unless you are an archaeologist or ancient wreck diver!), most antique knives that are considered to be collectible were made between the 1600s and 1900s.
When attempting to identify an antique knife, there are some simple steps to take that can help you find clues to the provenance of the item.
1. Look For Maker’s Marks Or Distinctive Symbols
Maker’s marks can range from a name to initials, a small illustration or logo, a series of numbers or even a few lines. These may be etched into the blade or the handle of a knife, so make sure to inspect every part of the item.
Simply searching for any symbols you find online can bring you closer to the question of the provenance and identity of the knife you have.
2. Take A Close Look At The Shape, Form And Material
Look closely at all the features of your knife. The shape of the blade or handle can help you to discover what type of knife you may have. If it has a lock these can often be distinctive to the maker or manufacturer of the knife.
The style of an antique knife can give you clues to its provenance. We’ll give a few common, collectible examples here:
- Antique military knives often come with a sheath, and can combine several features on one blade so the knife could be used for different activities.
- Trench knives have a distinctive finger hole grips designed for close combat in the trenches of World War I.
- Bowie knives were named after Colonel James Bowie who was famous for fighting with Davy Crockett at The Alamo. Any large-bladed hunting knives can be called a Bowie knife. Bowie’s original knife was created by a blacksmith called James Black – knives made by James Black are highly sought after.
- Pocket, folding, or clasp knives are those whereby the blade can be folded and stowed in the handle. The first folding knife was the Jack knife, invented by Jacques de Liege in the 16th This category also includes Swiss army knives. Some key manufacturers to look out for within this category include: Buck, Camillus, Case, Queen, Remington, Schrade, and Saynor.
The material the handle is made out of can also be an ID feature. Many antique knives incorporated wooden handles and these may be quite rough. More modern knives were made with much smoother and more ergonomic handles.
3. Find A Knife Reference Book
There are several useful knife reference books out there, both in paper form and published online. You can try your local library or track down a reputable book such as the Shooter’s Bible Guide To Knives. Antiques catalogues can also be helpful.
This is an incredibly useful way to educate yourself about antique knife styles and uses, and will help you to become more knowledgeable all round. Becoming an antique knife expert is key to finding interesting and unusual items at yard sales or antiques fairs.
4. Try Posting Your Knife On An Antiques Forum
There are many knife enthusiasts who are keen to share knowledge and help one another in the quest to identify and find out more about knives. Forums such as BladeForums allow you to post photos and queries that knife experts can help you with. You can also search for posts other people have written – who knows, someone may have a similar item to yours and their post could hold vital clues for you.
Specialised antique knife forums like All About Pocket Knives have many articles and threads relating to antique pocket knives.
5. Find An Antique Knife Expert
If you have no luck trying to identify the knife yourself, there are many enthusiastic knife experts out there. Try searching for a local antique knife expert, or even a museum curator. Some museums have specialised knife exhibitions while others are dedicated solely to knives.
Antique Knife Value (Identification & Price Guides)
There are some simple steps you can take yourself to find out how much an antique knife could be worth. First of all, if you can find a maker’s mark this is a great advantage. Search for the logo or inscription online – if it associated with a well-known knife manufacturer it is more likely to be more valuable.
The condition of the item is a key consideration when valuing a knife. Some manufacturing imperfections in the blade are normal. Retention of the blade edge’s original sharpness will raise the price. Chipping and tarnishing of the blade will lower the price. The condition of the handle is also important – the closer to the original condition, the higher the price.
Decorative details can also raise the price. For example patterning on the handle, ornamentation on the blade, and an original sheath can raise the value considerably. The type of knife will also alter the value – check out this article for details on collectible knives.
Once you have identified your knife, a good way to get an idea of its value is to have a look at antique valuing forums like TreasureNet What’s It Worth? or the Subreddit forum WhatsThisWorth. Enthusiasts love to help one another out.
You can also gauge the value of an item by searching for similar items on antique selling sites including eBay (try the collectible knives category, and use the filters to match as closely as you can to your item) and Etsy. Setting filters to have a look at items which have already been sold is recommended, so you can get an idea of the final price items have sold for.
Antique Knife Buying Guide
As mentioned above, there are several factors which raise the price of an antique knife including overall condition, the era the knife is from, the style and form, how rare the knife is, the manufacturer or maker, and the provenance story. Follow these tips to make a successful purchase…
1. Do Your Research
Before buying an antique knife to add to your collection, or if you have spotted one which you think would look perfect displayed on your mantlepiece, it is a good idea to form a specific idea of what you would like. If you want something from a certain era in history, a knife with a specialised use, or something from a renowned manufacturer, you need to build your knowledge to make sure you’re getting the real deal.
Familiarise yourself with characteristics of the knife type you desire, and get an idea of the rough cost of such an item before you buy anything.
2. Details, Details, Details
Whether buying online or at an antiques fair you should always go for items which include as much detail as possible. Details can include the maker or manufacturer, the condition of the item, any damage or faults, and key features such as a lock or sheath.
Don’t be afraid to ask the seller for more details such as extra close-ups if buying online, or a little more about the provenance of the knife if buying in person. Purchasing an antique knife from a reputable seller is also recommended.
3. Check Reputable Auction Sites
We recommend checking eBay, Etsy, and Collectors Weekly for a range of interesting finds.
If you are after knives used as cutlery or decorative knives, Love Antiques is a good place to look. this site is mainly focused on the European market, but prices are stated in GBP, EUR, and USD. The sellers on this site are antiques dealers, and it is connected with antiques fairs where buyers and sellers can go to exchange antiques.
It’s worth keeping an eye out for yard sales and second hand shops – you can find many interesting items for very low prices in these places.