Genuine antique mirrors are an incredible addition to any home. Their often ornate frames and mottled glass surface grace sitting rooms, hallways, and bedrooms with an elegant ambience.
Mirrors were first produced in Ancient Roman and Greek times – people would polish up a metal surface to make it highly reflective! Mirrors as we know them now were first crafted in the 1300s and 1400s with a glass front and a mercury backing.
There are a fantastic array of antique mirrors out there from wooden frames to metal or plaster frames, some have been painted while others retain their natural wood tone. Depending on the time frame within which a mirror was made, the shape and style of an antique piece can vary greatly.
Perhaps you have inherited a majestic old mirror from a relative, picked up a fascinating piece from a yard sale, or are interested in sourcing an antique mirror for your home. Surely you want to know the value of such a mirror? You have come to the right place!
Here, we provide you with a guide to identifying, valuing and buying antique mirrors. We will cover how to identify a true antique mirror compared to a vintage mirror, and equip you with the skills to value an antique mirror for yourself.
Identifying An Antique Mirror: How to Determine the Value of an Old Mirror
First, it is important to note that an antique mirror is considered to be a mirror which was made more than 100 years ago. Mirrors which have been made between 20 and 100 years ago are considered to be vintage.
There are several steps you can take in order to identify an antique mirror. With some thorough research and careful inspection, it is entirely possible to identify what kind of mirror you have. This is the first vital step in being able to value a mirror.
Step 1: Check The Glass
Antique mirrors were crafted from glass which was backed with a special silver mercury backing. Sometimes tin backing was used. Over time, this backing will break down and oxidise, producing a cloudy or mottled appearance. This happens primarily around the edges of the mirror but can also creep onto the surface depending on the age of the piece and condition is has been kept in.
Please note that reproduction mirrors often try to reproduce this mottled and faded appearance to give the mirror an antique look. One giveaway clue of a reproduction is if the mottled pattern seems to be too uniform.
The color of the glass is another clue:
- Antique glass tends to have a yellow or gray cast (tone) to it. The stronger the color the older the mirror or the worse condition it is in.
- Newer glass is usually colorless. Reproduction or replacement mirrors will look clear and clean.
An antique mirror frame which has had the glass replaced cannot be considered a true antique piece. This will also lower the value of the mirror. However, this does not mean it is worthless! Antique frames are beautiful in themselves, and the bonus of new glass is that the mirror will have much higher reflectivity and can be effectively used as a mirror!
Slight waves or small bubbles in the glass can also be indications of old glass, but be aware that many older vintage mirrors can have these features too.
Step 2: The Pen Test
A simple way to test the rough age of a mirror is to get a pen (or other long, thin object, preferably with a non-sharp point) and place the tip gently against the mirror’s surface. If the reflection of the pen is very close to the pen, it is likely to be antique.
If the reflection of the pen appears a few centimetres away from the mirror’s surface, it is not an antique mirror.
This is a great way to test the antiquity of a mirror because antique mirrors used a very thin layer of glass because it was an expensive material and difficult to work with. Newer mirrors use thicker layers of glass.
Step 3: Look At The Back
Antique mirrors usually used wood to back the mirror rather than more modern materials like paper.
Other features like nails, screws and hanging fixtures can indicate the period of construction. For example, screws are a newer invention and very unlikely to be used in an antique mirror. Old nails tended to be squarer in shape, and made from wrought iron. Modern nails tend to have round heads and are shinier due to galvanisation. Hand-forged fixtures have an irregular, rough look compared to modern machine-made fixtures which are much smoother.
There may be a maker’s mark, tag or label on the back which can give clues as to the maker of the mirror, and where it was made. Maker’s marks can included images, logos, symbols, letters, numbers or a combination of these things.
If you find a mark on the back, try searching for it online or using antiques forums. If you find nothing on the back don’t worry – the oldest mirrors were often crafted by an individual who left no mark, or the mark may have worn away over the centuries.
Step 4: Look At The Frame
Antique frames were handmade, so their construction will include small imperfections and signs which indicate it was made by human hands. Slightly wonky joins or the imperfect placement of fixtures are examples of these imperfections.
Modern mirrors and antique reproductions are likely to appear pristine with machine-made joins and the perfect, regular placement of fixtures.
Antique mirrors are old so some wear and tear is unavoidable! Try to ascertain whether any damage is genuine or has been added during production for an antique feel.
Old mirrors were usually made from solid wood, wood veneer (a thin layer of more decorative or expensive wood pasted onto cheaper wood beneath) plaster or metal.
Step 5: Shape And Style
The shape of the frame and mirror plate, and the style of the frame can give away the period the mirror was made in. Some time periods had distinct tastes which were popular among the wealthy who were the only ones who could afford fancy mirrors. Here is a rough guide to help you age your mirror…
- Gothic: early 1600s. Some key features include arch shapes, scrollwork or fabric folds and elaborate carvings.
- Baroque: early 1600s – early 1700s. Oval-shaped mirrors were popular during this period, often adorned with figures like cherubs, flowers and foliage. Sometimes the frame was gilded in gold or silver.
- Rococo: early – mid 1700s. Rectangular mirrors become more popular as time moved on. Frames were often made from dark woods like walnut and were incredibly ornate. Shell motifs are a notable feature.
- Neoclassical: mid 1700s – early 1800s. Mirrors from this period may also be gilded in gold or silver, and decorated with foliage and sometimes urns or other ornaments.
- Georgian: early 1700s – mid 1800s. A whole range of mirror styles were popular during Georgian times, rectangular and oval mirrors, some frames involving veneer and scrollwork.
- Regency: late 1700s – early 1800s. Often these mirrors were round or oval in shape. Designs involved leaves, eagles, and flags for example. Some mirrors were convex which is a key feature from this period.
- Victorian: early 1800s – 1900s. During this period mirrors became noticeably larger and heavily decorated. Often the frames were made from metal or dark woods like mahogany.
Aging the mirror will help you to search for similar items online using the period they were crafted in. This will also help you gauge the value of the mirror.
Types Of Antique Mirror
Once you have ascertained that your mirror is indeed antique, finding the value of it can be helped by searching for the right type of mirror. Is the mirror embedded in a vanity unit or a dresser? Perhaps it has been incorporated into a wash stand or a hall tree? Is it free standing, wall mounted, or a hand mirror? Let’s have a look at some of the most common types of antique mirror around…
Vanity Units And Dressers With Mirrors
It was particularly popular during the Victorian period to add mirrors to dressers to create a so-called vanity dresser. This was designed for ladies to sit and apply cosmetics and fix their hair. Antique dressers with mirrors and antique vanity units with mirrors are usually crafted from hardwoods such as mahogany, walnut, or oak. They may also be crafted from softer, cheaper woods with hardwood veneers or painted wood. The mirror frames on these units can vary from elegantly simple with a more complex dresser to the opposite – a highly ornate frame on a more simple dresser.
Look out particularly for antique French dressers with mirrors (below).
Silver Hand Mirrors
Antique silver hand mirrors are another common type of mirror which fetch a very high price on the market. The very embodiment of style and sophistication, these mirrors would have been used by the richest ladies in society when out and about. These first became popular during the Renaissance period and gained widespread popularity during the Edwardian and Victorian periods.
Look out for genuine sterling silver hand mirrors with intricate designs (below).
Free-standing mirrors, also known as floor mirrors or dressing mirrors, were introduced to the market in the 1700s and became most popular in the 1800s. This is when it was possible to produce larger mirror plates. The oldest floor mirrors were honed from silver or silver gilt, hence these items in good condition are very valuable today. Later versions were commonly made from wood.
Antique cheval mirrors were originally created in France and are particularly notable for their style.
Washstands And Hall Trees With Mirrors
Before the marvellous invention of household plumbing, washstands were a vital item in every household up until the 20th century. There are countless examples of antique washstands with mirrors on the market. These tend to fetch lower prices because of their commonality, but more elaborate or older designs have a higher value.
Antique hall trees with mirrors are a real curiosity and much rarer than antique washstands with mirrors. Antique hall trees were designed to incorporate coat hooks, a bench, and sometimes a mirror to convenience members of the household on their daily routines. Some of the best examples feature dark woods and detailed carvings (below).
Antique Mirror Value Guide
Now for the main item of the day – the value of antique mirrors! Once you have inspected the mirror and confirmed that it is antique and the rough period it was made in, you can start to evaluate it yourself.
It is incredibly hard to give exact figures for the typical value of different kinds of antique mirrors. Price will vary with age, condition, rarity, special features, materials used, maker or manufacturer, and the current interest which informs the market value. As a rough guide, you can expect antique mirrors in good condition to fetch somewhere between $600 and $6000 USD. Common antique mirrors in worse condition may only fetch $25 to $50 USD.
As a general rule the older the mirror, the higher the value. This is because its very rare that an incredibly old mirror will survive years of use and moving around without sustaining serious damage. Going by the list of notable periods above, the most valuable mirrors tend to be from the earlier periods such as Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo. Whereas Victorian mirrors are typically less valuable.
Again, as a general rule the rare the mirror, the higher the value. Antique mirror collectors value rare or limited edition items much more highly. If you cannot find many similar examples being sold online it may be a sign your mirror is very rare and hence very valuable.
A mirror plate by itself (without the frame) from the 17th or 18th century can have a substantial value in itself. Newer mirror plates will have a much lower value.
As with all antique items, the better condition it is in, the higher the value. Mirrors tend to be graded from good through excellent to mint condition. Antique mirrors in mint condition are very rare and hence very valuable.
It is possible that if you have an unusual old mirror in not very good condition, you may still get a high price for it.
Highly mottled glass will also lower the value, as will severe damage. Some wear and oxidation on antique mirrors in normal. But cracks and chips will lower the price greatly.
Glass which has taken on strong colors through the ages and is very yellow or gray colored will also fetch a lower price on the market.
Take a careful look at the frame for signs of restoration or mending. Restoration work that is obvious or has been done incorrectly will greatly lower the value of the item. Similarly, extensive damage to the frame such as cracks and scratches will fetch a lower price.
Mirror frames made from common woods and plaster typically have the lowest value because these are the cheapest materials. Those crafted from rarer hardwoods like mahogany and walnut will have a higher value, as will gilded or bronzed frames. Metal frames can vary greatly depending on the type of metal and how it has been treated. Painted metal frames hold less value, while brass frames reach higher prices. Rare materials like porcelain and bone (below) can be incredibly valuable.
If you are stuck and you’d like a professional opinion it is a great idea to get an expert evaluation. You can try posting images of your mirror on antiques forums such as:
Enthusiasts can often be very useful and love to help one another out. Try to include as much information as possible in your post so others can help you value the mirror.
Contacting an antique mirror expert is also an option. Try visiting your local antiques shop, or track down an expert online. You will have to pay for this type of professional valuation (also called appraisal), but it may pay off if the mirror is actually worth more than you realised, then you can sell it for more!
You can get a great idea of the price of your item by searching for similar items on auction sites including the antique mirror section of eBay. Here, you can refine your search by period, frame material, style, and condition. You could also try searching for something similar in the collection of interesting auction items on sites like Love Antiques.
Antique Mirror Buying Guide
Once you have done your research and you have an idea of how much the antique mirror of your dreams costs, there are a few things to bear in mind when making a purchase.
1. Do Your Research
Make sure you are familiar with the key features of your desired mirror, and any potential signs of a fake or a reproduction. If you are interested in a particular maker or manufacturer, be sure to research their maker’s mark.
2. Details, Details, Details
Details in listings are key! Whether you want to buy online or in person at an antiques fair, items which include a lot of details about the design, provenance, history and materials are the best kind. Details about any damage are also key, and a good sign of an honest seller.
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 mirror if buying in person. Be aware, there is a lot of misinformation out there!
3. Check Reputable Auction Sites
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. It can be very satisfying to find a rare item for a low price – think of all the potential under-valued antique mirrors out there waiting for you!