Lamps offered at auctions might be trash or may be treasure. The lamp you use daily might also be a valuable item. Determining the worth of any lighting fixture means taking a good look at some obvious clues and doing a bit of research to estimate the value. Don't assume because it's old that it's valuable. The same is true of modern lighting. It might not meet the traditional definition of 100 years old to claim status as an antique, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a fortune as a collectible.
Examine the overall condition of the lamp. Look at the type of damage to determine if repairs are possible. Damages don't totally discount the worth of a rare lamp, but the problems do reduce the value.
Scratch the underside of the lamp surface in a hidden place with a fingernail or screwdriver tip to figure out the material used to make the lamp. Some vintage lamps appear to be made from copper metal, but instead are made from a substitute painted to look like copper metal.
Look for manufacturing labels and company embossed stamps and raised imprints on the lamp. Antique lamps showing identification by Handel, Pairpoint, Tiffany, Pittsburgh Pilabrasgo Co., Duffner, Van Briggle, or Fulper show a collectible lamp. Markings for Bigelow and Kinnard, Kramer, Steuben, Bradley and Hubbard, Stickley, Gorham, Wilkinson and Jefferson also have high value. Midcentury hits include some of the lamp styles by Stiffel, Louis Poulsen, George Kovaks, George Nelson and Jonathan Adler. Not all lamps list a maker, but small clues such as a model number or a handwritten pencil number help you research the maker. Note all clues for your research.
Examine any switches or metal pulls for manufacturing clues. The markings on these might be the only clue to the lamp maker.
Look at the wiring as a clue to the age and the lamp's maker. Cotton-wrapped wires mean an older lamp, but owners typically repair or replace wiring. Examine the interior of the bulb socket and the plug for any marking clues.
Search for manufacturing clues on the lampshade, if the lamp has one. Don't assume, however, that the base and shade came as a pair. You may have a valuable shade on a worthless base. Inspect each part of the lamp carefully before making any decisions about value.
Research online and in print lamp guides and reference books using the information you've collected from your investigation of your lamp.
- Detroit News: Lamp's Shade is More Valuable Than Base
- Kovels: Finials on Lamps Can Be Valuable
- Tiffany Lamps and Metalware -- An Illustrated Reference to Over 2,000 Models; Alastair Duncan; 2006
- Midwest Tungsten Service: Tungsten Wire History
- American Lighting -- 1840-1940; Nadja Maril; 2007
- Lamps of the 50s and 60s; Jan Lindenberger; 2007
- Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide -- Identifying Late 19th and Early 20th Century American Lighting; Nadja Maril; 2012
- Phoenix Home and Garden: For the Home -- Antique Chandeliers
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Pot Metal
- Investigate the trail of ownership of the lamp. If you buy a lamp at a garage sale, ask the sale operator about the lamp. When the lamp comes from a family member, ask for details about the geographic region where the lamp was purchased and how long the family member used the lamp. These details help give important clues about the lamp's manufacturer and the age.
- Don't throw away old bulbs, finials or lamp shades attached to your lamp. Vintage light bulbs are occasionally worth more than the lamp itself. Finials made from semi-precious stones or ivory offer a huge clue that your lamp has value. Finials are the knob that hold shades to the lamp base.
Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.