Six tips to find affordable vintage lighting in a midcentury modern market gone mad

vintage lightingWith the masses becoming more and more enamored with mid century style, prices have been rising on many vintage items from the era. Furniture, textiles, dishes, decor and even hardware for the home today are selling for prices that we early-adopter, bargain-loving folk now consider astronomical. The amazing deals of five years ago are getting harder and harder to come by — but they can still be found if you know where to look.

We receive tons of questions from readers wondering where they can find reasonably priced vintage decor and hardware. The latest, from reader Andrew, addresses the rising cost of vintage lighting.

Andrew writes:

I have been searching and searching for a new ceiling fixture for in my kitchen. This is not for hanging over a table as I already have an awesome 50’s light fixture but merely a simple ceiling fiture for light in the kitchen. I would also like to replace the boring flush mounts in my hallway that my dad installed from Lowes. I have searched and searched online and to no avail, nothing even remotely retro/mid century inspired under $50. I refuse to go above $50 as this has become a new challenge for me.

So, I gotta ask, since you are the bargain finder of all new/old things, where can I go??? I have read through your past articles. I have scoured ebay, etsy and for some reason, light fixtures have gone through the roof!

Look forward to your wisdom!

brutalist-chandelier-from-1969-by-moe-lighting1Pam, Queen of the Hunt, answers:

Hi Andrew,

Yes, prices are way up for vintage mid century lighting — in fact, this is one of the areas where I have noticed the most significant price increases over the past few years. I attribute this to the fact that lighting is one of the products that makes an enormous design impact — it is “bling” in every room. And, it is an understatement to say: There sure are gorgeous mid century designs out there. There was tremendous innovation — among a pretty large number of manufacturers — to meet the booming housing market.

pams kitchenPrice inflation cases in point: I purchased my pull-down kitchen light for about $13 on ebay six years ago. Just this past week, I saw an ebay seller listing a less-attractive pull-down for $800 BIN. Yes: Two zeroes after the eight, that is not a typo. I can’t believe they will get that price, but this anecdote is an example of the inflation that is under way. And see that brutalist Moe light also shown above? I purchased one for $99 a few years ago. Today on ebay there are three listed for sale, each at about $600.

Even so: I greatly prefer vintage lighting to new. And even at the higher prices for vintage lighting today, I still believe that vintage (versus new) generally still nets a better deal. For example, Rejuvenation, which is now owned by Williams-Sonoma, now sells $2,500 mid century modern chandeliers!  Jonathan Adler and Design Within Reach mid mod inspired lighting is similarly pricey. Yikes: Shop vintage first — prices for quality vintage lighting Made in the USA are still better than many of these these new reproductions!

So how to find “affordable” vintage lighting — “great deals” even? Here are my six tips:

  1. Are you watching my curated ebay lists like a hawk? I look for the frugal and feature it when I see it. Watch ALL my lists, as I may put lighting in any one of them. Note: If you see something that is listed Buy It Now, you must be prepared to act immediately. I am now noticing that some sellers, as soon as they get some Watch clicks, are either (1) immediately raising their Buy It Now price, or (2) eliminating it altogether in favor of an auction. In your case, Robert, a day after I received your email, I spotted a wonderful vintage kitchen light for $50 BIN free shipping. As soon as readers started looking at my curated list and Watching that item, the seller raised the BIN to $64.99. Then by the next day, they raised it to $75. While I don’t like this practice, it is totally within their right. So: BIN Fast!
  2. Stalk your Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. At my ReStore in Pittsfield, Mass., I regularly see wonderful mid century lights for $8 – $25. Usually no more expensive than that. But, because we humble homeowners are now competing against lots of dealers and ebay flippers hoping to capitalize on the mid mod madness, you must get to the store regularly. Ask when they put out their latest stock and get there then. My ReStore historically opened on just Friday and Saturday. But the other day when I was there, I heard they now open on Thursday. That’s where I will now be every Thursday morning!
  3. Put together your own vintage light. Related to my ReStore tip above… When you are at the ReStore look for pieces of lighting that you can put together to create a complete light. This is particularly possible if you are looking for a “simple” ceiling fixture. My ReStore regularly stocks shades only — and the shades are generally the most stunning part of lighting bling. Score a shade. Then, look for a canopy to mount it on. In fact, if you find a great shade, you likely can get a new canopy from an electrical supply store to fit it — a new fitting (vs. vintage) would not bother me.
  4. Pay eagle-eye attention to renovations going on in your neighborhood. And, to new sales of old houses. If you suspect a major renovation is under way, or about to be under way, you need to overcome your fear of looking obnoxious and go knock on the door. Tell the owner of the house that you are a big fan of the original vintage items in the old houses in your neighborhood and ask super politely if they are going to be removing any of these details. Be super respectful. Don’t criticize their taste. I have heard from many readers over the years who have salvaged gorgeous vintage fixtures of all kinds — for free — from their neighbors’ houses. Get the word out.
  5. Talk to longtime lighting stores in your town or nearby towns. Do you live in a town with some history? Towns that had a lot of economic action during the mid century years also likely had big lighting stores. If any of these lighting stores are still in place, go visit. Again, super duper kindly, ask the manager if there is New Old Stock anywhere in the store or back in the warehouse. Again,  we have had many tips over the years about time capsule stores that had wonderful stashes of NOS that they were happy to unload.
  6. Consider less trendy-today styles. Vintage colonial or Early American lighting is way less popular among the mainstream than full-on mid century modern atomic style lighting. But, Early American is totally authentic and often fits our houses beautifully. Study this style, get your head around it, and you just might find a lot to love — more easily acquired at much better prices.

Additional tip: Get the wiring in vintage lighting checked by a professional.

And final thought: Prices have gone up. Prices will continue to go up. If you are only starting to search now, you have missed the gravy train. Searching now is a time vs. money equation: If you have the time to search, you may be able to save money. If you don’t have the time, suck it up and prepare to pay — even at today’s “inflated” prices, much of the vintage lighting I see on ebay and the like is still what I’d consider a “bargain” compared to equivalent quality lighting purchased new. And in a sense, there still are few new equivalents to compare with the beauty and diversity of real deal vintage.

Good luck!

Pam

These days, it takes patience and determination to find good deals on retro lighting, but it is not impossible.

Readers, what other tips do you have
to find affordable vintage lighting?

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Comments

  1. Mike A. says

    I would still look at ebay, Craigslist and shopgoodwill.com. I recently bought a starlight ceiling light on ebay for $50 with shipping, the same as at Rejuvenation (Nimbus), which sells for $210. I just had to put in a new socket. Also check out local auctions/salvage places in your area.

    On ebay try the ‘Buy it nows’ and offer less. Also, with a lot of the ceiling type fixtures, it is the shade that is expensive. Buy a simple base or use off another light and get a used shade that fits properly.

  2. Victoria says

    As for the tip on scouting renovations in your neighborhood — we got a whole set of parts for our 1960 cooktop, as well as diamond backplates and cabinet handles from the tear out next door by just being interested. They didn’t want the stuff. We also got a couple of good pieces of the cabinet wood that matches ours that we can use in case of repairs. Don’t be shy. Most people — still — are throwing the stuff away, unaware that it has value.

  3. mary hershelman says

    I watch Mad Men strictly for the lamps. Saw the exact same lamp in Don Draper’s sunken living room as was featured in a hotel on Bewitched. Once a Mad Man always a Mad Man I guess.

  4. J D Log says

    I 1st started collecting in the early 1980’s when most 50’s stuff was considered junk. I would hate to replace it now, I could not afford to even if I could still find some of the items so make sure you have good security and insurance.
    I can only comment on Sydney Australia I have found Barsony lights and anodised fluros have gone through the roof these days but glass sourcer lights can still be picked up for a good price if you shop around.
    I find op shops are all picked out by dealers now.
    Ebay can still be good especially mistypings. Council cleanups, swapmeets and friends . My trades people electrician , plumber, handyman also look out for items and at work colleagues doing up places know my love of vintage.
    If you stick to a budget then be prepared to be patient. If you do find a very rare unique piece or one that just speaks to you then sometimes it is worth paying a bit more as you will not find it again. I am sure we all have at least one story of a piece which got away from us for the sake of a few extra dollars.

  5. Scott says

    I agree, with decorative items, the original is usually not only a better bargain even with the increased prices, there Is that special feeling you get from knowing you have the real deal.

    A notable exception is Practical Props that you recently showcased. I’d previously considered a Sputnik out of reach but those look so authentic I think I’d enjoy one just as much as an original. I also keep thinking with al those arms and sockets what are the chances the price of one wouldn’t end up being even end up being more insane if it needed worked on.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that if you are willing to go with an unknown brand or a name-brand that isn’t on everyone’s wish list you dramatically increase what you’ll probably have to shell out. On the odd or unknown stuff some bargains are still around. Or at the other end of the scale don’t turn your nose up if it’s dead common either. Some dead common vintage stuff can be pretty fantastic.

    • Scott says

      Um, I said that backwards, I meant to say DECREASE. 🙂

      One thing I’ve noticed is that if you are willing to go with an unknown brand or a name-brand that isn’t on everyone’s wish list you dramatically DEcrease what you’ll probably have to shell out

  6. Amy says

    I get a lot of great deals on ebay… they are there to be found. Not $5 Bertoia chairs, but for example I got a GORGEOUS pull-down lamp with a swoopy glass shade, and in near perfect condition, for $65 + $25 shipping.

    So, $90. Not $10, but you could easily spend $90 at IKEA on a chandelier.

    That’s how I think of all my vintage purchases: Might I spend this much on something similar at IKEA? If the answer is “Yes,” or “Nearly,” I almost always make the buy, because I’ve owned a lot of IKEA in my day and it won’t hold up as well as something that’s already 40-60 years old but in fab condition.

    My ebay tips are:

    Look thru the whole categories — not just Antiques / Periods & Styles, but also Collectibles. Instead of searching for very specific terms, look more generally. Like “pair lamps” not “pair atomic lamps.”

    Yes, you have to wade through a lot of “junk” you’re not interested in… but that’s how you find bargains. 🙂

    A lot of professional sellers take advantage of buyers’ search/research laziness, that’s how they can command higher prices.

    Also: note that a Buy It Now is never fixed in stone. Just cuz it’s listed as BIN, doesn’t mean it will sell for that. (I see the same stuff listed for sale for months — no bites.) If a price is nearly what you want, you can ALWAYS email the seller and ask if they’d consider working with you on your budget. For me, this works 8 times out of 10.

    Just use your new powers for good… and don’t go up against me in a bidding war 😉

    Amy

  7. Blair Kooistra says

    I was really hoping with HBO’s “John Adams” on that Colonial would’ve been hot–I had a garage full of my mom and dad’s old 1950s Colonial furniture–but alas, it wasn’t to be!

  8. says

    One way to look at this phenomenon: following the tried-and-true dictum that “Nature abhors a vacuum”, I’d be willing to bet that sooner or later some enterprising companies will start producing not only quality reproductions of mid-mod lighting, but also new lighting in new designs that quote from the vernacular of the period, which could very likely lead to a wave of cool new design. Post Mid-Mod, if you will.
    You are correct, Pam: those astronomical prices on eBay are unsustainable and I doubt anyone will pay them for long (if at all). I’d bet some of those sellers are parvenu opportunists who think they’ve found a way to get rich quick. To me, it signals the thin edge of the wedge: ridiculous prices for vintage will eventually lead to new players in the market, and everybody will be able to get what they want at prices that are a little saner. It will have the effect of modifying prices for remaining vintage as well. It happened to us. When I started in 1984, vintage Heywood-Wakefield was everywhere, and pickers were calling me every day with good buys. Then a lot of people got on the bandwagon, the prices kept going up and often, the quality would go down, till it got to the point where it became feasible to re-introduce some of the most popular designs. Today, eBay has leveled out the prices for vintage, and our prices reflect what it takes to produce high-quality furniture in the 21st century without off-shoring. And even if we’re sometimes higher than vintage, at least the items are available, newly-manufactured, warrantied and priced competitively with other new furniture at our market level. There’s no reason why this can’t happen with lighting; it’s already true in a lot of iconic big-name designers (as any visit to the Internet will attest).
    Final note: For those who are opposed to repros of any sort, I would venture to say that, especially in the case of lighting (other things being equal, such as good design, quality workmanship and materials) I believe I’d prefer new lighting, which will come with safer circuitry, more environmentally friendly power requirements, better wiring, more up-to-date, fire-resistant materials, and probably longer serviceable life…. In the long run, I think the customer stands to be the winner in this.

  9. Laura W says

    If anyone is interested in going to an auction, AuctionZip .com is a great resource for finding live auctions in your area. Go to the full site (not the mobile) put in your zip code and search radius and it brings up a full month calendar of auctions near you. Then just click on any day you want, check for sales that look interesting and view the listing. Most auction companies also include at least some photos of the merchandise in the sale. You can also contact the company before the sale to ask questions and if you can’t attend in person, you might be able to leave an absentee bid on an item you want. Auctions are fun and addictive! Happy bidding!!

  10. Technicolor says

    I just bought a solid brass table lamp at Restore for 20. The shade is also brass and all has the original detailed paint on it. I can’t describe fully what it looks like.

    If you really want to get the deals there…Volunteer. They may not have items donated sitting for a week or erratic times depending upon what they sell the most of to get items off the shelves. MCM is not understood by most outside of the circle and this era seems to fall down the list to when they have extra time to get to it.

    As a volunteer you will see the first of what shows up. I did this for 4 years and loved my time there. Also spent too much of my own money. Volunteer time could be as much time as heading there on an ongoing basis. And it is a fun place to hang around.

  11. Deborah says

    I love the colonial/early american stuff. I got three hanging lamps: the ruffly shaded glass hurricane style ones each in the neighborhood of 40 dollars on eBay. That’s with shipping included and shipping is high for big pieces of glass.

    I favor cabin style decor and the colonial/early American fits right in. They make my house look so cozy.

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