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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 ebay like a hawk. I see the same light priced very high — and relatively low. Check “Sold” listings to see what prices people are really paying. 
  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.

Remember: Vintage materials and products can present hazards. Be sure to consult with pros to know what you are working with / dealing with. For more info, see our Be Safe / Renovate Safe.

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?

Categorieslighting
  1. 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!!

  2. 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.

  3. 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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