How Do I Identify Antique Brass?

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You’ve found a pair of bookends at the flea market. They’re beautifully sculpted, made of solid metal, and seem very old. You’re hoping they’re brass because of the alloy’s beauty and value, but there’s no stamp or inscription to help you research the origins. So do you have a brass antique or not?

The good news is there are several ways to identify brass, particularly if you’re looking for antique brass. 

Antique Brass or Bronze?

Brass, a mixture of copper and zinc, has been around for centuries. Because of its strength and resemblance to gold, it’s often used for jewelry, decorative arts, and even currency. Common brass antiques include clocks, lighting fixtures, fireplace equipment, window hardware, doorknobs, weather vanes, musical instruments, and military medals (hence the term “top brass”). Early brassware usually contains 20% to 80% zinc, while modern brass alloys might contain other metals such as nickel or lead for strength.

Bronze, often mistaken for brass, is an alloy of copper, tin, aluminum, and other metals like manganese. While bronze has a yellowish hue, brass tends towards gold and coppery tones. Although both will tarnish, brass can usually be polished to a warm shine while bronze develops a dark patina that’s difficult to lighten.

To add to the confusion, there are other metals that look like brass and can fool even experienced collectors: For example, cupronickel is actually nickel silver and not antique brass. Items marked “old bronze ” are made of brass or other inexpensive metals (such as pewter) and then coated with real gold or copper to produce a convincing antique brass finish. You might also run into brass-plated pieces that aren’t solid brass.

When trying to determine brass antiques, note the following:

  • Antique brass is not magnetic.
  • Antique brass has golden undertones.
  • Antique brass will have natural imperfections due to age, use or cost in production. Expect scratches, oxidation, tarnish, and discoloration.
  • Antique brass will be very heavy.
  • Antique brass will have a vintage feel to it.

The best way to differentiate between bronze and brass metal alloys is by examining the tarnish on your piece. Bronze tends to tarnish brown while brass might turn black. Another indicator is the color and how the object reflects light. If the piece is yellow with a shiny finish, it is likely brass instead of bronze.

Why Collect Antique Brass?

If you’ve inherited a piece or just love the look of aged brass, you’re in good company. Some brass antiques are in high demand and can claim a nice price. For example, a Victorian-style brass bed will bring top dollar as long as the piece is in good condition and can frame a modern mattress.

Before investing in brass, evaluate the design and condition of the piece and think about the era in which it was produced. The more intricate designs, such as grapes, roosters, and fleur-de-lis, are among some of the most sought-after pieces of antique brassware. During the first World War, brass was too expensive to produce and disregarded in favor of cheaper metals. So mostly smaller items, like carriage lamps, were manufactured during this era, and these pieces have relatively good value today.

You can learn to spot older pieces by familiarizing yourself with the different periods in brass-making history, which had their own distinct styles and artistic designs. A little time spent reading up on brassware will help you identify your treasures and determine whether to sell or hold on for the long term. The best place to find antique brass? Try an online platform like MaxSold. 

What to Look for When Identifying Brassware

Browse a good antique shop or flea market and you’ll find that objects made of brass come in many forms—candlesticks, lamps, vases, beds, musical instruments, and much more. Finding true brass can be tricky, especially when lacquered, painted, or plated. Understanding the features of antique brass can help you score a find that even the dealer doesn’t recognize. Remember that any vintage items of significant cost should be authenticated before making a purchase (fortunately, many antique dealers will offer a free appraisal service).

Red to Yellow Color

Aged brass is usually red to yellow in color, but you’ll find a range of hues. For larger objects where strength is an issue, such as beds and shelving, old brass is often a deep reddish tone. In decorative pieces, such as lamps and candlesticks, the brass tends to have a more golden hue because the metal may contain less zinc and more copper. Some pieces will also have an antique finish with hints of green, black or blue. But color is always a fickle factor because the environment the piece endured affects how it aged.

Brass floor lamp with decorative white-pink globe sold on MaxSold

Tarnish Surface Oxidation

Brass will tarnish or oxidize by reacting with the skin oil and oxygen in the air. Tarnish is often mottled with stripes in different shades, and with time it can coat the metal seep brown or black. A tarnish is completely normal and can make the piece more valuable and special—that’s why you see so many modern reproductions with faux corrosion as a popular finish.

Sometimes Lacquered

Some brass antiques are lacquered to avoid tarnishing. However, these lacquers tend to break down in time. The lacquering process dates back to at least the 19th century. Older pieces have patches of dullness or even tiny cracks or crazing.

How to Clean Antique Brass

Brass needs only gentle cleansing. Abrasive products and even standard cleaning products can ruin the patina on the surface. Try a little lemon juice to brighten the metal, rinsing with warm water. If your brass is very dirty and isn’t responding to your cleaning, take it to a professional who can remove grime without damaging the surface.

Why Is Antique Brass a Great Choice?

Brass is timeless and classy, and can lend an aura of luxury to your room. The warm tones and luxurious sheen can be an exciting contrast against modern prints and cool neutral furniture. When you purchase antique brassware that has been previously owned, you are participating in the preservation of history. Each time an item is used— passed from one generation to another and put on display—it’s touched by the past.

Are you looking to buy some brass? Check out MaxSold—we help people find online auctions and estate sales in their local area. Browse for jewelry and decor from private collections you won’t find anywhere else. Start browsing for brass or other vintage goods anytime online. Sign up for our alerts so you never miss a deal! 

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