Antiques glossary

Not sure what antiques words and phrases mean? Here's a glossary of all the definitions you need to know

Antiques glossary
Published: June 5th, 2022 at 10:00 am

Know your balloon back from your camelback with our antiques glossary. Here you'll find the meaning behind the most used terms, phrases and sayings used in the world of antiques, from auction house lingo to decorative styles...




Not to be confused with a complicated pose performed by a ballet dancer on one leg, Arabesque refers to a kind of surface decoration that’s often seen on Islamic buildings or artworks. Arabesque design usually features complex repeating patterns, which can consist of interlacing lines, foliage or scrolls.

A white glove sale

A sale of this nature means that every single lot has been sold. The ‘white gloves’ may refer to the traditional reward given to successful auctioneers, or the gloves worn to handle particularly precious antiques and objects


Balloon Back

This term references a style of chair popular in the Victorian period, where the curvaceous backs resembled the orb-like shape of a hot-air balloon. The shapely seats were popular with fashionable ladies of the era, as the supple shape and lack of armrests meant they could sit comfortably, no matter how large or frilly their skirts.

Bird’s-eye Maple

Nothing to do with fish fingers or viewing something from above, ‘Bird’s-eye maple’ or ‘Birdseye’ is a naturally occurring pattern that occasionally appears in maple wood. Often seen on antique furniture from the art deco era, the patterned wood gains its name from the organic swirling effect that resembles the look of a small bird’s eye.

Black Forest

Although the idea of a gooey, chocolate-filled gateau may spring to mind, in the world of antiques, Black Forest refers to the furniture carved in and around Brienz, Switzerland, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Designs often feature wild animals including bears, deer and other woodland creatures.

Bonheur du jour

A French term for a small lady’s writing table with slender legs and a raised back, usually in the form of shelves or a cabinet. Originally introduced in Paris around the late 1700s, translated into English it means ‘daytime delight’ or ‘happiness of the day’

Boulle Work

Not the summertime pursuit of rolling metal balls, but rather a marquetry technique associated with the French 17th-century cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle. He perfected (but did not invent) the art of inlaying tortoiseshell, pewter, brass, copper and tin into wooden furniture – a craft now commonly known as Boulle Work.


Nothing to do with insects, a bughole is a small hole in a plaster or concrete surface, sculpture or moulding, caused by a pocket of air becoming trapped while the material is setting. It can affect the structural integrity and value of an antique plaster item, such as an architectural fragment.



This phrase refers to the graceful curve sometimes seen across the back of the slender 18th-century sofas made popular by furniture maker extraordinaire Thomas Chippendale. Though one hump is common, sometimes there can be two, much like their desertdwelling namesakes.


More commonly recognised as a small delicacy that you might serve at a soirée, canapé also refers to an elegant style of 18th-century French sofa, made from elaborately carved wood with upholstered seats, back and armrests. Its shape is distinct from other sofas of the period, such as the divan and chaise longue.


Champlevé is an enamelling technique seen in European jewellery dating back to 1100. It involves cutting a design into the surface of a metal object, then filling the cut channels with molten enamel. The piece is usually then fired and polished. The technique is not to be confused with cloisonné, in which enamel sections are separated by strips of metal wire.


A classical motif showing a goat’s horn, or horn-shaped wicker basket, on its side, overflowing with ripe, seasonal fruits and vegetables as a symbol of fertility, abundance and plenty. It can often be spotted on antiques from the baroque or rococo periods.


No, not a special kind of cardigan. Crossover, or Crossover Buying, refers to an antiques collector making purchases from several different collecting fields at auction. For example, Georgian and mid-century furniture, or Wedgwood and Moorcroft pottery.


Davenport Desk

These highly sought-after desks were first made in the late 18th century by renowned cabinetmakers Gillows of Lancaster and London. The first example was commissioned by a mysterious Captain Davenport and featured thick legs and a lifting top. No one is quite sure who this captain was, but he certainly had fine taste!



No, sadly not an elaborate brunch dish: egg-and-dart actually refers to a decorative motif seen carved into plaster, stone or wood. Hailing from ancient Greece and Rome, but popular in neoclassical buildings, the design is often seen on moulding, trim or cornice work and includes a repeating egg shape, interspersed with dart-like slashes.


Not just a 1980s English synthpop duo, erasure refers to the act of removing, or partially removing, a coat of arms from a silver object – such as an antique trophy, medal or other family heirloom. The item may then feature a replacement coat of arms. Coats of arms date back to the 12th century, where they were worn on the battlefield as identification.


Fair warning

Going, going... gone! During a live auction, when the auctioneer shouts ‘fair warning’, it means that now is your last chance to (quickly!) raise your paddle and place a bid before the auctioneer brings down their gavel and the lot is closed.


Gothic Revival

One of the most influential styles of the 19th century, this movement saw designers harking back to motifs found in medieval art. Between 1830-1900, all manner of Gothic Revival* designs were produced, from wooden furniture and gilt chandeliers, to religious buildings and, most notably, the 1835 design for the Houses of Parliament.



Hailing from the mountain town of Lauscha in Eastern Germany, kugel is not only a Jewish baked dish, but also a hand-blown glass Christmas decoration that dates back hundreds of years. Although visitors to the town can now buy modern decorations from the annual Kugelmarket – or bauble market – antique versions are available too.


Lapis lazuli

Derived from the Persian word for ‘blue’, Lapis lazuli is a type of gemstone that is believed to bring positive vibes of luck, protection and prosperity. This stone was one of the first to be manipulated and worn as jewellery in ancient Chinese civilisations, and was also ground into powder for various uses including cosmetics.


This turn of phrase hails from America and refers to a certain type of chest of drawers or vanity table that’s mounted on particularly short legs. Beloved by the British and Americans in the 18th century, lowboys are also characterised by their small drawers and cabriole supports. Cabinets mounted on tall legs are often called tallboys or highboys. Makes sense really.



Literally translated as ‘plum vase’, this tall Chinese ceramic was traditionally used to display – you guessed it – plum blossom branches. Particularly prevalent during the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, some of them are now highly collectable. A few years back, an early Ming Meiping cobalt blue vase sold for a record £14m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.


Invented by amateur German engraver Ludwig von Siegen in 1642, mezzotint refers to fabulously multitonal prints crafted from a treated plate of copper or steel. A metal tool was used to indent the plate with tiny dots to give areas of light and shade before the ink was brushed on top. Prices for antique mezzotints start at around £50.


Pie Crust

Not only the edge of a delicious baked dish filled with meat or fruit (though we wouldn’t object if it was!), a Pie Crust is a form of decorative, scalloped edging found on tripod tables from the 18th century. Furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale designed several examples, which now command huge sums. We’ll take ours with mashed potato and gravy, please…


Commonly used to describe childhood favourites such as Dinky Toys and Matchbox cars, ‘playworn’ is a collector’s term for a toy that shows a reasonable amount of damage. So, the next time you’re browsing your local flea market, keep an eye out for those charming scuffs and scrapes.

Puzzle jug

This playful ‘trick’ jug is one of the oldest wheezes in the Delft makers’ repertoire – its various spouts don’t pour unless all the others are blocked. It’s what used to pass for entertainment in 17th-century taverns, as inebriated drinkers would try (and fail) to consume the jug’s alcoholic contents. Cue endless spillages and much hilarity.



A word often used in the context of art restoration. It refers to paintings on canvas – which may be aged or damaged – that have had the original backing canvas removed and replaced. An old backing canvas can sometimes become weak and brittle, and replacing it can restore the painting’s strength.


This antiquarian phrase refers to an ancient method of dyeing textiles. Similar to tie-dye, resist-dyeing involved using a substance such as hot wax or pastes made from soy beans or rice to prevent the dye reaching all of the fabric. The resist substance is often applied in patterns or shapes and is popular in Indian textile design.


Although it may look as though we’ve misspelt ‘restoration’, Restauration is a French term referring to the style of pieces crafted during the reign of Louis XVIII, when funds were tight and furniture adopted a more simplistic and classic style.



Nope, nothing to do with Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, sabre refers to the shape of a chair leg that looks like... well, a sabre! The leg can be either round or square, but should taper gently towards the ground. First seen on ancient Greek klismos chairs, they were also popular among Regency seating designs.


Sometimes used to describe an item that has been held in storage for a long time, a sleeper also refers to an undervalued antique or artwork that can slip into an auction unnoticed. Eagle-eyed buyers look out for these items and can often buy them for a fraction of their worth!

Spill Vase

A little, cylindrical vase (sometimes designed to hang on a wall) that’s made for housing spills or tapers – thin strips of rolled paper or wood used for transferring the flame from a fire to candles or a pipe for smoking.



Sometimes called applied relief decoration, sprigging is the process of adding moulded decorations to a piece of pottery that has been made separately from the main body of the piece – much like Wedgwood’s Jasperware. The art dates back to the 6th century.


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