It's one of the soundest furniture investments you can make. Become a smart investor by getting the know-how you need for finding your own treasured piece.
A Shopper's Guide to Antique Chests
Check insides of drawers for dovetailing, a system of joinery that holds the front and sides of each drawer together and resembles a dove's tail. Fine, long dovetailing suggests greater age than more squat machine-made joints.
| Credit: Laurey W. Glenn

A Chest Is Best
If you think blue hair or blue blood are prerequisites for antique buying, you couldn't be more wrong. An antique chest can be a great addition to any home. They can be used anywhere, get little wear and tear, and can last for generations. A reputable antiques dealer will be glad to help you select one―if you know how to speak the language. Here's a crash course in antique speak.

What Is the Age?
Just because it's old doesn't mean it's gold. A piece of furniture must be 100 years old to be considered a true antique. Ask the dealer for a general idea of the chest's year of origin. The term "circa" may appear on price tags. This means "around." So, "circa 1850" means the chest was made around then.

What Is the Provenance?
No, it's not a region in France. Provenance is the piece's history: who owned it and where it was made. Don't ask the dealer specifically where he or she bought it. They probably won't tell you. Just ask if there is any provenance. If one exists, ask if there is any documentation. If so, great, and the price will reflect this. If not, then you have a story to go along with your chest, but if you sell later you'll want a buyer who will take your word.

What Is the Condition?
Ask if there have been any repairs. Check to see if the hardware, such as drawer pulls, shows any sign of having been replaced. You want as much of the chest as possible to be original. Make sure all drawers open and close easily and that the piece sits squarely on the floor without rocking.

Pay Attention to the Wood
The finish should never be black, and you should be able to discern some pattern of the wood grain underneath. If the finish shows alligatoring, a scaling effect that resembles an alligator's hide, move on unless you know how to refinish. Refinishing can be great if done correctly, but it can also destroy a piece's value if done improperly.

Not confident enough to go it alone? Take a friend who's in the know. You'll pick up a lot just by watching, but the more you do it, the more you'll learn.

Top Picks for Antiquing Around the South
Before coming to Southern Living, I spent 11 years as an antiques dealer and more years than that as a collector. Consequently, I have sampled just about every shop from here to the edge of Dixie. What I hope to do here is provide you with the list I wish I would have had when I was starting out. If you're in it to buy, then here you go. If you're just out to learn a few things, then these are your classrooms and the bell has rung.

1. Lucullus
610 Chartres Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
[504] 528-9620
As with food or wine, exposure to the best will train your palate. The same is true for antiques. Lucullus is, for me, the best place to learn what's good. Their bent is French, from furniture to Champagne flutes. In fact, owner Patrick Dunne's book, The Epicurean Collector, is a veritable textbook of all things historic and food-related. It's always one of my first stops when I hit New Orleans.

2. Stevens Auction Company
Aberdeen, MS
[662] 369-2200
Auctions are a great place for a good education or a good buy. Stevens is one of the last auctions that has not become a high-dollar battleground for dealers. I've been going for years and seldom come home with an empty back seat. Auction tip: If it's raining, sleeting, snowing, thundering, lightning or dropping balls of fire from the sky, get in your car and go. Inclement weather weeds out the faint of heart and the deals only get better. Get on their mailing list ASAP.

3. Snow's Antiques
1852 Waverley Mansion Rd
West Point, MS 39773
[662] 494-1399
For good quality American Empire furniture, there is no better. Prices here have remained remarkably low, so there are deals to be had. (FYI: The chest in the magazine story came from there.) It's a tiny shop packed with perfection and located on the grounds of Waverley Plantation Mansion, one of the most significant historic homes in Mississippi. This is a place where the dealer, Robert Snow, really takes time with you to help you understand what you're looking at. For beginners, it's like training wheels. For the pro, it's just fantastic. Don't deny yourself a visit.

4. Scott Antiques Market
Atlanta, GA
This is an event for antique buyers. Held the second weekend of each month in Atlanta, this is an absolute cornucopia of things to buy or just investigate. There' a vast selection spread out over two warehouses so wear comfortable shoes. I have always found at least one thing I couldn't live without whenever I go. It's worth a bit of a drive if you're serious about finding good stuff at every conceivable price point.

5. Valerie Fursdon, Inc.
5000 Whitesburg Dr.
Huntsville, AL 35802
[256] 882-9119
This is one of those great undiscovered shops…or it was to me until recently, so I'm claiming the discovery. It's a good shop that imports a selection of European antiques, including Chinese and French porcelains, some continental furniture, and so much more. It's the eclecticism that is the big bang here. The owner, Valerie Fursdon, studied at Christie's in London and is great to talk with (owing partially to her delightful British accent). Check this shop out. The quality is much higher-end than the prices imply.

"A Shopper's Guide to Antique Chests" is from the February 2008 issue of Southern Living.