6 Foolproof Tips for Identifying Real Brass at the Thrift Store

published Mar 7, 2024
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Credit: Janet Kwan

Brass is one of those enduring finishes that will arguably never go out of style. The alloy of copper and zinc can either be buffed up to a glamorous shine or left to patina, giving a room the perfect amount of 18th-century antique allure. It can integrate into just about any design style, too, and when you come across the real thing, brass pieces can even become family heirlooms.

Finding brass when you’re thrift shopping can also be a huge thrill, whether it’s a small decor accent, floor lamp, or chandelier. Sometimes, though, antique dealers and thrift stores mark up pieces that look like brass but are actually just cheap brass-plated metals or plastic. To identify solid brass on the fly and get a fair price for your item, here are a few tips and tricks for your next thrifting trip.

Credit: Erin Derby

1. Use the “magnet test.”

One of the simplest ways to determine the authenticity of a brass-looking piece is by using a magnet. “Brass is not magnetic, so if the magnet sticks, it’s most likely steel,” says designer Maria Vassiliou of Maria Zoe Designs. If a magnet doesn’t stick to your find, then there’s a good chance it’s genuine brass. Some brass items may have a layer of another metal beneath the surface, so be sure to test multiple areas. Keep a magnet in your bag when you go thrifting and you’ll never be without this handy tool.

2. Give it a small scratch.

This method requires a bit of caution and care, and works best for decor you’ve already purchased and own. Use a small, sharp object, like a paper clip, to give the item a small scratch in a discreet place (think: the underside of a vase or vessel). According to Baltimore-based metal restoration shop Brassworks Co., genuine brass will reveal a bright, yellow color underneath, meaning the find is brass throughout and not just brass plated. 

3. Don’t be fooled by brass plating.

As Brassworks Co. also notes, anything with a brass plating may look like genuine brass, but it’s actually much thinner, less durable, and likely made of steel or zinc. Of course, it’s difficult to confidently identify real brass based on looks alone, so try shopping directly from a local expert or well-respected vintage dealer. “The best way to ensure your piece is made with real brass materials is by sourcing it from a purveyor you know and trust,” says Bo Knoblauch, director of design at Rejuvenation

Credit: Janet Kwan

4. Check for patina.

Not all brass will look golden and gleaming at first. In fact, it might appear green! “When brass is unlacquered, it’s classed as a ‘living’ finish,” explains Vassiliou. “This means that over time, when exposed to moisture and air, it will naturally tarnish and bring out the most beautiful coloring unique to solid brass.”

Some designers love this look, and many homeowners invest in genuine brass hardware, like those made by Waterworks, for its ability to change over time. A lack of patina doesn’t necessarily make an item inauthentic, though. Any brass piece can retain its original glow with brass polish. 

5. Weigh in.

Another way to test for authentic brass? “Pick it up!” says Vassiliou. “Is it heavy? Does it feel like it’s got some weight to it?” Real brass typically feels heavier than similar metals or plastic imitations. When you encounter a potential brass find in the thrift store, it should feel substantial in your hands, which can be particularly helpful to keep in mind while assessing small home decor items. 

6. Look for a maker’s mark.

Per Virginia Chamlee, author of thrifting guide Big Thrift Energy, familiarize yourself with reputable brass manufacturers and their marks. “Maker-wise, one of my favorite brands that has worked with a lot of brass historically is Sarreid,” she says. “They are known for their brass chests which look like trunks, gorgeous brass lamps, and other smaller objects.”

Chamlee has scored a brass Sarreid lamp — identified by a sticker on the bottom and the brand’s signature horse emblem engraved onto the switch — at Goodwill for $9, as well as a Sarreid brass chest of drawers for $40 on another thrift trip. “By comparison, an upscale vintage marketplace will mark a Sarreid chest between anywhere from $600 to $4,000, so finding one in the wild is a real treasure,” she adds.

While you’re at it, also look out for a seam — aka the mark of very old brass. Pieces produced before the advent of factory machines were handmade, and according to Jacqueline Rare Antiques, “since these objects were crafted by hand, it was impossible to make that seam disappear.”