Autoantibodies directed to intracellular antigens are serological hallmarks of systemic rheumatic diseases. Identification of circulating autoantibodies is helpful in establishing the correct diagnosis, indicating the prognosis and providing a guide to treatment and follow-up. Some autoantibodies are included in diagnostic and classification criteria for diseases such as anti-Sm antigen and anti-double-stranded DNA antibodies in systemic lupus erythematosus, anti-U1 nuclear ribonucleoprotein antibodies in mixed connective tissue disease, and anti-SS-A/Ro and anti-SS-B/La antibodies in Sjögren's syndrome. Over the past 30 years, the identification of new autoantibody systems was advanced by the initiation or adaptation of novel techniques such as double immunodiffusion to detect antibodies to saline-soluble nuclear antigens, extraction-reconstitution and ELISA techniques to detect histone and chromatin antibodies, immunoblotting and immunoprecipitation to detect a wide range of antibodies directed against naturally occurring and recombinant proteins. These techniques have been made possible by advances in cellular and molecular biology and in turn, the sera from index patients have been important reagents to identify novel intracellular macromolecules. This paper will focus on the clinical relevance of several autoantibody systems described by Tan and his colleagues over the past 30 years.