What do records tell us about the value of
our antiques and collectibles?
By Leon Castner
This might seem very strange, which is probably why it’s coming from me, but understanding how the market reacts to a specific collectible, like records (you remember them, don’t you? They’re the round, flat, big vinyl discs that most of us played on machines called “record players”) can help us understand the reasons why people like to collect things and why the values are either high or low.
So, let’s “look” at records!
Some of the old ones have a lot of value, much more than you would think, but it’s not the ones that are super old that are on top of the list. These tidbits might help explain a lot of things and will provide you a ruler for judging your own material, whether it be vinyl, furniture, china, or glass. Besides, talking about records is just plain cool anyway.
The concept of recording sound has been credited to Thomas Edison, as are most of the inventions of the modern world. He worked feverishly in his New Jersey laboratory on the problems of sound travel-hearing noises or words from places far away. As part of his experimentation he happened to invent the telegraph and telephone, arguably our first social media devices.
Edison chanced upon a way to record sound on tinfoil-coated cylinders in 1877. After a year he became bored, as inventers do, and switched to the problem of making light bulbs. Besides, this helped him to work at night without having to refuel the kerosene lamps. So, other people took his place, like Alexander Graham Bell, who improved upon Edison’s relatively crude attempts.
Ten years later Edison revisited the cylinder, which seemed to offer the perfect prospect of use in offices as dictating machines. However, the novelty of the idea, playing back sounds that were previously recorded, became a popular form of entertainment. Remember, this was the late Victorian period. He set up a company called the National Phonograph Company which provided wax cylinders with pre-recorded sounds, like audio books. Entrepreneurs would rent out halls and sell tickets for people to come and listen to these records – in addition to having units that were coin operated and would play a song for 5 cents (the first juke box).
As you can see, there are two products here that are possible, just like the razor and the razor blade. There is the machine (which Edison perfected in many different sizes and models), and the cylinders, which now could record music, opera, speeches, poetry, and general “noise.”
Unfortunately, the wax cylinders were fragile. They broke easily and became worn down by a heavy needle (spike). They just didn’t last too long. Before too many years, Edison made significant changes and came up with an Amberol cylinder. It was much more durable and less likely to break. The company reorganized into Thomas A, Edison, Inc.
Edison decided to go in another direction, but not before making the flat records we know (some of us know). These new records were made in ¼” discs and lay flat when played. Edison called them the “Diamond Disc”. Of course, they weren’t made of diamonds and weren’t compatible with other machines (think razors again). By this time there were many were other machines and other people making discs (Victor Talking Company being one of them). Again, the topics of recordings included songs, comedy routines, Hawaiian music, religious sermons, etc. It was a potpourri of sound.
Now, almost all recordings were done on these discs – called 78’s, because their revolution was anywhere from 70-80 turns a minute. By 1926, these recordings (records) had become double sided (they were always double sided but now they actually used both sides). Some could play as long as 24 minutes per side. The future was bright…or so they thought.
The great depression hit everyone hard – including the recording industry. Electrical recording had just become the rage, leaving Edison in the dust. (One would have thought he would have been in the forefront, but he had other fish to fry.) In addition, the advent of radio caused concern for the business because now people could listen rather than buy individual records, and they didn’t need a machine (except for a radio).
In 1931, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) developed the first 33 1/3 long playing record. It was called a “Program Translator” and was able to reproduce sound at a very high technical level. It was not a success, primarily because the equipment used to play the records was so expensive. The 78 was still the main product until about 1949 when RCA developed the 45 (the little record). In addition, the 33 1/3 gained favor because it could play for a long time, which is why it was called the LPM (long playing recording). Now we have the stage set for records sold as “singles” (one song on each side), or “albums” (many songs in a same theme or long-winded symphonies).
This became the golden age of recording, not necessarily because of the high technology but because of the tremendous volume (pun intended) of records available to the public. Combine that with the introduction of rock and roll and we have a tsunami.
The age of rock and roll not only brought a plethora of recorded worth, but a new way to package the product – with glossy, psychedelic cover art, inserts that included words and credits, and protective sleeves (for your records, not your arms).
We began to collect records, from the 45’s (the small ones with the big hole in the middle), which one would take to a sock hop or to a friend’s house in the 1950s, to albums which played at our all-night groovy haze-filled parties (love-ins) in the late 60s. Of course, this was supplemented by the ever-present screaming radio DJs, who shaped our listening senses and drove our buying habits.
This lasted for quite a while, although technology once again disturbed our world. The equipment (we now call it hardware) changed, from large flat discs to somewhat smaller in diameter but bigger in thickness hard plastic tape cases. The 8-track was born, like a child out of wedlock. Touted as “stereo 8”, a phrase indicating better sound, this format came from the reel-to-reel tape recorder, available in the US during the 1940s. Instead of having to thread the tape through a maze of channels and grooves, like an early motion picture film, this provided hands free use, except for putting it in the player. The cartridge system allowed the tape to play or be removed at any time, also creating an endless loop, like singing 99 bottles of beer on a wall, on a long car ride (been there, done that). Speaking of cars, the real benefit of the 8 track was the fact you could now have a music system built in your car. Ford introduced factory installed systems in 1965, as an upgraded option. Later home systems were developed allowing portable back and forth use between home and car.
My 1977 custom-made Ford Econoline in white with blue and gray striping had captain’s seats, center table, and folding couch/bed and a neat dashboard like an airline cockpit with controls at the ceiling, including this wonderful 8 track player. I can remember putting in my first 8 track overhead, a Bob Dylan, which played on and on and on (like a rolling stone).
The sound quality was not superb and the occasional jamming of tape created a real mess, so we were relieved when a new and better toy appeared: the compact cassette. Between 1970 and 2000, the cassette was one of the two most common formats for prerecorded music, holding its own against the mighty LP. Although smaller than the 8-track, the cassette was still somewhat bulky and carrying a load of them was still burdensome, not to speak of the once again knots of tangled tapes. Of all the playing hardware to date, these seemed the least friendly. Except of course, you could create your own “mixed tape” for friends, which only took hours and hours to record (these were reserved for very good friends).
Finally, they came up with the CD, or is it DVD (I can never remember which is which)? We’re finally back to a slim disc, even though it has one side (I still can’t tell you which side is the right one). This has been a welcome change, although now I can’t remember the last time I played one, since all of my venues now are pretty much downloaded or played with the touch of a button instead of an actual disc.
So, we’ve lived through an entire century of sound technology with various formats, gizmos, and packaging. The question remains. What is worth collecting in recorded music and why?
Here are some tips. Believe me, they’re not record-shattering.
Usually the value is seen in rarity of the production, NOT the age of the recording or the device. For example, one of the most valuable records comes from 1958. It’s the album That’ll Be the Day by the Quarrymen. There seems to be only one copy of this and it brought over $200,000. The buyer was Paul McCartney. Yes, that Paul McCartney of the Beatles, who certainly has money to burn when buying rare records. The other part of the story is not just the rarity (the fact there is only one copy), but that the Quarrymen were the Beatles – before they were the Beatles. No wonder Paul wanted the album so bad.
There’s another extremely rare album that only had one copy and that’s Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Bet you never heard of it. It reportedly sold for over $2 million in 2015, but no one really knows for sure. The buyer, an American businessman named Martin Shkreli, bought the only copy at auction with rights that claimed the album could not be commercially exploited until 2103 (he could play it for free). This led to a lot of displeasure, to say the least, and legal wrangling began. Supposedly Mr. Shkreli put the album on eBay and sold it for about half of what he originally paid. No one seems to know the real story.
The point of these two examples is that rarity, not age, is the biggest and most important factor in an item’s value. This is even more easily recognized in the coin collecting world. The first Lincoln penny was minted in 1909. The designer of the coin was Victor D. Brenner (remember those initials). The first minting was almost 100 million pieces (that’s a lot of pennies). They were minted at various places including Philadelphia and San Francisco. Those are marked with an S (San Fran) or with nothing (Philadelphia). Some were also marked with VDB – the initials of dear old Victor. Those with his initials had a more modest production, hence they are worth more than the others without his initials. However, that isn’t the big name in Lincoln cents. That belongs to one of the “S” marks from 1909, 1911, or even 1931. For whatever reason, those production runs were very small. Either they had a bad day, ran out of copper, or people called in sick. Instead of 100 million made, only 1 million or 1% were complete. That makes them harder to find, especially after all these years. A run of the mill Lincoln cent can be found (literally found on the sidewalk) for maybe one dollar (if you’re really lucky), while one of the rare S marks, even in really bad shape, can be worth between fifty and one hundred dollars.
The next value characteristic in records is probably provenance – the BIG P. Provenance is the word everyone throws around when they want to impress people. You hear it on antique shows, written in books, and in almost every column on antiques and it simply means the history and/or ownership of an item. This is like ancestry. It provides an invisible DNA to the item. Who owned it becomes more important than the item itself.
For example, another high value record album was the Beatles White Album, but not any white album. It had to be a special stamped piece of vinyl, belonging to a very special person. Ringo Starr’s personal copy of the album fetched $790,000 in 2015, the highest price for a commercially released album. Without the Ringo Starr provenance we’d be looking at an album that either you or I could afford easily and play without any fear of being robbed or struck with Maxwell’s silver hammer.
This is amplified by other items in the market as well. Take opera glasses (please take them). They’re small, they sometimes fold, and are usually made with a mother of pearl finish. They often come in fitted cases and most date from the 19th century. They’re old, but they’re not valuable (maybe $75-150 on a good day). People used them going to concerts or the opera, where sitting so far away one needed something to magnify the stage to see what was really going on.
One pair of opera glasses has done better than all the rest, bringing over $400,000 at auction. Where they the oldest? No. Where they the best made? No. Were they one of a kind? No.
Nothing special. Perhaps a $200 pair at best.
Then why $400,000?
These particular opera glasses were used in the theater by a theater goer in 1865, who happened to be president of the United States. If a shot had not rung out, those opera glasses would have been lost in the attic of history, probably never saved or recognized. But a shot did ring out and our president had fallen. The glasses have become part of a tragic and monumental event, becoming in a very frightening way, a one-of-a-kind pair, never to be eclipsed by another.
Jackie Robinson was the first African American major league baseball player. He played with such energy and abandon and overcame huge obstacles in his fight for equal status. His rookie year in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers saw him win the Rookie of the Year Award, but not before being threatened, taunted, attacked by cleats on the field and tomatoes in the stands, and bean-balled by opposing pitchers. The danger of batting became so great that he had to wear a special protective baseball cap with three protective plates sewn into the linings. (Helmets were not yet part of the game.)
The cap was worn even on the base paths since players were told to aim for the head whenever he slid into base. That cap, blue with the initial B, sold this year for almost $600,000-breaking the record held by a Babe Ruth cap once owned by David Wells.
So, who owned an item is a pretty big deal, especially if the item really is connected to the individual.
Some items are just plain iconographic. That means they just point to something bigger than themselves, and hardly need words to tell the story (so why don’t we show a picture and forget the words). Take the John Lennon album, Double Fantasy. You can pick one up at a yard sale for loose change. However, one John Lennon Double Fantasy sold for nearly one-half million and is rumored to be on the market for 1.5 million.
That album, part of the forensic evidence used to convict Mark Chapman for the killing of John Lennon, was signed by Lennon when Chapman approached him in front of his residence. Later on, Chapman returned and shot Lennon, still possessing the album, but losing it in the following moments. Recovered by a maintenance man, it became part of the evidence since Chapman’s fingerprints were still on the cover, as was John Lennon’s Hancock with the date 1980. After receiving it back, the maintenance man waited 19 years until selling it for such an astounding number.
The album brought such a high amount, not because it was owned by Chapman, nor was it Lennon’s copy, but because it became a part of time, a symbol of a tragic event, another day the music died.
The Gutenburg Bible is an icon. It is a symbol of a drastic change in society and technology when hand written words became mass produced print, forever changing the way we make and read books and written material. In 1455, John Guttenberg published the first mass produced book, a Bible, making the words available for a large mass of people and, who knows, possibly starting the Reformation (my opinion). It is the most valuable book in the world, even though there are as many as 49 copies that still exist – or parts of one.
This was certainly a change of technology, which points to another possible value characteristic, but it has become more than that, perhaps similar to the first computer – which took an entire building to house.
ERRORS & MISTAKES
The next category is self-evident. Possible errors, mistakes, and miscues have created a desirable legacy for collectors, who like to discover the weird, strange, and just plain incorrect. Take the Beatles Butcher Yesterday and Today from 1966 – the infamous “butcher album.” It depicts the band dressed in white butcher aprons, holding doll babies that are partially decapitated and fresh cuts of meat. Blood stains speckle the white coverings, leaving a certain unpleasant taste in one’s mouth, if not in the pit of the stomach.
It seems the boys were upset at their record company – something about cutting their music or not paying full share of their rights. In any case, the albums went out, but quickly were recalled. (Capitol Records reportedly spent over $250,000 to recall the 750,00 copies.) The albums were given new covers, ones that were more politically and socially correct. Not too many noticed, but the word did get out. The “Butcher” Album became an instant collectible and now can sell for over $30,000.
In the same vein, Bob Dylan produced an album in 1963 called the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It included a couple of quite racy tunes (including one about the John Birch Society). The record was released but not before a commotion caused quick cancellation and a remaking of the record with 4 new songs, now politically correct. The deed had been done, however, and some of the originals were never recovered – except by fans. Those too can bring over $30,000.
Of course, the biggest “mistake” in collectible history is probably the Honus Wagner baseball card. The T-206 tobacco card was made between 1909-1911 by the American Tobacco Company. They were using a player’s name and fame to sell their product, just like we do today. Honus, a Hall of Fame player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a great shortstop, and possibly a greater person. Rather than sell out to an advertising firm or product, he refused to co-operate and have his picture on premiums touting a dirty habit not fit for children to emulate, but before the presses stopped, some cards were released. As many as 100-200 cards might have escaped to the public.
This card has become very desirable as is known as the Holy Grail of baseball. The last one in great condition sold for over $3 million. All this for a card that was supposed to be destroyed.
SUPPLY & DEMAND
The last value characteristic that makes records more valuable is simply supply and demand. When there’s a lot of an item and no one wants it, down goes the price. When everyone wants it, up it goes. Just think Beanie Babies…on second thought, don’t.
Elvis Presley records are in constant demand. His fan base has never wavered through the years and his blue suede shoes still brings happiness…and money. Although the phenomenon may have slowed down a bit, Elvis was bigger than life and since he was at the beginning of the vinyl revolution, both in 45s and LPs, his work, particularly the rare or unusual, still commands respect.
Classical records, the mainstay of the 78 generation, and even earlier, were produced in huge numbers. It was also the major type of music available to the public. Not so any longer. Jazz was a sideshow, blues hardly acceptable, and even country almost non-existent. This creates a possibility that these categories might increase in demand, due to their resurgence. However, it still means the vast majority of albums from 1900 to today are simply too many for too few.
The exception for the wise collector would be early recordings of American jazz or those by undiscovered artists, first recordings of blues – since that’s supposedly the root of rock and roll, and scarce recordings in any venue that weren’t part of the mainstream.
Remember, if nobody wants it, then it doesn’t matter how rare, scarce, or wonderful it is. (Think cast iron ice tongs or pot belly stoves – antiques that you can hardly give away.) Items must have an audience, one that wants to buy, display, use, and even hoard the original.
Another tip, but not as major as the five given above, is size. Yes, size does matter! Smaller is better. It is easier to move, display, barter, and store. Try collecting stoves, toasters, farm implements (fanning mills or corn grinders), or even record players. You’ll soon discover that you are running out of room and must either build an addition or rent a storage pod, which becomes awful expensive in the long term. It also makes showing your collection to others rather difficult, i.e. “Hey, let’s go down to the storage place and look at my collection of old upright pianos.” So, unless you have loads of old, empty warehouses waiting to be filled, stick to the small and manageable.
So… let’s review what’s been said.
~ Items have an origin and a history-both of which are important. Learn as much as you possibly can about the items you have. If they are based on a certain scientific break-through or invention, that means their interest and value will change as does the technology.
~ Not all items are collected or valued due to their age. Age doesn’t matter (too bad for me).
~ The market is driven by supply and demand which means items produced or made in low quantities will normally be worth more than those mass produced.
~ Public interest will drive the economic machine. Right now, we’re seeing the most interest in the 1950-70 era – not only in records, but everything else. “Mid-century modern” is the catch phrase in the business.
~ Celebrity status or ownership drives up values in a society where people love to read supermarket or tabloid magazines and watch entertainment gossip shows. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it is.
Records were made to be played, not broken. Your antiques and collectibles are for your enjoyment and use, not strictly for investment. It sure is nice, however, when they do both-provide pleasure and profit. Now, that’s music to your ears!