What is My Old Radio's Value?

"Value is in the eye of the purchaser." "One guy's trash is another gal's treasure." "The great thing about standards is that there so many to choose from."

Are you starting to get the picture? There is no hard-and-fast standard for evaluating old radios. Here are some reasons:

  • Regional variation. Prices vary depending on where you live. In the US, the East and Midwest were settled first and they have a plentiful supply of antiques—including radios. On the West coast, or sparsely populated areas of the West, antiques are scarce and the price of old radios tends to reflect the meager supply. (In case you're wondering, I'm one of the unlucky collectors who lives on the West coast.) Supply-and-demand effects become even more exaggerated as you move across international borders. Someone in Iceland or Bahrain may be willing to spend more for a given radio than you are.

  • Fads. Like many collectible items, radios are subject to fads that artificially inflate prices. The Catalin craze offers a striking example. Currently, any radio with a Catalin cabinet may be valued at hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the price of a comparable Bakelite set. Under the hood, all Catalins have boring (and low-performance) "All American Five" technology. Except for the cabinet material, their value would be closer to $25 than to $1000. There are other, less extreme fads. Certain early transistors, for instance, command high prices simply because they were among the first of their kind.

    Some folks get annoyed about fads, but my attitude is, "If you don't like that price, don't pay it!" Old radios come in a galaxy of styles, shapes, and sizes. Don't depend on somebody else to define your values. Decide for yourself what's cool, then seek it out.

  • Profits. Some people make a living by restoring old radios. When they sell their wares, they charge "retail" prices. When you buy such a set, you're paying not only for the radio itself, but also for the time and expertise that went into its restoration, plus (I hope!) some kind of guarantee. A restored radio is worth considerably more than an unrestored one, so you shouldn't be startled if it costs more.

    Many other folks (antique dealers, etc.) make money by buying old radios cheaply at garage sales or swap meets, then reselling for a profit without restoring them. It's pointless to get mad or call this gouging. They found the radio, and you didn't. They are in business to make money, which they do by buying cheap and selling dear. My advice is, "If you don't like boutique prices, don't shop in boutiques."

Wait a minute—aren't there any guidelines?

Yes, in a general way. You can buy collector books that list values for thousands of radios. And, despite all my caveats above, if you're interested in collecting, I'd recommend that you get one or more of these books. You can't consider the values absolute—they are averaged over time and geography, and some may be mere guesses—but the books are lots of fun to look at. And they can teach you a lot about the relative values of different categories of radios.

United States collector books typically give dollar values. The European guide La Grand Livre de TSF uses relative pricing, with two or three dollar signs representing an average value, and five dollar signs the highest. See Books for Radio Collectors for a list of popular collector guides.

Ads and auction reports are other good information sources. The ads in magazines like Antique Radio Classified or Old Timer's Bulletin tell you what other collectors think their sets are worth. (Of course, not every radio sells at the asking price!) The auction reports published in those magazines can also tell you what certain sets fetched at a particular time and place.

Yeah, but what do you think, Phil?

Everybody's entitled to his own opinions about value. Here are mine.

As I see it, a radio's value depends on five factors: scarcity, age, design, electronics, and (most important) condition.

  • Scarcity. Some sets are prized simply because they were the first, the only, the last, or the something-est in a given category. For example, the Regency TR-1 looks like a zillion other pocket-sized transistors, but collectors prize it because it was the very first consumer transistor radio. In the transistor books, its value ranges from $300 for the common black model to $2750 for a "pearlescent lavender" set. Similarly, the Zenith TransOceanic R-520/URR was made in limited numbers for the military. Because few R-520/URRs survive today, they fetch more than a common TransOceanic H500 of the same vintage (which perform just as well, by the way).

  • Age. Older radios tend to fetch somewhat more than newer ones, but only in a very general way. Age alone doesn't make a radio priceless. 1920s radios are old, but some manufacturers made cheap, junky radios in those days, as in all other times. Scarcity of parts can make certain vintage sets very expensive to repair. Early radios don't perform as well as newer ones, and some require a battery power supply that's not easy for everyone to provide. On the other hand, the early sets have historical interest and design factors that appeal to some people. Age cuts both ways, in short.

  • Design. No matter where you live, a Sparton Bluebird is worth more than a plain Coronado. Inside, both radios are similar, with five tubes and conventional electronics. But the "Blue Mirror" Sparton features dramatic Art Deco styling and unusual materials, whereas the Coronado is your basic brown Bakelite box with tubes inside. It doesn't take an expert to guess which is more valuable. By reading the collector guides, ads, and auction reports, you can learn what design features other people value. You may also develop your own interest in a particular design—"Machine Age" styles, "Wacky 50s," or whatever.

  • Electronics. High-quality electronics increase a radio's value for most collectors. Some high-end brands, such as Scott or McMurdo Silver, cost as much as a luxury car when new and they still command higher prices than their humbler brethren. Some mass-market manufacturers, such as Zenith, Philco, and even Silvertone, occasionally produced high-end models, too.

    Some of these sets are easy to identify. Peek inside the back, and instead of the ordinary five or six tubes, you'll see lots and lots of tubes—twelve, fifteen, or even more. Some sets have two chassis instead of one, and chrome plating is another tipoff. If you see chrome on the chassis and other metal components, you are looking at something out of the ordinary. Many of these sets were sold as bare chassis, which the owner would either play as-is (admiring all the chrome) or have installed in a custom-built cabinet.

  • Condition. Nice radios are generally worth more than junkers. Duh. But what constitutes good condition, exactly?

    Most importantly, the set should be in complete and original condition. Award bonus points for original packaging, manuals, and accessories. Subtract points for cabinet damage, missing or incorrect knobs, and any amateurish modifications. You can get modern reproductions for many knobs or dial covers, although repro components may reduce the set's value to purists.

    Cabinets typically show some marks of use, and a few minor scratches and dents are to be expected. Award bonus points for an original, unrestored cabinet in like-new condition. For wooden cabinets, subtract points for major visible damage or if a previous owner stripped the cabinet down to bare wood or applied a non-authentic finish such as glossy polyurethane. (Virtually all wooden radio cabinets were finished in lacquer.) For Bakelite and plastic cabinets, subtract points if there are large, visible cracks or chunks missing. For all radios, subtract points for painting a cabinet that wasn't originally painted or for respraying a painted cabinet in non-authentic colors.

    You may be surprised to learn that many collectors don't care whether a radio works at the time of purchase. Like 50-year old cars, 50-year old radios invariably need a tuneup (or more) before venturing back on the road. And, lots of collectors enjoy doing their own repairs. Basically, you want electronics that are complete and restorable. Even if the radio seems to work at the time, you will want to at least replace the capacitors before putting it back into regular service, for reasons of safety and reliability. If you're not experienced in repairing old radios, don't "just plug in" the radio to try it out. You may cause expensive damage or even start a fire.

Buy for love, not for investment

In the end, only you can say what a particular set is worth to you. Like many collectors, I've occasionally paid a wee bit extra for a set with some sentimental connection. On the other hand, there are some ostensibly valuable radios that you couldn't pay me to take, because I simply don't like them.

"Buy only what you like" is the best advice that I can give. I have never bought an unappealing radio thinking, "Boy, that would make a great investment."

If you're looking for ways to invest your money, old radios are one of the worst deals around. There's no consensus on value, prices can as easily go down as up, radios require lots of storage space, and they are awfully fragile in comparison to other investments. You can't ruin stocks or bonds by dropping them on the floor!

If you still don't believe me, just visit any radio swap meet. It's common to see collectors unloading radios for the same price they paid, or in many cases, for less.

If you want to be happy with your purchases over the long term, don't buy any radio unless you like it enough to keep indefinitely.

©1995-2014 Philip I. Nelson, all rights reserved