Reflections on the Ford Museum Auction


From Antique Radio Classified for December 1995
(Copyright 1995 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.)

As everyone in the antique radio community knows by now, the Henry Ford Museum Radio Auction on October 7 and 8, 1995, in Dearborn, Michigan, was a unique - perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime - experience. Assembled there was such an abundance of early and rare items that even the most sophisticated collector had to be impressed.

I myself was overwhelmed by the quantity of rare and unusual items and, I have to admit, disappointed at not getting a fair proportion of what I wanted. And yes, I'm still in shock at the prices I found myself paying for some items!

This fact led to long thoughts about what this remarkable auction means to the future of antique radio collecting. The recurring question is, "Will the prices realized at the Ford now drive prices up to sustainable levels?" The answer cannot be a simple "yes" or "no" because this auction was certainly an aberration.

Special Factors. Why an aberration? Because the factors driving prices up may never again all be present in one place. First, the items were from a world-famous museum, and many collectors were there hoping to acquire something from this source. Second, many items had additional associative value; that is, they were from such sources as the RCA-George Clark Collection, the NBC Radio City Museum, and the Edison Institute, or they were contributed by McMurdo Silver, Magnavox, Alfred Goldsmith, and others. Third, there was a preponderance of both early and rare items, such as Marconi, DeForest, Electro Importing, and Hammond, as well as Federal, Cardwell, and Magnavox from the 1920s.

The fourth, and certainly not the least important factor was that preplanning was possible. It is not the usual thing to see all of the major U.S. collectors at one event with money in their pockets. They had come prepared to spend, and they did. Some even developed an altruistic side to their bidding - they wanted to keep the American pieces in the country. Add to this the strength of the international collecting community's bidding, and the frenzy built to unusual proportions.

All of these factors were at work, especially in regard to the early and rare items. Since for these there is no benchmark, we can't say whether or not the prices were high. What we can say is that the early, unique pieces have reached the status of true antiques and are beginning to be recognized as such.

Future Price Expectations. Should readers look at the prices realized at this auction and expect the same? I would say not for the commonly exchanged items, especially those listed in the price guides. But for those not in the price guides, the Ford Auction offered the first available prices, and they may go higher. At least this auction gives us an idea of the worth of rarely seen items.

The prices of common receivers presented a more confused picture. Of course, the variable factors that influenced the prices of the early and rare pieces had an effect on the prices of the more common items. A number of these sold at amounts comparable to the prices in Bunis' Collector's Guide to Antique Radios and to commonly seen prices by collectors. However, others sold at prices inconsistent with market value.

For example, a Radiola VIIB, which sold for $1,700, has been known to go for more; a Federal 61 with a damaged lid, listed in Bunis for $1,200, sold for $950; a Grebe CR-9 listed at $500 sold for $600, while a Grebe MU-1 listed at $225 sold for $700; a Radiola 26 listed at $350 sold for $1,500, while a Kennedy 110 listed at $1,100 sold for $2,250!

Of course, there were some factors present that may have - or should have - moderated prices. The most obvious one was that the condition of the majority of the equipment had been compromised in some way. The degree of compromise varied from missing knobs, parts, cabinets, etc., to the extreme of inappropriate refinishing for museum display purposes. The latter was done years ago before the current thinking that an item should be conserved authentically took hold.

(John Terrey, c/o A.R.C., Box 2, Carlisle, MA 01741)

John Terrey, an electrical engineer for 20 years and publisher/editor of A.R.C. for nine of its eleven years, has collected early wireless and broadcast receivers for over 30 years. He is also the proprietor of Old Tech Books & Things (for which he fully intends to publish a catalog one of these days). His wide collecting interests extend to electro-medical apparatus, analog keyboard synthesizers, and early mechanical calculators.

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Copyright © 1995 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.
Last revised: December 4, 1995.Pages designed by Wayward Fluffy Publications