What’s My Old Radio Worth?

Picture of vintage radioThe actual value of any ‘vintage’ or ‘antique’ radio – usually thought of as being pre-1950, but could be stretched a bit, say through to the mid-1960’s for early-transistor sets which are now quite collectible – is difficult to assess with any precision. Like most things in the marketplace, they are only worth what someone is willing to pay at the time and place you want to sell it.

The market for vintage radios is constantly moving. Some factors are considered below, however, as the decades go by, one of the most influential ‘drivers’ in the market, that of nostalgia and familiarity with the technology, is changing: in the latter part of the last century and the first few years of this one, many of these sets were in the childhood memories of folks, and being able to posses and operate such a radio in later life satisfied a nostalgic urge. Demand for 1920’s/1930’s sets was therefore high and this was reflected in the prices. As time moved on, that generation started to pass away or were no longer in a position to buy such radios. Focus started to move to radios that were nostalgic to the subsequent generation(s), ie. those that spent their youth in the 1940’s through 1960’s, when more compact sets of different construction and technology prevailed. This generally leaves a much smaller demand for the older sets, mainly limited to ‘hardened’ collectors and technically-minded individuals with an interest in vintage electronics. Larger market and financial factors also play into the pricing, eg. the market crash of 2008 had a significant impact on prices being paid for vintage radios, and the market for them has remained generally somewhat depressed ever since.

Another factor is that communications technology itself has changed drastically over the past two or three decades, in particular, with the advent of high-speed internet. This has resulted in a vastly-reduced number of radio stations broadcasting on both the ‘Broadcast Band’ and the Shortwave bands, with many broadcast companies now streaming their programs via the internet instead of through radio transmissions. The result of this is that there is much less to listen to on radios (vintage or not) and this also makes possessing them less-desirable. This situation is exacerbated by the large amount of radio interference (buzzing, hissing, and other unwanted sounds forming a constant background noise) caused by computers, ‘wall-wart’ power supplies, LED lights and the like that was not present when radios were ‘king’ of media.

There are several guides on pricing available, eg. ‘Collector’s Guide to Antique Radios’ by John Slusser that can be consulted, however, the cited prices are only indicative for when that particular guide was prepared, and these seem to rarely reflect reality. If you do not have such a guide or your model is not listed in the one(s) you have, consider these factors:

  • Is there a demand? Even with the background noted above, there is still a general demand for vintage radios – however, this varies across the vast range of makes, models and formats. For example, there is very little demand for large (console) radios as they take up lots of space, so folks cannot have too many in a collection unless they live in a mansion. Also, they are large and heavy, and as folks age they can no longer move them easily. Smaller styles, eg. ‘mantle’ ‘cathedral’ and ‘tombstone’, therefore tend to fetch higher prices unless the larger radio is rare and/or considered ‘high-end’, ie. was a manufacturers top-of-the-line model. Some types of plastic-cased sets (eg. those made from ‘Catalin’) are extremely collectible and can fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars when in first-class condition or that are in rare colours or styles, though even minor defects in the plastic can detract considerably from the price;
  • Is it a very desirable model? (does it appear to be a ‘high-end’ or ‘rare’ model) – try a search on Ebay and a Google search for the make and model of your set. Features like a chrome-plated chassis, large dial, many knobs, tuning eye and more then a dozen tubes on the chassis indicate that the model was likely ‘high end’. Apart from radios intended for the domestic market, there are also radios that are more commercial in nature, these being termed ‘communications receivers’. There is a specialized market for these, usually amongst the ham radio community (see comments on this later);
  • Are there many of that make/model for sale? – again, check on Ebay and ‘Google it’ to get an idea (check sold prices, not asking prices to reflect reality better). Also, see comments below regarding eBay;
  • Does it work? – sets are usually worth more if they do, but surprisingly it is not that critical, especially to a collector or restorer, as almost anything can be made to work again in the right hands and most common tubes and electronic parts can be sourced at reasonable cost. For tube or early discrete semiconductor sets, cosmetics, completeness and originality (no modifications or bodged repairs) are the biggest price-determining factors related to the condition of the set itself. Indeed, if you have not already done so, do not switch the radio on, as this can result in significant damage that can seriously reduce the value of the radio;
  • Completeness: are there parts missing? – particularly major uniquely manufactured parts, eg. knobs, dial mechanism, tuning dial, gears, transformers and tuning capacitor. The more complete the set is, the better of course;
  • Physical condition: is there severe rust on the chassis/cabinet, dented panels, rot, scratches/scuffs, broken dial/escutcheon, signs of internal modifications, damage, burning or melted tar, components or wires?, holes drilled in the chassis/fingerplate/cabinet, evidence of rodent or insect activity, etc. The more original and cleaner the better;
  • Market forces: if you have someone locally interested in the set, that persons ‘best offer’ may well determine price unless you are willing to sell the set on the internet (eg. eBay), where prices realized tend to be significantly higher than for sets sold locally, eg. a garage sale, on locally-focussed websites, eg. Craigslist, Kijiji, or newspaper advert, or even a local collector – try to find out if there is a local vintage and/or ham radio club and seek advice from them. Another good place to start is to contact an organization such as the Canadian Vintage Radio Society (CVRS) or the SPARC radio museum. There are also several vintage radio forums that have buy-sell pages that may be posted to place an advert for a radio, or to solicit input regarding its value, eg. Antique Radio Forum and the UK Vintage Radio Forum – use Google or other search engine to seek others using key words/phrases such as ‘vintage radio’, ‘antique radio’,  ‘tube radio’, etc.  Regarding eBay (and other auction sites), there is a ‘luck of the draw’ element that must be considered – some sets that look good, and even with a reasonable starting price, do not sell for some unexplainable reason.  One thing that puts potential buyers off eBay sales, even with the prospect of a higher selling price, especially if an item is located outside of your home country, or for a large, bulky item such as a console radio that contains many delicate parts, is the effort and cost of packing and shipping such an item and the perceived (and often very real) risks involved with shipping the radio long distance.  This can be a big factor as it can limit the potential market for the seller.  And don’t forget the commission the auction site takes as well as the ‘hassle factor’ involved in such a sale;
  • Timing of a sale and geographical location (seller relative to the buyer) are also factors affecting sale price (…’buyer must collect’ caveats in the sale conditions, etc), as is good old-fashioned luck that a potential buyer actually comes across your advert or auction in the narrow window of time when you decide to place the set on the market. Then again, there is the Ebay ‘adrenalin rush’ last-minute bidding factor….. good news for the seller.

As noted above, you can monitor Ebay sold prices to see what similar sets to yours are fetching, though it can be very time-consuming waiting for a particular model to appear.  Also, check out this web page and this web page for more thoughts on this topic.