The Value of Old 78s--With Comments on 78 RPM Price Guides

June 1910

This article is among my most popular. I share information on my site because I love my hobby. Please don't phone me asking about the value of 78s since I never assess records. The best thing is to get on ebay and find out what that particular record (or similar item) sold for.

In the past, when people asked me about the value of their old 78 rpm records and crank phonographs, I was tempted to reply, "They are worth what you can find someone to pay for them." Such an answer would satisfy nobody, but it might help people understand that stable or "fixed" prices do not exist when it comes to 78s, cylinders, Victrolas, or anything related to our hobby. The best I can do is tell people what specific items are worth to me. But to speculate about what SOME buyer SOMEWHERE out there MIGHT pay if circumstances are just right--well, it is mere speculation!

Different sellers get different prices. Different buyers are willing to pay different amounts. Take any one item and offer it to ten people in ten different ways (let's say one way is at a garage sale, another way is on a mail auction, in a store, etc.), and you will end up with ten different prices. So price depends on circumstances.

I've known some people who paid a very high price for one nice item, and I've known others who purchased an identical item at a bargain price. It is a case of one person paying too much to satisfy a craving of the moment, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a case of a person having the good luck to be in the right place at the right time.

There Are No Set Prices For 78s!

Again I'll say there are no set prices for 78s--not meaningful ones, anyway. How much you can get, as seller, for any one record depends upon whom you sell it to (how many people did you offer the record to?), how it is sold (auction? or at a garage sale?), whether it is sold as an individual item or part of a package deal, and so on. One person bidding during an auction might end up paying over $15 for the Victor disc on which Enrico Caruso sings "Over There" whereas another person will find the same record in a thrift shop for a buck. So is the record worth over $15 or just a buck?

Citing meaningful "set prices" for records of the 78 rpm era is not possible. I realize that price guides exist. I know there are "authorities" who say in books, "Here is the value or set price of this record and of that record." That means nothing to me. Price guides are compiled because people can earn profits by compiling and selling price guides. But no price guide tells you what your 78 rpm records are actually worth in the real world.

Columbia Disc

Let's suppose that the people who compile price guides have some real basis for the prices they cite. A price guide may claim that an old record--or Victrola, book, painting, anything--is worth a certain amount. After all, maybe that item did sell for a high price--let's say $200--in a real city at an actual auction. Fiinding someone in your town to pay the same amount for the same item is another matter.

Using the Internet to find someone "out there" to buy your items will be easier than finding someone in your own town, but you must be willing to send items through the mail or UPS--again, there is a difference between what some expert may CLAIM an item is worth and what some serious buyer will really offer. On my homepage I have an article called "Tips For Selling Old 78s" and I explain how you can find a buyer in your town but also indicate where you can go on the Internet. I even give my mailing address if you wish to send to me a list of 78s for sale.

Discussing Value Is Tricky

Collectors agree on approximate value of some 78s but disagree about others. I am amused by the way value depends on whether one is buying or selling. Some collectors like to quote high prices if selling ("I'll sell this Nat Shilkret disc for $400 since that is what a recent auction said it is worth") but offer low prices if buying ("I'll buy it for $3--back in the 1960s you couldn't give those Charlie Patton records away").

I am not writing here for advanced collectors since they don't need the help I can offer in a short article. I give simple tips for new collectors and also non-collectors who inherited 78s that they wish to sell. Many non-collectors who have found find my homepage while surfing the Internet have asked me how much Uncle Harry's big band 78s are worth. I am happy to give some general tips here. Of course, if anyone has good 78s to sell at reasonable prices, I'm interested in buying them. I'll make offers if you have a list for me to examine. And I buy printed material that helps me write articles about artists--especially old record catalogs and supplements.

Value is partly determined by condition, which is why I often ask early in the negotiating stage when buying 78s, "Are the records clean? Have they been in protective sleeves for the last few decades?" Also, the price you can get is determined by circumstances under which you are selling. Do you know lots of potential buyers who can offer competing bids for your records? Are you willing to invest time and effort into finding those competing buyers?

Let's put it another way. If you wish to sell items in a hurry or with a minimum of fuss, you cannot expect to get as high a price as someone willing to invest hours and hours into obtaining the highest possible price. If you decide to sell items in a hurry, you may have to take the first offer you get--at least there is no fuss involved, and there is a lot to be said for that. But if you willing to put great effort into finding that certain someone who will pay a premium price, you will get more money. The irony is that some folks go to too much trouble to get premium prices for their relatively common 78s, investing hours into finding the one person out there who is willing to pay $5 for a single Frank Sinatra record. It wasn't worth the time and effort.

If you contact lots of potential buyers, you may get a very good price for your old 78s. Of course, non-dealers never get the high prices that dealers get. I say this in case you once read a newspaper article stating that some dealers have sold common Bing Crosby 78s (just like the ones you own!) for $10 each. Dealers who sell 78s on auction lists mailed to collectors throughout the nation get the highest price for old records because these auction dealers work hard to get those high prices. From beginning to end, an auction takes several months, and various mailing and printing expenses add up. Moreover, figuring out where to send lists takes work! About 40 individuals in the nation are known among collectors for their regular auctions. Since I don't bid on auctions, I don't have a list of these folks who hold auctions.

Antiques dealers are also in a position to ask high prices for 78s since eventually the right person will walk into a shop and buy the interesting titles (if priced too high, even good titles will sit--that typically happens in antiques shops).

But ordinary folks with 78s to sell are rarely in a position to get the highest prices. Want somebody in your town to drive over and pay top dollar? That won't happen (notice that I said "town"--city dwellers have an advantage in that they can place ads in local papers, and such ads may attract collectors who live in the area). Certainly old 78s never bring much money to someone who is moving overseas and must sell items by Thursday. But you can get decent prices if you have good 78s in clean condition and if you patiently contact various people who collect old records.

Some common-sensical factors help determine price. If you permit someone to pick out just a few titles from your large collection of 78s, charge more per record than if that same person were to pick out many, many records. On the other hand, if you force someone to buy the whole collection in an "all-or-nothing" deal--let's say at a buck per record--it is no good pretending that this is a great deal for the buyer just because some records may be worth $5 each. After all, that person is buying some junk records to get the good ones. Finally, items sell for different prices in different regions.

Some Collectible 78s

Collectors of 78s pay high prices for anything in good condition issued by companies such as Vogue, Black Patti, Black Swan, Autograph, Berliner, Fonotipia. They start at $20 and go up, up, up. Collectors pay high prices for clean records manufactured for a "race" market, including Victor's 38000 series, Columbia's 14000 series, Okeh's 8000 series, and Paramount's 12000 series. Certain Bing Crosby 78s are worth at least $10 each--not the ones on Decca but some of Crosby's early discs, such as the ones on Brunswick.

A market definitely exists for interesting 78s. Every big town in America is home to a passionate collector, often several. I know in Northern California a hundred advanced collectors. Some like "pioneer recordings" of the 1890s and turn-of-the-century; others like '20s jazz; some buy only opera; others specialize in hillbilly. But collectors can be divided into two categories: those who are still collecting and those who have said "I have enough!" So there are active collectors and not-so-active collectors. If you have 78s to sell, you obviously want to find the active collectors, not the collectors who have stopped looking for more to add to their collections.

Finding Buyers

Need to sell a box of records? Methods for finding buyers include placing ads in local newspapers, putting ads in journals for hobbyists, taking boxes to flea markets, visiting swap meets where record collectors gather.

In this age of high technology, one way to invite assessments of your 78s is to type a list into a computer and offer to send the list to collectors via the Internet. A simple announcement about your list in a music-related Internet newsgroups may generate interest among some collectors. Be considerate when posting such an announcement on newsgroups. If collectors sense that you are not serious about selling the 78s but merely want a free assessment of value, they will resent their time being wasted. Another risk is that you can spend hours typing up a list and then have the response be "Sorry, but your 78s fall under the easy-listening category. Nobody buys Guy Lombardo and Frankie Carle 78s." A lot of boring music can be found on 78s. I groan when people send me long lists of easy listening artists, waltzes, polkas, Hawaiian numbers, Bing Crosby on Decca, the South Pacific soundtrack, and whistling solos.

Learning More about Value

So far in this article I've been talking mostly to readers who have items to sell. What about readers who consider themselves to be new collectors who want to learn more about the value of 78s? How does a novice collector learn about how much to pay for desired items or how much to charge for duplicates? Nothing beats the guidance of experienced collectors. Of course, not all experienced collectors like to give up their time to explain things to beginners who might give up the hobby next week or to beginners who collect for what might be regarded as the "wrong" reasons (some people start collecting 78s only with the idea of buying cheap and selling dear). I was lucky when I was a novice collector since some very nice people took me under their wings, as the expression goes.

There are newsgroups on the Internet where advice about value is too easily given, and I've seen some bad advice given. Do not pay attention to those who insist that novice collectors should find out what records sell for on auction lists. The fact that a Johnny Marvin record sold for, say, $100 on an auction list only means that one person at one time wanted that one record desperately. Whoever paid the winning bid for a certain record paid more than what everyone else thought it was worth. The same record might never sell for such a high price again. Freakish things happen on auction lists ("freakish" in the other direction, too--occasionally bargains can be had).

A Price Guide for 78s

Only one price guide book enjoys credibility among at least some serious collectors. The American Premium Record Guide, by Les Docks, is 450 pages, has illustrations, and gives prices for over 60,000 records. Many collectors have great respect for the guide; many other collectors complain about spelling or record number errors, wrong prices, too much attention paid to rock, and so on. But the folks who complain the loudest about Docks' guide at least own a copy, and that says something.

Docks' book can help one determine relative value--what records are hot, what records are ho-hum. You will find the 5th edition priced at $24.95 in good book stores. Don't spend more on the guide than your records are worth! It is a shame when people spend $25 on a book that fails to list their many 78s of Perry Como, Art Mooney, and Margaret Whiting. These names are missing from Docks' guide because the discs have no steady value though the fact that a name is missing from Docks' guide doesn't automatically mean that artist's 78s have no value to speak of since Docks omits all kinds of "collectible" artists. I mentioned Art Mooney--actually, Mooney's Vogue picture discs are listed, which are collectible only because they are picture discs, not because of the music. I have never met a collector who was interested in listening to picture discs--they are collectible for display purposes.

Docks' guide covers jazz, blues, country, and rock 78s--obviously these are the four categories of music that Docks respects. He knows these categories well. To be more precise, he is very good with jazz of the 1920s but is far too selective about bebop and traditional jazz of the 1940s for his guide to be useful for these jazz categories. Consider the great Charlie Parker. Docks has no interest in this artist, listing a mere 7 Dial recordings out of the many Parker did, and then Docks underprices them at $5-8 (you won't find any at that price--remember, Docks says his prices are for 78s in excellent condition). He is very good with blues but there are important exceptions, such as when he claims Lucille Hegamin 78s issued by Arto are worth only $5-8 (Hegamin introduced "Jazz Me Blues" on Arto 9045 in 1921--try to find a copy for $5-8!). He is great at listing obscure string band recordings but you won't find prices for Vernon Dalhart's "hillbilly" records made for Victor or Columbia or Brunswick. Docks is great at listing high priced stuff but not ordinary 78s.

The funny thing is that Docks' prices are too low for big ticket items. If he says a record is worth $100, plan to bid $200 or more if you wish to win it from an auction. But if you visit a fellow collector in his home (yes, "his" home--I just haven't met many female collectors of 78s), maybe you can buy that particular record for $100. Again, auction prices are always the highest but there are other ways to buy 78s.

Docks lists only 2%--probably less!--of all 78s made in the U.S. from 1920 to 1955. He lists almost nothing pre-1920. His title implies that he covers records going back as far as 1900 but his title is misleading--I'm sure the publisher sells a few extra copies each year because newbies wrongly conclude that the guide will help them with their single-sided discs (it won't since, out of the many thousands of titles issued before 1920, Docks lists maybe 150). My observation that he lists only around 2% of all 78s ever made is not a criticism though I believe he should cite such a percentage figure in his introduction instead of letting newbies conclude that the book is comprehensive.

His book is actually quite thick. No book can give prices for every record ever made, and there are plenty of "junk" titles out there that deserve being ignored. I could not have done as good a job. It is true that I would like to see at least some titles in the book by such incredibly prolific artists as Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough, Frank Ferera, Frank C. Stanley, Collins and Harlan, Joseph C. Smith. Docks cares nothing about such prolific and "common" artists. He works harder at listing obscure 78s than at listing representative titles, or hits, of "common" artists. He does a superb job of listing the relatively valuable 78s that advanced collectors seek, at least in the way of "hot" jazz, blues, and hillbilly.

If Docks likes an artist, he gives every title (well, the title of one side of a disc) and record number. He clearly loves blues 78s, so everything recorded by Leroy Carr, for example, is here. Docks lists only token titles for artists whom he dislikes or is indifferent towards. Ten Marion Harris titles are picked at random out of her hundred titles, none of them the rare "electrics" worth the most money (I would be happy to pay $15 for each of Harris' late electric Brunswicks). Ragtime numbers recorded by the American Quartet, Peerless Quartet, and Ada Jones are missing despite being collectible. Bert Williams? Gene Greene? May Irwin? Blance Ring? Docks obviously has no interest in such artists. He is weak when it comes to the records of "personalities" even though the first section of his book has the word "personality" in it.

He usually undervalues the records of stage performers when he bothers to cover them at all. He obviously cares so little about such records that he never researched their true value among collectors. The fact that he lists George M. Cohan records at $5-10 indicates he knows nothing about their value. It is a case of Docks simply making up figures. The one Cohan record that pops up if you are a collector is "Life's A Funny Proposition After All," and maybe you can buy it for $10. For the other Cohan records, you would be lucky to acquire any one record for under $60 (I'm looking for these!). Meanwhile, Docks overvalues Moran and Mack 78s, or at least the Two Black Crow skits on Columbia 935-D, 1094-D and 1198-D. They are too common to be worth $5-8 each, as Docks claims. It is a rare case of Docks giving too high a value. I have never met anyone who would pay so much for the early Two Black Crow skits, and I wish I could sell my many duplicate copies for such high prices (if you visit me, you can buy them at that price--no, I don't wish to box them and drive to the post office though I can mail to you a cassette for $5).

"Pioneer" recordings can be highly collectible, but Docks lists few discs from the 1890s to 1915. If you own clean Dinwiddie Colored Quartet discs or Williams and Walker discs, you'll never learn from this price guide that your discs are worth about a hundred dollars each. What about C. H. H. Booth's "Creole Belles," recorded for Victor on November 1, 1901? Isn't the earliest disc featuring piano ragtime worth something? I would be happy to pay $50 for a copy! You won't find Booth's name in the guide. What about the Haydn Quartet singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a rare Victor disc from 1908? The quartet made hundreds of records, but you won't find the name in the guide. According to the book's title, Docks covers 1900-1965, but in fact he is too selective about pre-1920 records for the guide to be any good regarding pioneer records. For the sake of honesty he ought to drop his token handful of pre-1920 titles and change the book title so it says "1920-1965," not "1900-1965."

The book ignores classical 78s, and I am glad that he avoids them altogether rather than give just token titles. Docks is wise to stay clear of Caruso, McCormack, and other opera singers. When it comes to pricing classical 78s, it is a whole new ballgame!

A bonus of Docks' guide is a 50-page section of photographs identifying labels. For most labels, he gives accurate information about when the labels appeared. But for some "early" labels, he is off by a decade--another indication that he cares little for early discs. He dates the early Climax label from 1901 as "circa 1910"! I am surprised that he never fixes this error. Why repeat this obvious error edition after edition.

As I already indicated, his prices are often off (too low). Docks writes in his Introduction, "The prices quoted in this guide are for records in excellent condition." For about three thousand titles in his book, I wish I could find records in "excellent" condition at the low prices he cites!

You will find Docks' book useful if you use it to determine relative value. Always remember that it is a GUIDE, not a bible. Prices should not be cited as if handed down from the Lord.

One must be cautious in other ways when using the guide. It lists a dozen Billy Murray titles, a few at high prices, one at $20-30 since it is a special Edison needle-cut disc ($50-60 is more realistic). Don't conclude from this that all Murray discs are precious. The singer made over a thousand recordings, many today selling in the $2-4 range. The guide doesn't indicate that.

I deplore a few things about the Docks price guide--again, prices he cites on some records are way too low, he pretends that this is a guide for 78s as early as 1900, key artists are missing. I suspect his book evolved as one giant "want list," with Docks listing all the records he wants to buy from others, the prices indicating what he might pay for 78s in mint condition (records are rarely in mint condition, yet that is the premise for the prices in this guide). Common 78s are missing since Docks does not wish to buy any common items.

Nonetheless, this price guide is the best available. In many ways it is very impressive. I don't actually use it to consult prices. I don't need to--I know what records are worth to me! But I do refer to it at times to remind myself what companies a certain artist recorded for or to learn the catalog number of a certain record. I do not believe anyone will come along to challenge Docks by compiling another price guide so detailed.

I can only scratch the surface when discussing such a complex topic in one article. I find writing about "value" to be a little distasteful. Beware of collectors who talk only about value and dollars ("how much is this worth and did I get a good deal?"), never about how much they enjoy the music on old 78s and admire the sound of their talking machines.

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