Antique Telephones: Evaluating, Collecting and the Most Valuable Models

For over 140 years, the telephone has been an essential communication device that has shaped and transformed the modern world. But for collectors, antique telephones represent far more than just a piece of technology – they are a tangible connection to the past, a work of art, and in some cases, a valuable investment.

Whether displayed on a shelf or actually used to make calls, antique and vintage telephones have an undeniable charm and historic appeal. The satisfying click of a rotary dial, the solid feel of Bakelite, and the elegant designs of the early 20th century all contribute to the allure of old phones.

Of course, not all antique telephones are created equal in terms of value or collectibility. In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll explore the key factors that determine an old phone‘s worth, profile some of the most desirable models and manufacturers, and provide expert tips for evaluating, buying and maintaining antique telephones.

What Makes an Antique Telephone Valuable?

As with any antique or collectible item, the value of a vintage telephone depends on several important variables:

Age – In general, the older a phone is, the more valuable it will be to collectors. Telephones from the late 19th century and early 20th century are considered the most desirable, especially those pre-dating 1920. Phones from the 1930s-1950s are also very popular with collectors.

Rarity – Mass-produced phones that sold in the millions will always be less valuable than models made in limited quantities. Phones only issued to a certain region, company, or organization will command higher prices than standard consumer models. Prototype and first production run phones are highly sought after.

Condition – An antique phone in pristine working and cosmetic condition will be worth far more than an identical model that is damaged, missing parts, or has been altered. All the original components should be intact and the phone should have minimal scratches, chips, cracks or signs of repairs. Rarer phones in poor condition may still have value, however.

Manufacturer – As the dominant phone company for much of the 20th century, Western Electric made the majority of collectible antique phones in the US. However, models made by companies like Automatic Electric, Stromberg-Carlson, Kellogg and North Electric are rarer and often more valuable. European brands like Ericsson and Siemens are also highly prized by collectors.

Historical Significance – Telephones owned or used by prominent historical figures, celebrities, or institutions can be very valuable, even if the phone itself is not particularly rare or unique. Phones used as props in famous films and TV shows also fall into this category.

Special Features – An unusual design, color or added functionality can make certain vintage phones more desirable and valuable. Early speakerphones, video phones, and automatic dialers all command a premium, as do phones with novelty casings and designer finishes.

Evaluating the Condition of an Antique Telephone

Whether you‘re considering buying an antique phone or trying to determine the value of one you already own, thoroughly evaluating its condition is essential. Here are the key components to examine:

Handset – The handset should be free of cracks, chips or fading. The original cord should be intact and the receiver/microphone elements in good working order. There should be no static, buzzing, or cuts in and out when tested.

Cradle – Look for cracks, dents or warping on the switchhook cradle where the handset rests. All the contact points should be clean and operational.

Housing – Inspect the phone body and attached components for any signs of damage. Chips, cracks, deep scratches and missing chunks all lower the value. Some patina and wear is acceptable for older phones.

Dial – On a rotary phone, the dial should turn smoothly and spring back properly. The numbers/letters should have minimal wear. The dial on a touchtone phone should have legible buttons that don‘t stick when pressed.

Ringer – A phone‘s ringer or bell should produce a clear, audible sound when activated. The volume and pitch should be adjustable on later models. Earlier phones may not have a functioning ringer if the capacitor has failed.

Wiring – Any cloth insulation on the interior wires should be intact, not crumbling or split. The wiring should be correctly routed and not cut, spliced or disconnected. Frayed cloth cords lower the value.

Finish – The plating on brass and steel components should be shiny and largely unworn. Painted surfaces should be smooth and free of chips, cracks or crazing. Some discoloration is normal on older phones.

If a phone looks too new and perfect given its age, it may be a modern reproduction. Beware of shiny new cords, plastic that is too glossy, and modern company logos or markings in places they shouldn‘t be. All the components should match the production period of that particular phone model.

Types and Styles of Collectible Antique Telephones

Over the first century of telephone usage, many distinct styles of phones were developed. Here are some of the most common and collectible types:

Candlestick – With a vertical cylindrical shaft, round base, and electro-mechanical components, these early desk phones resembled a candlestick. Most were produced between 1890-1930 and originally had a separate transmitter and receiver. Fully-integrated versions became more common after 1910.

Cradle – Sometimes called "upright" desk phones, these models have a handset that rests on a horizontal cradle integrated into the phone body. Most feature a rotary or touch-tone dial in the base. Western Electric‘s model 202 is one of the most iconic cradle phones.

Wall-Mounted – Designed to attach to a wall to save desk space, these wood or metal phones have a vertical handset cradle, usually with a separatemagneto, battery box or ringer housing. Compact metal "space-saver" models became popular in the 1930s and beyond.

Payphones – Public phones that accepted coins for individual calls have existed since the early 1900s. Early three-slot payphones made of oak or walnut are very collectible, while some later single-slot and coinless models are also sought after.

Novelty Phones – To promote new colors and styling in the 1950s-1970s, companies made phones in all kinds of creative designs like princess phones, stowaway phones, Ericofons, and more. Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, and other pop culture characters were also licensed.

Early Mobile Phones – Portable phones intended for use in cars or carried in a bag first appeared in the 1940s. Motorola‘s massive 1940s walkie-talkie phones, the Altair and MTA models from the 1970s, and the 1980s brick phones are all historically significant.

Buying Antique and Vintage Telephones

When shopping for collectible phones, always buy from reputable sellers and examine any prospective purchase in person if possible. Antique malls, collector shows, and estate sales can be great places to find authentic vintage phones.

Prices can vary widely based on condition and rarer models may not be frequently available. Expect to pay anywhere from $40 for a common rotary desk phone to several hundred dollars for a pristine early candlestick.

If buying online, rely on clear, detailed photos and don‘t hesitate to ask the seller for more images and information about the phone‘s originality and functionality. Read all descriptions carefully and look up any model numbers or markings provided.

Always pay with a method that allows you to dispute the transaction if the phone is misrepresented. Be wary of deals that seem too good to be true, as non-working reproductions are common. Beware of seller terms like "untested" or "as-is."

Examples of Antique Telephones Currently For Sale

To give you a sense of the kinds of antique and vintage phones on the market and what they typically sell for, here are a few examples of models currently listed online:

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  • Western Electric Model 202 Rotary Desk Phone in Black, c. 1930s – Asking Price: $110
  • North Electric Oak Wall Phone with Magneto, c. 1905 – Asking Price: $370
  • Automatic Electric Type 40 Monophone in Red, c. 1940 – Asking Price: $60
  • Gray Paystation Three-Slot Coin Telephone, c. 1910 – Asking Price: $450
  • Kellogg Redbar Candlestick Desk Telephone, c. 1905 – Asking Price: $210

As you can see, prices vary quite a bit depending on the phone‘s style, age, manufacturer and condition. Candlestick and early wall phones tend to command higher prices than later rotary and touch-tone models from the post-war era. Rare colors like red can increase a phone‘s value by 50% or more versus basic black.

Rare and Historically Significant Telephones Sold at Auction

The most valuable antique phones have some unique historical status and have been preserved in excellent condition. Here are some examples of notable phones sold in recent years:

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  • Abraham Lincoln‘s Personal Desk Phone – A very early model made by Charles Williams, Jr., this phone sat on Lincoln‘s desk in the telegraph room of the War Department. It sold at auction in 2017 for $37,500.
  • Luftwaffe Field Marshal Hermann Göring‘s Phone – A standard 1930s Siemens phone with a engraved nameplate, this phone sold in 2019 for $43,750, likely due to its direct connection to the infamous Nazi leader.
  • Brigitte Bardot‘s "Ericofon" Phone – A unique one-piece plastic phone custom made for the French actress‘s St. Tropez home in the 1960s, this phone sold for $22,500 in 2019.
  • Steve McQueen‘s Phone from "Bullitt" – The red Western Electric Model 2500 desk phone the actor used in the classic 1968 thriller fetched $11,250 at auction in 2018.
  • Titanic‘s Marconi Room Phone – The 1912 marine telephone from the famous ship‘s communication center sold in 2018 for $21,250, despite its deteriorated condition after being submerged.

As these high-profile examples illustrate, an antique phone‘s value is often tied directly to who owned or used it. Provenance is key, ideally with supporting documentation, photos or expert authentication. Phones that can be screen-matched to a famous film, for instance, are extremely desirable.

Caring For and Maintaining Antique Telephones

To keep an antique phone in optimal condition and working order, some regular care and maintenance is required. Always unplug and disconnect a phone before cleaning it.

Use a soft, dry cloth to gently remove any dust or debris from the housing. A cloth slightly dampened with water can be used on tougher grime, but avoid any harsh chemical cleaners or polishes. Let the phone dry fully before plugging it back in.

Bakelite can be buffed with mineral oil to restore shine, while lacquered brass should only be wiped with a microfiber cloth to avoid damage. Painted metal can be carefully touched up if needed.

All the mechanical parts of a phone, like the rotary dial and switchhook, should be lubricated periodically with clock oil or a silicone spray. Avoid using WD-40 as it can degrade rubber and plastic components over time.

If you plan to actually use a phone, consider having it professionally serviced and rewired to work with modern phone systems. Vintage phone repair shops can fabricate replacement cords, refinish housings, and address any electrical issues.

Antique telephones should be displayed and stored in a temperature-stable environment away from direct sunlight and moisture to prevent damage. Phones with cloth cords or wiring are especially vulnerable to dry rot and mildew growth.

The Bottom Line on Antique Telephone Values

Whether you just inherited grandma‘s old rotary phone or you‘re a serious collector hunting for a rare Stromberg-Carlson candlestick, knowing how to assess an antique telephone‘s value is key. By considering a phone‘s age, manufacturer, condition, and rarity, you‘ll be able to make an informed decision when buying or selling.

Remember that the most valuable antique phones tend to be the earliest models in the best cosmetic and operating condition. Phones with a special provenance or historical status can be worth a significant premium as well.

If you‘re new to collecting antique telephones, focus on learning the major styles, brands and production eras before making any major purchases. Consult price guides, join collector clubs, and familiarize yourself with the specific models most prone to being reproduced.

Whether displayed as a sculpturalwork of art or actually used to make calls, antique phones offer a unique blend of form and function that will never go out of style. With some smart shopping and ongoing care, you can build a collection that will hold its value and be enjoyed for generations to come.

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