Unlocking the Value of Antique Safes: A Collector‘s Guide

For hundreds of years, safes have been used to protect valuable possessions and important documents from theft, fire, and disaster. Today, antique safes from the 19th and early 20th centuries are prized by collectors for their intricate designs, superior craftsmanship, and historical significance. Some rare antique safes have sold for tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
Whether you‘re a passionate collector or just fascinated by these impressive feats of engineering, understanding what makes an antique safe valuable is key to appreciating these magnificent machines. In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll walk you through the history of antique safes, the different types and styles, and the factors that determine their value on the collector‘s market. We‘ll also share some tips on how to identify, appraise, buy and sell antique safes.

A Brief History of Antique Safes

While safes and strongboxes have existed in various forms for millennia, what we think of as modern safes really emerged in the early 19th century. Early safes from this era were made of heavy cast iron, often decorated with ornate gold-leafed designs.
As industrialization progressed through the 1800s, safe manufacturing became more advanced. Leading brands like Chubb, Milner, Chatwood, and Mosler pioneered new innovations in locking mechanisms, relocking devices, and fireproofing. Bank vaults grew larger and more complex to deter the notorious safecracking gangs of the Wild West.
By the end of the 19th century, large safe manufacturers were producing a wide range of safes for different purposes and settings, from simple iron lockboxes to palatial parlor safes made of burnished steel. Time lock mechanisms, combination dials, and incendiary devices made these later antique safes nearly impenetrable at the time.

Types and Styles of Antique Safes

Over the decades, safe manufacturers produced a wide variety of models and styles to suit different needs and tastes. Some of the main types of antique safes include:

Floor safes – Heavy safes meant to be installed into or sit on the floor. Often used in banks, businesses, and wealthy estates.
Wall safes – Smaller safes designed to be recessed into a wall for concealment. Popular for home use.
Cannonball safes – Round, heavy safes pioneered by Mosler in the late 1800s. The spherical design resisted drilling and prying.
Parlor safes – Elaborately decorated safes made to resemble fine furniture. Often featured gold plating, velvet lining, and mirrored interiors to impress guests and clients.
Hobnail safes – Safes covered in a grid of riveted bolt heads, an early fireproofing measure and a distinctive decorative style.
Coffer safes – Safes styled after treasure chests, with domed lids and intricate lock hasps. More common in the UK.
Safe deposit boxes – Banks of small safes or lockers, each with its own key, used to secure individual property in institutions.

Each of these safe types can encompass a range of locking styles, sizes, configurations, and purposes. Antique safes were built using a variety of metals besides iron and steel, like brass, Mosler‘s patented "cannonball metal", and even silver and gold for presentation models.

What Makes an Antique Safe Valuable?

As with any antique, a number of factors come into play when determining the value and desirability of an antique safe. The main considerations are:

Age – In general, the older a safe is, the rarer and more valuable it will be. Safes from before 1850 are especially scarce.

Condition – A safe in pristine, working condition with most of its original parts and finish will be worth significantly more than a rusted, damaged, or modified example. Some collectors do buy safes as restoration projects, however.

Manufacturer – Safes made by certain highly regarded brands like Mosler, Diebold, Marvin, and Herring-Hall-Marvin tend to be more sought-after and valuable. Presentation safes by Tiffany and other luxury brands are also very desirable.

Rarity – Limited edition safes, prototypes, or custom builds for famous banks and firms are among the rarest and most valuable. Size also influences rarity, with very large and very small safes being less common.

Provenance – A well-documented history of notable owners, roles in historical events, or ties to famous heists and heisters can greatly boost an antique safe‘s value and mystique.

Locking mechanism – Unusual, complex, or historically significant locking systems like Lillie‘s 4-movement time lock can make a safe much more valuable to specialized collectors.

Decorative features – The level of ornamentation and complexity of engraving, gold cladding, enamel painting, and other artistic touches has a major impact on an antique safe‘s value.

Size – Very large, heavy safes over 1 ton and miniature presentation models a few inches tall are on the extremes of the size spectrum, adding to their uniqueness and value.

Of course, individual collector tastes and market trends also influence antique safe valuation. A circa-1900 jeweler‘s safe with time delay locks and velvet lined drawers might be one collector‘s dream find, while another collector only has eyes for Wild West-era Wells Fargo strong boxes. In general, though, a heavy cast steel safe from a top brand, with intricate scrollwork designs, functioning combination and key locks, and only minor wear will fetch top dollar.

How to Identify an Antique Safe

If you‘ve discovered an old safe and want to learn more about its origins and value, there are a few key things to look for:

Brand markings – Most quality safes will have the manufacturer‘s name and location etched, engraved or painted somewhere on the front or door, often framed by decorative scrollwork. This is the first thing to note to start researching your safe.

Patent dates and numbers – Particularly in later 19th century models, safe makers often stamped their patent dates and numbers on the door and frame components. You can look up these patent numbers to learn more about the safe‘s locking mechanism and innovations.

Serial numbers – By the late 1800s, most leading manufacturers were engraving unique serial numbers on their safes for identification. With some brands, you can trace the production year and specific model using a serial number directory.

Lock style – The types of locks present, such as a combination dial, keyed locks, time lock, or relocking device, can help you date a safe to a certain time period based on when those locking technologies were most prevalent.

Size, shape and style – The overall dimensions, form factor, and decorative style of a safe can reveal clues about its intended function and design influences, which evolved over the decades.

To positively identify an antique safe, it‘s best to consult multiple expert resources like antique safe collector‘s guides, historical catalogs and advertisements, and online forums and databases maintained by enthusiasts. Jennie Chernett‘s "The First National Bank of Dad" and Dave McOmie‘s "American Genius" are two extensive print references on American antique safes.

Getting an Appraisal for an Antique Safe

If you‘re looking to insure or sell an antique safe, getting a professional appraisal is an important step. Look for an appraiser who specializes in antique cash registers, vending machines, scales, or other similar mechanical machines. The appraiser should thoroughly inspect your safe inside and out, take detailed measurements and photographs, and research your specific make and model to produce a valuation.
Depending on a safe‘s rarity and condition, written appraisals for antique safes can cost $200-500. Additional services like opening, moving, or restoring the safe will add to the cost. Look for an appraiser certified by a professional organization like the American Society of Appraisers, the International Society of Appraisers, or the Safe & Vault Technicians Association.

Buying and Selling Antique Safes

The market for buying and selling antique safes is relatively small and specialized compared to other more common antiques. Auction houses that deal in cash registers, vending machines, and other collectible mechanical machines are often the best bet for finding antique safes for sale. Online auction sites like eBay, LiveAuctioneers, and Invaluable sometimes have antique safes listed.
For more curated selections, look for antique dealers and collector‘s galleries that specialize in banks, Victorian furniture, Americana, and Western memorabilia. Attending shows for The National Safe Collectors Association, the Antique Bankers Association, and the Antique Safe Collectors Association is a great way to network with knowledgeable dealers and collectors.
When buying an antique safe, be sure to factor in the substantial costs of moving, installing, and maintaining these hefty machines. Very large antique safes can weigh several thousand pounds, requiring forklifts and freight trucks to transport. Finding replacement parts for very old locking mechanisms can also be costly.
If you‘re looking to sell an antique safe, it‘s best to first have it opened, cleaned, and serviced by a professional to get it looking and working its best. Detailed photographs showing the safe‘s condition, dimensions, locking mechanisms, decorative features and any markings will help attract buyers. Be sure to research comparable models to accurately price your safe. Listing your safe on both auction sites and antique collector‘s forums will help you reach the widest pool of potential buyers.

Notable Antique Safe Collectors and Collections

Throughout the 20th century, a number of passionate collectors worked to preserve the legacy of the golden age of safe manufacturing. Rolland Hendrickson amassed over 75 antique safes from his Indiana barn, including a rare Macneale and Urban cannonball model. Bill Richardson‘s Texas ranch houses over 40 safes, including a 4-ton Diebold and a 1936 Marion Square Mosler.
Other major safe collections reside in museums like the Texas Bankers Hall of Fame, the Wells Fargo History Museum, and the Antique Safe Museum in Walnut, Iowa. Private collections are also maintained by the Marvin Family and the Sellers Family, descendants of the founders of Marvin Safe Co. and Mosler Safe Co. respectively.
In recent decades, a new generation of collectors have been buying up antique safes to restore them as furniture or use them to secure their own collections. A pristine Mosler safe with historical documents sold for $10,350 in 2011, and an 1874 Diebold and Bamann safe in near-mint condition sold for $17,050 in 2016.

Find Your Perfect Piece of Safe History

Antique safes represent a unique intersection of art, engineering, and history. For many collectors, the satisfaction of owning one of these intricate machines is worth more than whatever treasures they might hold. Whether you‘re drawn to their rugged Western style, opulent Victorian ornamentation, or fascinating mechanical complexity, there‘s an antique safe out there for you.
By understanding the features, brands, and styles that influence an antique safe‘s value, you‘ll be well equipped to find the perfect safe for your collection – or perhaps discover a small fortune in that old hunk of metal in your basement. As you embark on your collecting journey, remember to focus on the safes that speak to you on a personal level. The true value of an antique safe lies in its ability to transport you to another era, and ignite your imagination about all the stories it could tell.

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