Rinker's Opinion: What Is Happening in the World of Record Phonograph Collecting?

The bad news is that you cannot play CDs on old record players. The good news is that there are thousands of collectors who prefer 16 2/3, 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm recordings over CDs. As a result, there remains a healthy demand for the older phonographs.

Like almost all collecting categories, phonograph collecting breaks down into numerous subcategories. The collecting emphasis within these subcategories has shifted in the past two decades.

The number of collectors for cylinder record players has diminished. Death of old time collectors is the primary reason. Although a few young collectors are entering the marketplace, their number is insufficient to maintain market strength. As a result, prices for low- and middle market machines are decreasing. eBay is flooded with these machines. Many offering go unsold, the result of too high “Buy It Now” pricing or unreasonable reserves.

Further, the Country Look continues to move away from the Country Store and 19th century rural farmstead motifs, both of which featured an old cylinder phonograph in the background.

Prices for high-end machines, especially those with elaborately painted morning glory horns, are stable. While not falling, they are not increasing. Young collectors are more likely to see these machines in a museum than in a private collection.

A common upright 78 rpm phonograph reached its peak value in the mid-1990s. Ordinary machines were selling in the $450 to $550 range. Japanese collectors were responsible for the value bump. American dealers were air freighting machines to Japan as fast as they could acquire them. All things eventually end in the antiques and collectibles game. A decline in the Japanese economy coupled with the 2008-2009 Great Recession and its unfavorable impact on the dollar to yen rate brought the global trade to a halt. The average price for old upright 78 rpm phonographs is back to $275 to $325.

Phil Vourtsis’s The Fabulous Victrola “45” book triggered a temporary surge in the market for 45 rpm phonographs. The result is a small, unorganized group of collectors who buy and restore the machines. Most unrestored machines sell for under $25. Dealers sell restored machines in the low hundreds. However, most purchases are nostalgia rather than collecting driven.

The difficulty with the above mentioned phonographs is that most play records of only one speed. In the 1950s, the multi-speed machine capable of playing 33 1/3 rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm arrived on the scene. Interest is growing in the better portable tabletop models. While the same holds true for the higher end home entertainment console units, secondary market prices are modest.

In the late 1990s, collectors who value the sound of vinyl records led the renaissance for the 1950s and 1960s high fidelity and stereo component units. Such a unit might feature a Girard turntable (capable of playing multiple speed records), a Marantz tuner, and Bose speakers. The better grade units sell well on eBay and other Internet sites.

The larger question is how much longer will many of these subcategory phonograph markets be able to sustain themselves? If viewed solely from an American collecting perspective, the answer is perhaps a few more decades. However, Americans are not the primary phonograph collectors. This honor belongs to the Europeans. European collectors have no reservations about acquiring American machines. As a result, many American phonographs are going over the rim and finding a new home in Europe.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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