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What Dollar Value Do You Place on Old Records?

From an historical and musical perspective it is not too difficult to determine the value of an old cylinder or disc sound recording. But a monetary value? That's another matter altogether.

Every collector appreciates — and has a story to tell — about a real "gem" bought for only a couple of dollars. But most will balk at paying, for example, auction list prices for a truly rare record.

The Editor of Antique Phonograph News invites readers of the CAPS newsletter to comment on this issue. Write in and share your point of view or opinion. To get this discussion started there follows extracts from the editorials in The Record News penned by the distinguished British collectors John Freestone and P.G. Hurst." They are as relevant today as the day they were first published — 45 years ago! (The currency referred to is in British sterling.

From Freestone:

The question of prices of old records is once again to the fore, and perhaps some plain speaking on the matter may not be out of place.

For some reason the hobby of record collecting has been the cause of much acrid correspondence and some collectors have complained bitterly of the gradual but steady rise in the prices of the most desirable specimens. I would ask these collectors to search their own consciences and ask themselves if they had bought, say, Albani’s Angels for £5 in 1936 ( I sold a copy for that price about 15 years ago), would they be prepared to sell it for anything like the same price to-day? The answer in most cases would be "No, of course not, I'm not a charitable institution," or something to that effect. If, then, they are prepared to make a handsome profit at some other collector's expense, why all this display of indignation?

When a small piece of roughly cut and indifferently printed paper can change hands at several thousand pounds,it is absurd to quibble over the price paid for rare records. The analogy between stamps and discs is not, of course, perfect. In record collecting, the material recorded must be of some value musically or historically, or both.

A few years ago I paid the sum of £20 for a mint copy of De Negri singing the Morte d'Otello on a Light Blue labelled Zonophone record of 1902. I have reason to believe that this is the only surviving copy of this super rarity, and of course De Negri was a prominent figure in Italian operatic circles. I do not consider that the price I paid was in the least excessive and I should have to be tempted by a much larger sum before I would think of parting [with it].

After all, price is eventually a question of supply and demand, the smaller the supply and the greater the demand, then the higher the price. It is no good adopting an ostrich-like attitude to these matters, and I quite believe that, in the course of time, the super rarities will change hands at sums to be counted in hundreds or even thousands of pounds, and no amount of ridicule or suggestion of deliberately trying to boost values will enter into it. It is an inevitable process and no individual can either halt or accelerate its progress to any marked extent.

Of course, such things as whether masters still exist will enter largely into the question. Direct pressings, whether original or not,are naturally of some value, and I personally feel that it is only where no more pressings can be made, that high prices will eventually prevail. Dubbings obviously need not be considered, any more than are photographs of old and rare stamps.

I hope that sooner or later the prices of the more ordinary collectors pieces, such as the 1904 Melba, the 1907 Battistini’s and the Victor Caruso’s may be stabilised, by the issue of a dealer’s catalogue, similar to the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue, which will show approximate prices of records if and when available. This would, of course, necessitate an immense amount of labour, and would probably never be adequately rewarded, but it would settle once and for all this non- sense about boosting prices.

If true collectors will band together, there need be no fear of the individual who tries to encroach on our ground for the mere hope of financial gain, and any attempts at such exploitation should be treated with the scorn they deserve.

What I have written I feel in all sincerity, and if I have helped in any way to clear the air, I shall be fully satisfied.

From Hurst:

One of the many aspects of the value of really expensive rarities is that of the cracked record; and there are differing ways oflooking at it. Another is the general appearance of an otherwise undamaged copy. The great question is, whether an imperfect copy is better than no copy at all, and that is one which each collector will wish to be free to decide for himself. On the other hand, those with important and potentially valuable collections of those records which may be expected to fetch money might do worse than apply themselves not so much to what they themselves think about it from the collecting aspect, as to the point of view of a possible buyer, who will look carefully at anything for which he is expected to pay largely.

But before attempting to assess what reduction if any should be put against any specific damage, we shall be expected to know what is the fair valuation of a perfect copy; and now the gate is open to admit the great question-mark. In my writing of a more permanent charter I have discussed an abstract view of values and prices,feeling it unwise to mention figures; but figures are now being bandied about with such freedom and so much confidence that it would almost appear that we do at last know what records are worth. Although I am assured that collecting historical records continues to expand, values seem none the less to remain more or less constant, with a steady but modest rising tendency. How these values have been arrived at I have never discovered, but generally speaking, though with divergences which I will mention later, a fairly reason- able modus vivendi seems to have been established among dealers. Often enough one hears some frustrated and exasperated collector complain heatedly of the "absurd" and "ridiculous" prices being asked for records, which in plain English means that he is not disposed to pay them. Well, that is a matter for himself: but let him consider what it is that he is letting go past him. Say it is a "Warsaw Battistini", priced at ten guineas (note that collectors and dealers are canny enough to re-discover that obsolete but insidious coin), and not being a man of wealth and lacking a speculative mentality, he denounces the figure in the terms quoted. But is it so absurd? Can he go elsewhere and do better? The reply is generally no. Is the record an item of merit? Reply, emphatically yes. How does the figure compare with that of relatively rare and meritorious objects in other collecting spheres? There is only one answer,it is quite absurdly and ridiculously low. And the reason? Because we are still unrecognised by the outside world. Stradivari, if I remember rightly, sold his violins for ten pounds; and when an enterprising purveyor scoured Europe for them at a later date and sold them to rich amateurs for three figures, it was regarded as insanity. With ourselves, with prices hardly ruffling the surface,it seems unlikely in the highest degree that values can contract or that money invested in properly selected records can be lost: and when I am asked, as I often am, whether I do not agree that three, four,six, or ten pounds (I beg your pardon, I mean guineas) and often fifteen or eighteen, is an outrage, my usual reply is to the effect that if another nought were added all round we should be beginning to see something like the true value. This is no vulgar "boost" on my part — as a collector I naturally hope to buy cheaply; but I should be feigning a blindness which does not afflict me if I pretended that objects so unique, having historical, artistic and rarity interest, were not bound in due time to attract a very wide attention, perhaps long after we pioneers are dead and gone. I have not spent a great deal of money on my own collection, having been blessed with a good deal of luck; but when I paid three-pounds-three for a fine copy of the 1902 record by Scotti of Rotoli’s Serenata, and from a dealer who very well knew how to look after himself, I reckoned I was about twenty-seven guineas to the good. I do not ask anybody to agree with me, but if this article should happen to turn up in years to come, somebody may nod his head reflectively. (Editor's emphasis.) We collectors as a general rule have perforce to abstain from any incipient desire to specialise in Strads, Corots, or white rhinoseri, being without the resources to indulge it: but because by some accident of timing we are able to collect certain records which eventually will join these evidently desirable objects somewhere above the clouds, we need not cavil at being asked to pay the modest sums at which a limited supply and demand values them.

But to return to imperfect specimens: how much do we take off? Of course there are cracks of different kinds. A real crack that clicks half-way or more through the record should, I think, indicate the dustbin, whereas a "rim crack" as generally understood, need not make a lot of difference — both buyer and seller probably feeling that the buyer will not suffer by acceptance. Then there are "hair" cracks, and "inaudible" cracks, and when they occur on much desired records the temptation is strong. Sometimes such blemishes are really very slight, and when the record happens to be one of the great prizes the fault is likely to be overlooked at a suitable price, and I think rightly so. I believe that the world’s most valuable stamp is a solitary and very poor specimen, and without doubt its value would fall head- long in the event of a fine copy turning up at any time — a truly terrible risk. But in the case of records of lesser value — say a mere five guineas' worth — I do think the temptation should be resisted, because as time goes on it is extremely likely that only undamaged specimens will count. This is an established practice and custom elsewhere so why not here? Most collectors with specimens from the G&T period will have noticed that peculiar kind of crack which has not broken through the surface, and is indicated rather than present. These were sometimes called "internal cracks" and often regarded as being potentially real ones. But for my part I have never known one of these to develop; but all the same, if I do happen to get another copy without it do not hesitate to replace the first, although I should never feel worried about owning an example of this harmless oddity. I have seen records which evidently have been caught up in the binding of an ill-designed album suffering from something that is a cross between a crack and a bend, often audible and certainly not desirable. As a good rule I prefer a smaller collection of perfect specimens to a larger one containing many great rarities cracked badly and rubbed to the point of illegibility. Such cause only sighs and regrets.


Editor's note: one pound sterling, at the very approximate rate of exchange in 1950 was equal to $2.75; a guinea was equal to one pound, one shilling.

  1. J. Freestone. The Record News 1949-1950, Vol. 1, pages 219-221.
  2. PG. Hurst The Record News 1949-1950, Vol. 1, pages 59-62.