For some collectors, the first primitive radios are the lure -- old breadboards covered with vacuum tubes, capacitors, and wires assembled in the early decades of the 20th century. Others see value in brilliant, exotically colored plastic models of almost fluorescent intensity, cast in the 1930s into miniature architectural forms.
At a time when mass communications have come to pervade every aspect of our lives, it's not hard to see the fascination of early contraptions built to transmit the human voice -- whether old Emerson or Grebe radios or the bulky Marconi wireless sets like those hauled by Admiral Richard E. Byrd on his expeditions to the South Pole. Judging by a surge in prices, auction activity, and museum openings, antique radio collecting has taken off in the past few years, with the ranks of the obsessed extending from retired broadcasters and Microsoft (MSFT) millionaires to doctors, dentists, and design-dazzled young urbanites. For a few thousand dollars, you can embark on a fascinating quest that, if you're shrewd about it, could end up paying for itself many times over.
It's easy to get started, thanks to the growing number of radio clubs and swap meets -- and eBay (EBAY). John V. Terrey, a retired Raytheon (RTW.B) executive who publishes the monthly Antique Radio Classified, figures there are 20,000 to 30,000 serious collectors. Newcomers are often established businesspeople with a little more time and money on their hands -- such as Eric P. Wenaas of Delmar, Calif. Upon retiring two years ago at age 58, after the sale of his defense services business, he began haunting swap meets -- and then eBay -- to reconnect with a childhood interest in crystal radios. Now he boasts a collection of 400 American crystal sets, nearly 400 French crystal sets, and more than 500 RCA Radiola sets from the 1920s. A new home he's building will have a gallery to display his collection.
Serious radio collecting began in the early 1960s with the formation of the Antique Wireless Assn. What gave it a big push was a massive auction by the Henry Ford Museum in 1995, when a 1913 Marconi tuner fetched $49,000. That prompted a flow of rare pieces to the market. Interest hit a crescendo in August, 2001, at an auction of the 3,000-piece collection of the late Ralph Muchow, an Elgin (Ill.) dentist. Proceeds topped $1 million, including the auctioneer's 5% premium. Among the prizes: a 1928 receiver taken by Admiral Byrd to the Antarctic, at $33,500. Although Estes Auctions now conducts radio sales monthly or more, the market remains fragmented. That makes it harder to get a read on values but ensures that diligent collectors can still sniff out bargains.
Do some prep work before taking out your checkbook. For $39 a year, you can subscribe to Antique Radio Classified (antiqueradio.com) for articles, listings, and access to a Web site with links to local wireless groups, collectors, and museums. Seek out other collectors, perhaps by catching a meeting of a local radio club. If you visit a swap meet, wake up early: Often, flashlight-wielding collectors start working the car trunks full of merchandise by 4:30 a.m. and the choice items may be gone before 7 a.m. And try to visit one of the museums that have sprung up -- notably, the American Museum of Radio and Electricity in Bellingham, Wash. (www.americanradiomuseum.org). That's where retired Microsoft executive John Jenkins has combined his early radios with the Golden Age items of a collector named Jonathan Winter, as the initial step of a $5 million plan to build it into the country's top collection. "I spent too many years trying to approach world domination" in the software business to go easy on a radio hobby, jokes Jenkins, who retired in February, 2001, at age 52.
So what's hot these days? Auctioneer Richard Estes sees three sweet spots with appeal to different audiences. Wireless sets from early in the 20th century, sold under brands such as DeForest, Marconi, and Western Electric, draw an older, often techie crowd, and command top prices routinely exceeding $30,000. Coming on strong in recent years have been amateur "ham" radios, which appeal to those who enjoy poring over circuit diagrams.
Then there are the plastic sets, which consist mainly of colorful tabletop radios manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s. They are back in vogue among younger collectors with retro design sensibilities. "You can go in for aesthetics or for the historical significance of the circuitry, which is boring and ugly," says Charlotte Mager, co-proprietor of Waves, a New York antique radio retailer.
Most valued among those are radios cast from phenolic plastics sold under trade names like Bakelite or Catalin and once manufactured by companies such as Emerson, Air King, and Fada. Catalin radios boast brilliant colors, but the material was prone to discoloration and cracking. For that reason, certain models in good condition are hard to find and may bring prices that exceed $30,000. Other Catalin sets can be obtained for only a couple of hundred dollars and make for great conversation pieces.
Although you should always enter a hobby for love rather than profits, savvy collectors have done pretty well since the 1990s. But you have to buy the right stuff. While some collectors are happy to accumulate breadboards, vacuum tubes, and controls, more mainstream collectors are looking for finished items, so concentrate on these. Many but not all collectors want radios that work. Be alert to the "collectibility" factor, whether it's historic value or the inherent aesthetic appeal of the cabinetry of tabletop Cathedral-style or Art Deco radios from the 1930s or the pedigree of a great industrial designer like Walter Teague. Jenkins says he is stunned at how a Marconi receiver from the 1910s, available for a few hundred dollars a decade ago, now may command $15,000.
Even if you don't make out like that, collecting radios has its rewards. It lets you amass some fascinating building blocks of the media-saturated world that we all take for granted.
By Gerry Khermouch