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Written at 07:16:23 on Saturday, 9th December, 2017. 

Collectability of Vintage Radios

Just what does constitute a collectable receiver?

Not an easy question to answer accurately because there are so many aspects to this hobby and each collector will have a different idea of what they believe is worthwhile to preserve. Check the first picture in the right hand column. This receiver made by King Radio Company in the United States was one of the last of the first breed of domestic radios, where bank of three or four Emmco style tuning dials gave way to the single, often illuminated, dial scale. This receiver would be from around 1928 though this is a guess. By the way, I cannot find any information on the web about the company that made this set. Chances are that they may have only been in business for a short time. Companies like RCA, Atwater Kent and Philco tended to dominate the domestic scene in the US.

Receivers that come as highly collectable are receivers like the King. Coffin shaped sets generally sporting a row of four to five knobs, most of them dealing with the tuning of the set. These sets didn't have their own speakers. Instead they were connected to either a set of Bakelite headphones or an external horn speaker. Either way, the sound quality, while clear, was dreadfully 'tinny' and you'd not have spent all day listening to it. These radios rarely come cheaply. A working set from the 1920's will easily cost $1000 or more and don't be surprised to see prices as high as $2000 for them.

In the early 1930's the shape of sets started to change dramatically. Most sets in the early 1930's took on an upright look and were often known as 'cathedral', 'gothic', or 'tombstone' sets because of the shape. I actually find these sets slightly more collectable because they are less common than the 1920's sets and general cost more too! Receivers from the 1930's adopted the first cone speakers and had good quality sound, similar to what was to be the norm for the rest of the valve era. I have seen these sets with price tags ranging from $750 for an American set up to $2500 for an Australian Airzone.

Among the most collectable radios are the AWA Fisk Radiolettes with the 'Empire State' cabinets. Mostly priced at around $1250, these receivers are at home in any collection and there isn't a collector on earth that wouldn't welcome one (or more!). I'd love one of each colour, and the wooden versions too of course.

We move into the 1940's and this is probably the era where sound quality and receiver design were at a peak. Australian manufacturers had a virtually 100% market dominance here because imports by commercial operations were banned to protect the industry. Because of this the manufacturers could afford to offer quality sets at a price they dictated. Any receiver from this era is worth saving. Sets can go for between $200 and $500, depending on things like condition and colour. Sets that are blue or green will tend to fetch a higher price than the brown ones.

The late 1940's and all through the 1950's was the era of miniaturisation. The little four valve mantel sets came into vogue and thousands of them are out there waiting to be found. Mantel receivers were usually either brown or white, like their larger cousins but often the manufacturers did limited runs of beige, pink, red, orange, green and blue and on the odd occasions marbled textures to compliment the colour range. If the opportunity arises, get a coloured set before a brown one of the same kind. The return on investment is higher.

At the end of the 1950's things changed rapidly in the radio industry. Bakelite gave way to plastic for cabinets. It was a bad time, though not seen until radios began to become collector's items. The heat from valves tended to warp or craze the new thermoplastic materials used to make the cabinets. The other thing was that some overseas brands started offering receivers again, despite sky-high import tariffs and to compete, the local manufacturers started building their sets to a price instead of a standard. The next big change during the 1960's was transistorisation. This was the saviour of those delicate plastic cabinets but the charisma and appeal of receivers had gone. The golden age of radio was over and this era of receivers, while still certainly collectable to some, especially those who choose to collect transistorised sets, is not as appealing to me as earlier sets.

There is a lot of interest in the first transistor radios though and a good one will cost a fortune. Other people are now branching off into collecting television receivers and one of the first 21 inch sets with 10 channels is going to cost you more than a set with 13 channels (CH 0-11). Now everyone outside Australia will wonder what the heck I am talking about here. To satisfy your curiosity, Australia had it's own VHF Television channel allocations shortly after television was introduced and the numbering sequence started at 0 then went onto 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5A, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and finished at 11. Channels 3, 4 and 5 were situated inside the FM radio band that all countries adopted so any TV channels using these channels had to relocate elsewhere, usually to the UHF band (CH 21-69) once FM radio began here.

From what I have seen over the years, many people deem a collectable receiver to be one that is unique in some way and quite often age has little bearing on what the dollar value of a set is. I have seen people pay more than $600 for 1950's mantel radios. This is obviously a rare occurrence, but if the set is unusual, perhaps being a bright colour like red, green, yellow, orange or blue and rarer still, with some sort of mottling or marbling effect the set will always command big dollars. Another attraction is if the set is a 32 volt or 6 volt set that uses a vibrator to generate the high tension instead of relying on mains power. Such sets were sold to farmers or people living in outer-urban areas where mains power was not always available. There are still pastoral stations in Australia that are not connected to electricity supplies. They either generate their own power or use extra-low voltages like 32 volts.

To the right there is a green Astor Mickey. Because of the colour and that the Bakelite is mottled with white patches, this effect usually boosts the value of this model quite considerably, though I was lucky to be given the set for nothing. As it was painted with gloss enamel at the time, the previous owner may not have known the beauty that lied under the skin. Just above the green Astor is a white AWA Radiolette. I saw a 6 volt version of this set, in the normal brown colour, sell for over $400 once, yet I picked up the three mains-powered versions of this set I own at less than half that price. None of these sets are comparatively rare. They just have special things about them that make people want to pay a little more for them.

All in all, collectability, once again, comes down to what the individual shows an interest in. There is no set guide on a universal value for all equipment. Nor is there a gospel dictating a firm price for a given receiver. The only thing that I believe is certain is that there is still plenty of radios out there to collect. Some of the pioneer collectors are starting to sell off parts of their collections now, due either to old age, an inability to properly care for the receivers or because their wives have had enough of them. There'd also be plenty of receivers still yet to be found after 40 years of transistorisation.