Copyright © 1996, Neal McEwen
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The value of an old telegraph instrument, such as a key, depends on many things. The major factors are age, condition, rarity, place in history and desirability by telegraph collectors.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, there are no official price guides for old keys. Part of this is due to there being no dealers that make their living buying and selling antique telegraph instruments. There is no commercial market and a commercial market is what is needed to establish prices. There are of course antique dealers that have a few keys once in a while, but that hardly constitutes a thriving market. (typically antique dealers have little knowledge of keys and hence value.)
One veteran collector observes that there is no national organization of telegraph key collectors. There are no national or regional meets for key collectors. Telegraph key collecting is not a mainstream hobby. Insulator collectors, for example have national meets, a newsletter, and publish a reference book for all known insulator types.
If you ask ten telegraph collectors the value of an old key, you will most likely get ten answers. The value of a key to a collector is a subjective thing. If the collector you ask already has a key like the one offered, he may not be inclined to offer much for it. If that collector has an area of interest that is not in line with the key offered, he likewise will offer much less than a collector who has that line of interest and. Once man's treasure is another man's trash.
In the antique radio and wireless press, you often see reports of what was sold in auctions. More often than not, there have been antique telegraph instruments across the auction block. Should these published prices be used as a guide? Probably not. Often, bidding frenzy inflates the price. At a wireless auction in the Northeast recently a small field telegraph set of W.W.I vintage was offered in the flea market for a very reasonable price. It did not sell. It was offered in the auction. It went for many, many times the flea market price. This should be considered a fluke. There are also instances where a key was way under bid.
The value of an old key can be regional. Older keys manufactured on the East coast are less common on the West coast. Some keys made in the mid-West seem to be scarce elsewhere.
The condition of a key is a primary factor in its desirability and therefore its worth. A key can loose 25% to 75% of its value if it is missing one or more parts. The only way to find the missing parts is to find an identical key. Depending on the scarcity of the key, you may never find another one.
The value of an old key is whatever the seller is willing to take for the key and whatever the buyer is willing to pay for the key. The bottom line: The value of an old key is whatever makes the buyer and the seller happy.
The reason you are reading this is because you want to know what to offer for a key that is for sale. Or you have an old key that you would like to sell. Or perhaps you have an old key and you are curious about it's value. You didn't find a price guide here, so what should you do? Try to consult an experienced collector in your area. Ask for guidance. Most collectors will quote you a range, based on the above discussed factors. But remember, this is just one man's opinion.
It is advisable to educate yourself on keys. Learn what types of keys where produced when. Learn what types of keys are popular to collect. A little bit of knowledge gives you a boost on setting your on rules for pricing. Guidelines for prices are a very personal thing. Each collector establishes a certain threshold for various types of keys. Each collector sets his own rules with which he plays by.
Buy an old key because you enjoy it. If the price of a key makes you
unhappy, then don't buy it. The buyer and the seller should both be happy.
If you buy keys on speculation or buy keys as an investment, you might
not get your money back. The value of most technology collectibles goes
through a bell shaped curved. When the people who used bugs and keys when
they were younger pass retirement age, the value of keys will most likely
decline. Younger people will simply not have a fondness for old keys. They
never used them, so their fondness will not be as keen as middle agers