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Antique Telephones Value (Most Valuable Sold for $60,000) – History Tools

Blast from the Past: Discovering the World of Antique Telephones and Their Surprising Values

When Alexander Graham Bell spoke the famous words "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you" into the world‘s first practical telephone in 1876, he unknowingly gave birth to an entire industry and inspired generations of technological progress. Today, nearly 150 years later, as our smartphones place the power of the internet into our pockets, many have developed a renewed appreciation for the ingenuity and craftsmanship of those early communication devices. Welcome to the fascinating world of antique telephones.

Far more than just a novelty, collectible antique phones are increasingly prized for their beautiful designs, historic significance, and even their resurgent functionality. High-end models in pristine condition can fetch five-figure prices at auction. "There‘s a growing recognition that these obsolete phones are works of art," says antique telephone expert Paul Myerson. "They were built to last, with quality you just don‘t see anymore."

So how much is that old phone in your attic really worth? As with any antique, the value of a vintage telephone depends on a variety of factors. Let‘s explore the key characteristics that collectors look at.

The first consideration is age. Antique phones are generally defined as at least 100 years old, while vintage phones are more than 20 years old but less than a century. The older a phone is, the rarer and potentially more valuable it becomes.

The earliest telephones from the late 19th century featured a "candlestick" design with a vertical cylindrical stand, a round base, and an earpiece placed on a hook on top of the stand. These models from the 1890s to early 1900s, such as the Western Electric model 20AL, are some of the most sought-after antique phones. A pristine 1905 Stromberg Carlson candlestick recently sold for over $14,000.

Cradle phones, where the earpiece rested on a horizontal electric switch hook, began appearing by 1910 and became the dominant style by the 1930s. Early desk phones from this period, such as Western Electric‘s model 202 or Automatic Electric‘s Monophone, are also highly prized by collectors today.

Condition & Functionality
After age, condition is the biggest determinant of value. Is the phone free of cracks, chips, breaks, or repairs? How worn is the finish? Are all the original parts present? Does the dial turn smoothly and the bakelite pieces have a deep color and shine? And ideally, does the phone still work?

"Collectors value antique phones that can still make and receive calls, even if just for the novelty," says Myerson. But he cautions that one should never attempt to use an old phone without having it examined and retrofitted by a professional first, as you could damage the device or even risk electrocution.

Original finish and patina are very important to retain value. Collectors will pay a premium for phones with an attractive, aged bronze, brass, steel, nickel or chrome surface. Having the original cords in good shape is also a big plus.

Manufacturer & Materials
The maker of the telephone plays a big role in its value and desirability. In the United States, WeCo (Western Electric Company), which made phones for AT&T, was the big player. Their well-built models command some of the highest prices today, along with other top manufacturers like Automatic Electric, Stromberg Carlson, Kellogg, and North Electric.

The material and color of the subset (the phone‘s housing) also make a difference in collectability. The earliest phones featured an all-metal subset. Later, Bakelite, an early rigid plastic, allowed for a greater variety of styles and colors. Particularly rare and desirable are the oldest translucent Bakelite phones from the 1920s in shades like jade green, oxblood red, and onyx.

Finally, like many antiques, vintage telephones with a notable provenance – a documented history of prominent ownership – will garner the highest prices. For example, a rather ordinary-looking 1960s desktop phone once owned by Andy Warhol sold at auction in 2018 for $18,750 because of its connection to the famous pop artist.

Even more impressive, a Western Electric model 5302 "Presidential Hotline" telephone used by President John F. Kennedy to communicate with the White House and military services sold for a staggering $60,000 in 2021. Owning a phone that a historical figure once held to their ear holds a powerful appeal for some collectors.

So now that you know what to look for, what are some actual values for typical antique and vintage phones on the market? Here is a sampling of prices from recent sales:

  • Late 1800s walnut and oak wall phones: $2,000-$3,500
  • Early 1900s Western Electric candlestick: $200-$2,000
  • 1910s Western Electric model 20AL stick phone: $500-$1,500
  • 1920s Western Electric model 51AL stick phone: $300-$800
  • 1920s Automatic Electric Monophone desk set: $200-$500
  • 1930s Western Electric model 202 desk set: $100-400
  • 1930s neon touch-tone Northern Electric desk set: $400-$600
  • 1940s chrome Art Deco desk phone: $200-$1,000
  • 1950s colorful Western Electric model 500: $50-$200
  • 1960s Princess model phone: $25-$100

Keep in mind that the best specimens in perfect working order and with all original parts and finishes intact will command prices at the top of these ranges. But you don‘t need to spend thousands to start an interesting and rewarding antique telephone collection. Plenty of good-quality vintage models from the 1940s-1970s can be found for under $300.

For those looking to buy or sell, there are a number of outlets to explore. Local antique shops and flea markets sometimes yield a surprising find. Online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy have a wide selection of antique and vintage phones, although judging condition accurately can be tricky.

Auction houses that specialize in technological and scientific devices, such as Bruneau & Co. or Skinner, are a good bet for rarer, high-end models. There are also collector clubs, online forums, and swapshows specifically for antique telephone enthusiasts to network and trade. The Antique Telephone Collectors Association (ATCA) is one of the best resources to learn more.

When selling an old phone, some of the same outlets apply. Consult an expert at an auction house or a reputable antique dealer to help gauge value. Collector clubs and social media groups can also help connect you with interested buyers.

But before you put grandma‘s old phone on the market, make sure to give it a good, gentle cleaning. Unplug the phone and carefully dust it with a soft microfiber cloth. You can use a slightly damp cloth with a mild soap to remove any built-up dirt or grime. Avoid harsh cleaners or polishes that could damage the finish. Let it dry fully before replacing the cords.

Proper storage is key to maintaining an old phone‘s condition and value. Ideally, keep them in a closed cabinet or sealed box away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight to prevent deterioration. Even if it‘s not currently functioning, it‘s best to keep the phone assembled and all the parts together.

The market for collectible antique and vintage telephones has steadily grown over the past few decades as more people come to appreciate their historic charm and craftsmanship. Whether displayed on a desk or mounted on the wall as a piece of industrial sculpture, these old phones can evoke an instant sense of nostalgia and age in a way few other objects can.

"People love antique phones both for the way they look and how they feel to hold and use. The solid heft of the handsets, the shiny metal and colorful Bakelite, the satisfying rotary dial – it all combines into a truly iconic object," says collector Steve Erenberg. "These were revolutionary devices in their day, the first pieces of technology to connect homes and families across the country, so I think they also retain a powerful emotional resonance."

As we grow increasingly dependent on fragile and disposable tech gadgets, many are finding a newfound respect for the design, durability, and even foresight represented by those old phones. "When you look closely at these phones, you realize in many ways they were so far ahead of their time," says Myerson. "They were built to last for decades, to be repaired rather than replaced, with a thoughtful user experience in mind. There are definitely lessons we can still learn from them today."

So the next time you pass by that dusty old phone at a garage sale or flea market, take a closer look. It just might be a diamond in the rough, a small piece of history waiting to be restored and celebrated. With a little luck and some know-how, you could be the one to connect it with a new generation of admirers.