The Telegraph Office
Prices of Old Telegraph Keys: A Look From Several Perspectives
by Neal McEwen, K5RW
Copyright © 1998, Neal McEwen
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Rising Prices: why?
The hobby of key collecting is gaining in popularity. More collectors
competing for keys. Competition fosters rising prices. Consider
that rising prices are not unique to key collecting. It is true of any
many collectibles. Look at comic books, antique firearms, baseball
and vintage amateur radio gear. When a hobby grows, so do the prices.
at glass insulator collecting. 30 years ago, no one gave a hoot about
Today some of them command a $1K or more. Insulator. Prices of 40's and
50's vintage radios are on the rise. The economy is good. There are
people with a healthy chunk of disposable income deciding to collect
Supply and Demand: more collectors, same number of keys
If high priced keys are all you are seeing, then you have been looking
only on the surface. There are many keys out there for bargain basement
prices. The challenge is to find the them. I call these the "little
One of the fundamental laws of economics is that prices are governed
by supply and demand. The supply of old keys is finite. It is not going
to change. Therefore, key prices will be high where there
a high demand. Key prices will be low where there is a low demand. The
"little deals" are where the demand is low.
Premium Prices: Where?
The demand is high for keys in well traveled places. If you walk the
paths that other collectors walk, you can expect to see high prices. A
large ham fest will see many collectors looking for keys The worst
to go is a national ham fest, unless you have a pocket full of money.
in high circulation rags get many responses. Internet "key for sale"
get many responses. Well traveled paths = "big deals" = high prices.
Reasonable Prices: Where?
The demand is low for keys in less traveled places. If you walk the
that other collectors don't walk, you can expect to see very reasonable
prices. There are not many collectors at small ham fests and local swap
meets. Small town antique shops don't get many key collectors passing
One of the best means for adding keys to your collection is
from friends. Ask around at the local ham club. Word of mouth is one of
the best avenues for flushing out keys. Very, very good prices for keys
can be found at estate sales. The odds are long, but the reward is high
when you find something. The same goes for antique auctions. Check the
Another good means is to stay in touch with experienced collectors
are well connected. Experienced collectors often pass information and
to beginning and intermediate collectors.
The absolute best way to add a new item to your collection is
trades. No money changes hands at all. Often you can trade for that
that you cannot rationalize the bucks for. A few good "traders" put you
in better position to latch on to a new key than a pocket full of cash.
You don't hear about them, but there are sellers out there that are
not holding out for top dollar. They just want an old key to go to an
The challenge is to work on and find deals that other collectors do
not know about. Less traveled paths = "little deals" = lower prices. If
you are bumping into other collectors, you're on the wrong path!
Insurance Against Rising Prices: how to sell your duplicate keys
Occasionally, collectors end up with duplicate keys. It is hard to
the common keys, so collectors usually sell them. It is very tempting
add profit to when selling a duplicate. There is even more of a
to buy low and sell high. Before you practice this mode of buying and
think about the consequences.
Selling a key for a higher than normal price can come back to
you!!! When you sell that key, it is a data point for others. That
single transaction has edged up prices. Somebody is going to remember
your key for sale at 30% more than he would have expected. Prices creep
up and eventually, you yourself, will be having to pay more for keys. In
order to buy keys at reasonable prices, you have to sell keys at
prices. Resisting the temptation to sell high is insurance that
will be able to buy low. If all collectors would sell low, it would
the market so they can buy low.
Low Prices: a long term plan
Another way to control the prices of collectibles is to simply wait. At
the present time, the economy is good and prices are relatively high.
you wait till the next economic recession, prices will fall. There will
also be more keys available. Those down on their luck will sell off
of their collection. Not only will they be selling, but they will
asking bargain prices for two reasons. First they need to put money in
their pocket in a timely fashion and second there will be fewer buyers.
One veteran collector in the Midwest lays dormant in good times and
acquires many keys in lean times. For most of us, waiting is very hard
to do, but for those us whose jobs are not sensitive to the economy, I
offer this as some measure of better collecting times to come.
The Internet: enabling buyers and sellers
The Internet is the absolute worst way to shop for old keys. Someone
even an ordinary key, can post a "best offer" ad to an Internet news
The seller now has thousands of potential buyers reading his post. Why
should a seller go to a ham fest when he can sell from the comfort of
own home and in doing so, gain a hundred times more lookers. If you
engage in bidding for a key on the Internet, be prepared for stiff
The Internet has also enabled many new collectors. Those who can not
or will not use the traditional means of finding keys, ham fest, junk
etc., can sit in the comfort of their homes or offices and put together
a decent collection. So there is even more competition from instant
collectors. The Internet is THE most traveled path!
Quasi Dealers: not liked, but they have the keys!
You know who I am talking about. These are the guys that you see at all
the ham fest in your area with keys on their table. The prices are, in
your opinion, anywhere from "a little high" to "very high." Some
become upset when they see this. Some key collectors call them
I do not like higher prices either! But, I submit to you that there is
nothing ethically wrong with making a profit on keys. People buy and
old cars, old guns, old furniture, old ham gear. Why not old keys?
is nothing sacred about old keys. Most of the disdain for dealers is
rooted in frustration. If you become frustrated, then walk on by.
The dealer has invested his time and his car miles. He got up three
hours before sunrise may times to find those keys. You are paying a
premium for his investment of shoe leather and time. He may find
that you may not ordinarily see. He can be your arm and legs if you are
willing to pay him for the service he renders. He offers a service to
who pay his prices.
The downside of the dealers is that their prices are visible to all
who walk buy. The passersby then take those prices to be the norm.
is not a rule that says the dealer has to put a sign on his table
"Dealer Prices." So the guy passes by and makes a mental note that
with him. Sometime later when he decides to sell his grandfather's old
bug, the dealer has set the precedent for him.
Using Your Head: not paying high prices.
It sounds simple, but you do not have to pay high prices. If a key
is out of your comfort zone, then pass on the deal. Those who pay high
prices either have more disposable income than you do or let their ego
get in front of their pocket book. If you let your ego get in the
of rationale, you will most likely have buyer's remorse when you get
You want to be able to look at that key on the shelf and not hate it
you paid too much for it.
Don't loose any sleep over passing up a high prices key. After
on an over priced key, you will find the same type of key later at a
attractive deal. Most often you will find a key that you want much,
more than the first one. If you have shelled out big bucks for a key
only marginally like, you will really be upset when you cannot afford
buy the one you really want.
Price Lists: should we or shouldn't we?
At present there are no recognized price guides for old keys. Some
see this as good and some as bad. A price guide would be difficult to
together. There are no full time key dealers. There are probably less
50 serious key collectors. This hardly constitutes a thriving stable
A single collector could put together a price guide. But it would be
one man's opinion. Prices would be influenced by the collector's
tastes and experiences as well as geography. Ask ten collectors
a key should sell for and you will get ten answers.
Historical Prices: be careful when you quote them.
Often times we hear that a certain key sold for $XXX and another key
for $YYY. Can these historical prices be used as a guideline. Only
you know the circumstances of the sale. Was the sale between two
one on one? Was the sale at an auction? Was the sale conducted through
an advertisement for "best offer?" Was the sale at a major ham fest,
ham fest, major antique show, or junk shop?
Do you know the condition of the key. Was it pristine? Missing
Major rust? Was it in the original box? Does the key have a letter of
tying it to some historical event?
Often, the exorbitant price that you hear of was the result of a
shopped key and an over zealous buyer. Key prices are kind of like
journalism. You will not hear about the every day, reasonable deals.
are going to hear about the really big ones. Before you quote
prices, make sure you are able to quote the circumstances surrounding
Keys as an Investment? Look at the curve
Should you buy keys as an investment? This can be rather risky. Most
technology collectibles go through a bell shaped popularity curve.
The bulk of active collectors are in their 50s and 60s. Their
with old keys relates to an early experience, most likely amateur
When these collectors pass into retirement, the demand for keys will be
gone. Fellows younger than mid 40s did not experience using a bug as a
primary part of their amateur radio station. There will be no fond
and hence there is no desire to accumulate artifacts that remind them
their youth. The down side of the bell curve will soon be here.
Contrary to what you may hear, there are lots of keys out there and
are plenty to go around! There are still many, many more keys than
and there always will be. And, you do not have to pay big money for
them. All you have to do is look for the "little deals." You can also
your part to control prices by selling your spares at reasonable
Good luck and good hunting!
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