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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 are competing for keys. Competition fosters rising prices. Consider however, that rising prices are not unique to key collecting. It is true of any many collectibles. Look at comic books, antique firearms, baseball cards and vintage amateur radio gear. When a hobby grows, so do the prices. Look at glass insulator collecting. 30 years ago, no one gave a hoot about insulators, 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 many people with a healthy chunk of disposable income deciding to collect something.

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 deals."

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 is 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 popular 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 place to go is a national ham fest, unless you have a pocket full of money. Advertisements in high circulation rags get many responses. Internet "key for sale" adds 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 paths 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 through.

One of the best means for adding keys to your collection is referrals 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 manifest.

Another good means is to stay in touch with experienced collectors who are well connected. Experienced collectors often pass information and leads to beginning and intermediate collectors.

The absolute best way to add a new item to your collection is through trades. No money changes hands at all. Often you can trade for that item 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 appreciative collector.

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 trade the common keys, so collectors usually sell them. It is very tempting to add profit to when selling a duplicate. There is even more of a temptation to buy low and sell high. Before you practice this mode of buying and selling, think about the consequences.

Selling a key for a higher than normal price can come back to bite 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 seeing 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 reasonable prices. Resisting the temptation to sell high is insurance that you will be able to buy low. If all collectors would sell low, it would level 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. If 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 part of their collection. Not only will they be selling, but they will be 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 with even an ordinary key, can post a "best offer" ad to an Internet news group. 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 his 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 competition.

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 shops 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 armchair 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 collectors become upset when they see this. Some key collectors call them "mercenaries." 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 sell old cars, old guns, old furniture, old ham gear. Why not old keys? There is nothing sacred about old keys. Most of the disdain for dealers is likely 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 keys 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 those 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. There is not a rule that says the dealer has to put a sign on his table saying, "Dealer Prices." So the guy passes by and makes a mental note that sticks 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 price 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 way of rationale, you will most likely have buyer's remorse when you get home. You want to be able to look at that key on the shelf and not hate it because you paid too much for it.

Don't loose any sleep over passing up a high prices key. After passing on an over priced key, you will find the same type of key later at a more attractive deal. Most often you will find a key that you want much, much more than the first one. If you have shelled out big bucks for a key you only marginally like, you will really be upset when you cannot afford to 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 collectors see this as good and some as bad. A price guide would be difficult to put together. There are no full time key dealers. There are probably less than 50 serious key collectors. This hardly constitutes a thriving stable market.

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 personal tastes and experiences as well as geography. Ask ten collectors what 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 sold for $YYY. Can these historical prices be used as a guideline. Only if you know the circumstances of the sale. Was the sale between two individuals, 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, local ham fest, major antique show, or junk shop?

Do you know the condition of the key. Was it pristine? Missing parts? Major rust? Was it in the original box? Does the key have a letter of authentication tying it to some historical event?

Often, the exorbitant price that you hear of was the result of a well shopped key and an over zealous buyer. Key prices are kind of like TV journalism. You will not hear about the every day, reasonable deals. You are going to hear about the really big ones. Before you quote historical prices, make sure you are able to quote the circumstances surrounding the sale.

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 fascination with old keys relates to an early experience, most likely amateur radio. 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 memories and hence there is no desire to accumulate artifacts that remind them of their youth. The down side of the bell curve will soon be here.

Closing Thoughts

Contrary to what you may hear, there are lots of keys out there and there are plenty to go around! There are still many, many more keys than collectors 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 do your part to control prices by selling your spares at reasonable prices. Good luck and good hunting!

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Neal McEwen,