Feature: Antique Radios: From A Golden Age While "radio days" are bygone days for most of us, many avid collectors are captivated by this multi-faceted category. From early wireless radios to elaborate mirrored models that would make Liberace proud, the diversity of antique radios invites a broad range of collectors. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Collectibles > Feature: Antique Radios: From A Golden Age

Soaring Popularity of Collecting Antique Radios

The Market for Antique Radios

Old Radios Condition

Old Radio Values

Old Radio Speakers

Old Phonographs

Antique Scientific Equipment



Antique Radios: Antiques from a golden age

While "radio days" are bygone days for most of us, many avid collectors are captivated by this multi-faceted category. From early wireless radios to elaborate mirrored models that would make Liberace proud, the diversity of antique radios invites a broad range of collectors.

Most tend toward niches, perhaps focusing on early crystal or battery sets, '30s cathedrals, Bakelite/Catalin or HiFi models. There's no rhyme or reason as to why one radio becomes collectible and another doesn't, and design.


Many people were involved in the invention of the radio, but just after the turn of the century, Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi was the first to put it all together and make a successful transatlantic communication. Most early radios were ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore wireless models, communicating from one point to another point using crystal detectors. These experimental-looking open-board sets with exposed works often required headphones. The first actual radio broadcast wasn't until November 1920 on KDKA Pittsburgh; within a year 30 stations had sprung up across the nation.

A 1934 RCA

A 1934 RCA "cathedral" radio.

Radio production boomed from 1924 until the Depression. Sets powered by large electric batteries, using a separate horn-type speaker, were followed in 1928 by the first electric sets. Some radios were housed in elaborate cabinets, and later consoles. After the Depression, affordable tabletop "midget sets" shaped like "cathedrals" and "tombstones" became popular.

During World War II, radio production for the general market ceased. Military radios produced during this time are gaining in popularity, especially spy radios built into a variety of things like suitcases.


Up until the early 1980s, most collectors pursued only the earlier radios by such makers as the American Marconi Company (bought by RCA in 1919) and Atwater Kent. The market spiked in the '80s with a surge in popularity of colorful Bakelite/Catalin, mirrored, novelty, and art deco radios, and again in the '90s with transistor radios (first produced in 1955). FM radios are still too new to be considered collectible.

Collectible manufacturers include GE, Federal, Sparton, Philco, and Zenith (originally Chicago Radio Labs). Zenith's well-made radios are collectible early to late, from 1921 to the 1950s. Two highly desirable radios are the Zenith Stratosphere and the Sparton Nocturne. The Stratosphere was Zenith's top of the line in the mid-'30s, with a large black dial and a beautiful, inlaid wood cabinet. The highly sought-after Sparton Nocturne is a mirrored art deco floor model in peach or blue.

1946 Fada Bullet - a classic Catalin radio.

This 1946 Fada Bullet is
a classic Catalin radio.


The value of an antique radio is in the eye of the beholder. Very desirable things keep going up; the lower and middle fluctuate. Common models of early battery sets, started at $50, went up to $75-$100, and are back down to $50 now. After peaking in the early '90s, only very good transistor radios are currently desirable; the remainder have decreased in value.

Bakelite/Catalin radios, originally selling for under $30 in the 1940s, were snubbed by early collectors as plastic junk. Now they sell for up to $500, a lot more than some of the early stuff. (Caveat emptor: technically inferior, Catalin radios are valued only for their cabinets; if chipped or cracked they have almost no value.)

Radios are a financially accessible collecting category. You can still buy a transistor radio for $5; a battery radio for $50 and up; a console radio for $75-$100 and up; a cathedral radio for $100 and up. While only a few radios get up into the thousands of dollars, an early Marconi wireless recently sold for $49,500.


Surprisingly, working condition and sound quality are minor factors in collectibility. Most radio collectors are more interested in the physical thing. It does change the value a little bit, but someone who wants a particular radio will take one whether it works or not, because usually someone can get it working.

You can find people in the radio clubs who do repairs, many of them experienced radio and TV repairmen. Most tubes are easy to find; there are companies that sell either replacement tubes or new old stock.

Purists and historians avoid rebuilt radios, or seek all original parts, buying two or three of the same radio to make one complete set. Other collectors, especially of later sets, just want to get a radio working, and aren't concerned with the authenticity of the parts.


Antique Edison

Gears, bearings, shafts, and other moving parts of antique phonographs need to be greased at least once a year. Proper lubrication is essential to keep the motor running, gears working, and music playing especially on often-used machines.

Some old Victor machines came with a small paper label that provided lubrication instructions.

What do you do if your phonograph doesn't come with directions:

  • Use a small stiff-bristled brush to spread petroleum jelly on the gear teeth.
  • Apply small amounts of light oil to shafts, bearings, and motor housing any place where metal rubs against metal.
  • If needed, wipe areas where oil has dripped onto the casing.

In addition to various books specific to particular manufacturers, valuable references include:


Collectors Guide to Antique Radios:
Identification and Values, 5th Ed

by John Slusser, Kathy Slusser

Complete Price Guide to Antique Radios:
Tabletop Radios Vol. 3, 1933-1962
by Mark Stein

Antique Radio Restoration Guide
by David Johnson

The Complete Price Guide to Antique Radios:
Pre-War Consoles

by Mark Stein

Complete Price Guide to Antique Radios:
Tabletop Radios Vol. 2,

by Mark Stein

Antique Phonograph: Gadgets, Gizmos, and Gimmicks
by Timothy Fabrizio, George Paul