Thinking of tackling a new hobby? Antique fishing lures are an accessible
collecting category with enormous growth potential. Though 60 million
people registered for U.S. fishing licenses in 1999, only a tiny fraction
of them are aware of the value of vintage lures.
Most people don't think about the value
of old tackle; they throw it away, give it to the kids, fish with it. I
once paid $6,000 for a lure that the seller had been fishing with
regularly, and recently I appraised a $50,000 box of tackle that the owner had just traded for a bicycle.
History The earliest lures — some now centuries old — were used by Native
Americans, Eskimos, and American settlers. Today's American collectors focus primarily on American-made lures from the late 1800s to the 1950s.
The "Big Five" companies are Heddon,
Shakespeare, Pflueger, South Bend, and the Creek Chub Bait
Company. This "artificial bait" includes spinners and
hard-bodied, wood-bodied, and hollow metal lures. Lures generally
have from one to six hooks, with various attachments such as propellers and diving lips.
Although some fakes came on the market in the past ten years, authenticity
isn't a big issue; with up to 14 layers of paint and other
hard-to-duplicate details, old lures are difficult to reproduce. After
World War II, mass production by injection molding introduced
the plastic lure; these are easier to find, and still collectible.
Shakespeare and Company Whirlwind Spinner, c. 1910
These fishing lures are antiques. They
don't make 1920 lures anymore — they stopped doing that in 1921.
Here's some insights into collecting vintage fishing lures:
Go to farm sales, estate sales, garage sales, and flea markets, and
ask if they have any tackle. Many dealers are reticent to put out tackle where people may get hurt handling it.
Print a card, run magazine ads, and contact local editors and
publishers of community, sporting, and outdoor newspapers and magazines.
Be innovative. Where would you find tackle?
There's a ton of stuff just sitting in boats, garages, old mom and pop tackle stores and bait shops.
Scarcity = Value
High-grade lures have appreciated 50 to 200
percent in the last five years.
This 1859 Haskell metal lure is valued at $2,000-$2,500.
Supply and demand greatly affect value: after a major auction house
advertised a revered Haskell 1850 metal lure for $20,000, others came
onto the market, the price decreasing significantly with each sale
(today they go for $8,000-10,000).
With an older, rarer piece, it's better to have something in poor
condition than not have it at all. If you want the lure, buy it, and look to upgrade it in the future.
Due to their scarcity, some of the most valuable lures are the
"failures." One example is the red and white frog lure; it never had a chance, as consumers rejected its unnatural color scheme.
Popular lures are generally in poorer condition from use, although
you can still find lures in the package (which increases value 20 to 100 percent).
Some pre-1910 boxes are more valuable than the lures themselves.
Custom-designed lures are the most valuable. Factories allowed
customers to special-order bait; now 70 to 100 years later, these are
desirable due to limited production.
South Bend Bait Company hollow metal lure, c. 1881
Extreme temperature and humidity changes are very damaging
to old lures. Get your vintage tackle out of the garage and into a dark closet indoors.
Repairs may reduce value up to 90 percent (though this is changing; the
National Fish Lure Collectors Club recently allowed limited restoration (up to
20 percent) on lures presented for show or sale under the club's auspices.
We recommend that novices not try to clean lures. You might
wipe them with a cloth, but otherwise, leave them in the condition in which you found them.
Missing hooks can be replaced with same-vintage hooks, but be
careful: Those 14 coats of paint generally weren't set when the hooks
were inserted, so removing hooks can spoil the paint — and the value.
Direct sunlight, even indirect light, can be harmful. Display lures
in cases with UV glass and cotton backing (not polyester, which can
react with the paint). Keep the case away from direct sunlight (a
greenhouse effect can literally explode lures from overheating).