The Original Grammy
After more than a century, gramophones, phonographs, and cylinder players are prized as collectibles—and music machines.
George F. Paul has never forgotten the delight he felt when he encountered his first antique phonograph. He was a preteen in the mid-1960s in upstate New York, born to an antiques-loving family, when his 19-year-old brother brought home a Victor Victrola model 100 that an elderly woman gave to him after having owned it for decades. “I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Paul says. To keep Paul’s mitts off his Victrola, Paul’s older brother bought him a second, and less valuable, antique phonograph, an Aeolian Vocalion. But for Paul, it made no difference; he spent hours in his room listening to 78s on the circa-1920 machine, music that was downright Paleozoic compared with the Beatles and other bands of the day. “I was curious about how you didn’t have to plug it into the wall but it did the same thing as the machines I grew up with,” he says.
Paul is now copresident of the Antique Phonograph Society, coauthor of eight books on phonographs, and owner of about 100 machines that he exhibits in his 825-square-foot attic, where he “can display things the way they really should be displayed.” The collection’s crown jewels include a Victor Victrola XVI phonograph that he bought not long after he received the Aeolian Vocalion, and which had belonged to a prominent local family. “What I didn’t know at the time was the wood of the cabinet was a special order—Circassian walnut,” he says. That luxurious option makes the phonograph worth $4,000 to $5,000 instead of the $600 to $800 that a XVI with a more common finish commands. “It was a perfect example of beginner’s luck,” he says. “As a 13-year-old, I paid $20 for it.”
If you ask most people to think of an antique phonograph and then tell you what it looks like, almost without fail they will describe something that resembles a Grammy Award statuette—a machine that plays a flat, grooved disc record and has a large and obvious horn. It is the same sort of device that you see in the famous Victor logo showing Nipper the dog listening to a reproduction of “his master’s voice.” But the disc player equipped with an external horn is just one version of a record-playing machine, the choicest of which began crossing the six-figure threshold in private sales about a decade ago. Collectors dream of rarities such as some of the earliest Edisons, the incunables of the field, which recorded sound onto lead and tinfoil and now change hands for around $100,000. Late-19th-century Edison Class Ms, which played recordings engraved on wax cylinders, sell for $10,000 to $80,000, depending on condition.
Notable phonographs by small concerns can turn heads, too. Lioret, a French manufacturer, produced a charming cylinder-playing device that rested on a tripod and was driven by weights, much like a pendulum clock. Only three such models survive, and one last sold a few years ago for more than $50,000. But it is the big American companies—Edison, Victor, and Columbia—that command the most attention, and the less common the model, the better, as Paul’s Circassian Victrola demonstrates. Phonograph collectors might limit themselves to specific brands or eras, but virtually none restrict themselves to cylinder players or disc players. “It’s a rare collector who turns up his nose at a historically interesting machine just because of the format,” says Paul.
Coin-operated record players, designed for use in public spaces, attract high bids because so few escaped destruction once they were obsolete. Two years ago, Stanton’s Auctioneers in Vermontville, Mich., sold two Multiphones six months apart. Dating to the early 20th century, the Multiphone plays cylinder records and has a gloriously steampunk appearance. The ones at Stanton’s garnered $77,000 (a house record for a phonograph) and $71,000. Both sums are a serious advance over the $38,000 winning bid placed the last time Stanton’s offered a Multiphone about a decade ago. “When I started doing this, I’d see situations where they would spend $2,000, $3,000, and that was a lot of money,” says Steven E. Stanton, whose father founded the company in 1954, and who has been with the firm since 1970. “Now I see them spending $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000.”
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