The basic value of 78rpm records in New Zealand

I'm assuming you know nothing about 78s as a collectable, but you have obtained or inherited an accumulation, or are dealing with a relative’s estate. Maybe they look a bit like the picture below.  I hope this will help in determining a likely value, and maybe the best means of disposal.

Box of 78rpm records

The true value of these old records is ably demonstrated by observation at your local household estate auction house. Often a box or two of 78s will be sold. Generally these will hold around 100 records, and they’ll go for between NZ$10 and $30. I’ve seen larger boxes of 200-odd go for $5 and smaller lots of 30 records go for more; but in general, count the discs and start at 10cents each.

Of course, those buying aren’t generally interested in getting 100 78s for 10cents each. They’re after the few better items they’ve noted, for which they are effectively willing to pay a few bucks each, the other 95 records are just rubbish to be somehow disposed of. I was at one such sale where a collector obtained a carton with some 150 records for the princely sum of $10. After the auction, while successful buyers were carting away their goodies, he riffled through the box, took out the one record he actually wanted (and was happy to pay $10 for, plus the buyer’s commission) then told me that I could take the rest away for nothing, else he'd leave it for the auction house to put in their skip.

Another really good local option is to browse the completed auctions on TradeMe (Music & Instruments, Expired Listings - I use 78* as my search term). Here you can see what people have actually been willing to pay for 78s in New Zealand. If you look at the Active auctions, you’ll often seen individual records for which optimistic prices are being asked – remember it is the price for items that actually sold that matters!

To start, consider what makes an individual record worth something in the first place. This is either the artist (and sometimes just some titles), or the label.


A quick overview of Artists & styles
In general, if you’ve heard of the artist, the record is probably worthless. This may seem counterintuitive but consider this. If, 50 or more years on, you know the artist, chances are they were popular and famous enough to have sold very large numbers in their time, making their records still common today. Unless for some special reason, the artist themselves remains collectable today, their time (and audience) has gone and so has their value.

Collectable exceptions in the artist category are Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker – in fact most famous Rock & Roll, R&B or Blues artists. The first four in this list are found reasonably frequently in NZ, the rest much less so. A shiny condition NZ-pressed Elvis record could be worth up to $50 but with the very scarce original picture sleeve is worth real money – possibly over $300.

Many other artists are both famous and frequently found, but have no residual value. These include Frank Sinatra, the Ink Spots, The Platters, Harry Belafonte, Debbie Reynolds, Mitch Miller, Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby (sorry, but it's true), The Andrews Sisters, Ken Griffiths, Perry Como, most later period Louis Armstrong, Les Paul and so on.

Dance bands can be collectable but most aren’t - like Xavier Cugat, Harry Roy, Savoy Orpheans and most Hotel bands. It helps if the dance band music is of the 'hot' variety and there is a known vocalist doing the refrain, such as Al Bowlly. Some good items are found in the HMV BD- series (note - not the much commoner DB- series).

As with the popular artists commonly found on 10” records, the classical vocalists from the 12” records are also generally of little value. This includes Caruso, Gigli, Tauber, Galli-Curci, McCormack, Clara Butt and so on. Curiously, it is often the obscure classical vocalists (i.e. ones you’ve not heard of) that would be more likely to be in demand. Many of these artists appeared on single-sided 12” discs into the 1920s. That does not make their records any more valuable.

Classical orchestral music, often found in sets in books, is of no value.

Gilbert & Sullivan sets are of no value.
Records marked Waltz or Polka or One-step- you guessed it - no value

Instrumental music on 10” or 12” such as brass bands, military bands, one-steps and generic dance bands (Zonophone Novelty orchestra, Black Diamonds band etc) are also of no value.

Jazz music is collectable, but only the true Jazz – not the large volume of Big Band and Swing music commonly found and often thought of as Jazz. Thus Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, Woody Herman etc are generally of no value (although they all have classics that still sound good). Early Jazz performers on period records such as King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong etc are worth something, but chances are you’ll never see them ‘in the wild”. Note that early Jazz/Swing was often labelled as Fox-trots.

So, without having to carefully examine every record for artists and song, how can you quickly determine if you have anything of value? The same way a collector like myself would – by a quick flick through the pile looking primarily at the labels.

Record Labels
Common records are on common labels. Here in NZ these are HMV (red label), Decca (black), Regal-Zonophone (red & green), Parlophone (purple), Capitol (yellow), Columbia (black), MGM (yellow) and Mercury (red or blue). These were the labels usually met with in the 40’s and 50’s – where there are few records of collector value, and boxes of which are now coming through estate sales. If your box seems to be composed of these labels, with the common artists noted above, and nothing unusual strikes your eye, then you have a $10 box. Sorry.

However, because so many records fall into the small set of commonly seen label designs as above, anything out of the ordinary is easily spotted. Older (pre-WW2) labels that may indicate that something exciting is in the box are Winner, Scala, Vocalion, Piccadilly, Angelus, Apex, Operaphone, Embassy, Victor, Summit and Broadcast.

Modern labels that can indicate a less common series (and thus possibly more interesting records) are bright blue HMV, RCA (Elvis), Nixa, Brunswick and Esquire (modern jazz). Some local record companies are collected here in New Zealand, even if much of the actual material is not very exciting. These labels are Tanza, Stebbing and Zodiac especially. As with the artists, most people are quickly made aware of the common main label brands (HMV, Parlophone, Decca etc). If your box has plenty that aren’t these, this is a good sign. Mind you, a box full of slightly worn Winner xylophone solos is still rubbish!

These earlier English, American & European labels, if found in any number, are a good indicator of some potential collector value - Guardsman, Velvet Face, Regal, Gramophone Monarch, Gramophone Concert, Cameo, Domino, Gennett, Okeh, Paramount, Perfect, Beka, Fonotipia, Pathé, Odeon, Vox, Homokord and anything in a foreign script. Edison Diamond Disc records (1/4" thick) are sought after by those who have the right type of player - don't try to play these on a standard steel needle gramophone. These, like early Pathés, are vertical cut (the needle oscillates up and down) rather than the normal lateral cut (side-to-side).

There seems to be a bit of a local market (mainly in Australia though) for Country & Western (Hank Snow, Tex Morton, Slim Dusty, Smilin' Billy Blinkhorn etc), which are often on the Regal-Zonophone label. These sometimes go for around $10-20 each. If you have a box of C&W, then good luck - Ebay may be an option for you. You can search Ebay for all 78rpm records being sold from Australia - look in the Advanced Search options, but get the Completed Auctions to see what things actually sold for, if they sold at all - don't be driven by the often hopeful prices being asked.

Sleeves are also a good indicator. If the box of records is sleeveless, it is highly likely to be valueless – no-one previously has felt they deserve any care and even if good items, they are likely to be damaged by rubbing against each other. Conversely, if the records are in neat sleeves, they’ve been cared for over a long period, implying they have some residual value and are also likelier to be in better condition too. Records bearing matching non-generic sleeves are also a better bet.

Some record labels have collector value regardless of the artist or tune. These should be immediately obvious to you also, as it is the appearance of the label or disc that is of interest. Picture discs (Vogue, Saturn, kiddies), small-size (7” and under), flexible card or celluloid (Durium, Filmophone), multi-coloured pictorial labels (ERA, Bel Canto, Parlophon), coloured ‘wax’ (John Mystery’s, Columbia blue wax, Summit) and primitive very early records (Berliner, Zon-O-Phone). Original sleeves on any of these special records is a huge bonus.

A special class of record is the 'special recording', or lacquer record. These tend to have an aluminium core with a black coating, and were used for one-off or very low volume recordings, as they were individually lathe-cut rather than being pressed in a mould. Their labels are usually hand-written or typed. Examples can be seen elsewhere on this site (78rpm records pressed in New Zealand). Despite their individual rarity, value is normally very low as most are poorly recorded amateur efforts, or someone's wedding for instance. They are also frequently unplayable as the coating dries out and cracks badly. Some produced for commercial radio use are of interest.

Caveat: All the above is going to be mostly correct most of the time. This does not mean that you can't demonstrate someone on Ebay paying sizeable sums for a Beethoven concerto on a specific set of 12-inchers, or someone else buying Comedian Harmonists on Australian HMVs for $30 each. These are exceptions, and if you can perform the research and locate the keen collector for a particular record you have, well and good. This article assumes you have neither the time nor the inclination to do all that.

Condition
Critically, the value of old records is heavily dependent on their condition. Most records you find will not be in the near-pristine condition that the more famous record price guides - Dock’s American Premium Record Guide 1900-1965, Osborne’s Official Price Guide to Records - actually base their valuations on.

A record described as VG+ or V+ (Very Good Plus) isn’t really that good – it’ll have noticeable extra surface noise, and some greyed 'stressed' grooves. The whole grading scale has been degraded over time. Common fatal faults include cracks, edge chips encroaching on the grooves and worn grooves – these show up as grey rather than black. Heat, moisture and chemical damage are common – people tend to store records in the garage or under the house where things get spilt on them, or mould attacks. These are worthless. A Elvis record with some greyed grooves, or a hairline crack, or an edge chip is worthless – there are plenty of much better copies out there. Record collectors, and price guides, work at E (Excellent - virtually no trace of wear or use, shiny black appearance, minimal surface noise.)

Selling & Shipping
Selling the records in bulk, if nothing special, is an option. This can be through your local auction house or through an ad in your local free buy/sell mag (like Trade & Exchange). Don’t bother with a paid ad in the newspaper – chances are it’ll cost more than the records are worth. Using the local online auction sites, especially TradeMe, is a good option if you live in a major city. Someone will travel a short distance for a bulk lot but you’ll not be able to post them – they’re heavy.

Selling any individual special records through TradeMe (or Ebay if there is international appeal and you’re up to catering for that) is a good option as long as you know how to pack them safely. A single 78 in the post is very fragile and vulnerable. A very good article, by Bryan Wright, on safely shipping 78rpm records is at Claxtonola.com. You will also need to be up to describing the record accurately, especially its condition. Also, remember they’re SHELLAC, not vinyl (apart from a few very late ones) and never bakelite.

A longer pair of very useful articles about valuing, and selling, 78s can be found on Tim Grayck’s site at www.gracyk.com He is talking about US records in the US market but it is useful nonetheless, especially if you can find over here any of the items he notes as being valuable! His comments on Dock’s price guide are especially pertinent. Locally, many titles in Dock’s can be found here, but on local labels. These pressings, even from the same master, are just not as valuable as the original, even if they are scarcer.

Here I’ve illustrated some records classified, just according to my opinion, into three categories

You can compare these with your pile!

As an aside, in 2010 I tried to give three boxes of surplus 78s (about 200 discs) to the Salvation Army – they weren’t interested – too bulky and “no-one wants them”. So I listed them on TradeMe as a pick-up lot and got over $70 for them! Most I’d classify as Boring, but there were a few Mildly Interesting ones.

Playing the records
Finally, don't be tempted to play any good records on an old wind-up gramophone with a steel needle - this can seriously damage the record, especially the more modern ones, even if a new needle is used for each play. Leave the use of these up to the professional, or for records with no intrinsic value. If you have a newer 3-speed turntable (easily obtained for next to nothing at your local auction room, TradeMe or Trade & Exchange - Garrard, Radiola and Fountain seem common out here), then these will work fine, and new stylii are still obtainable for most common brands. You may find that keeping those old records and actually playing them will introduce you and your kids to a whole new world of music!

I’m happy to hear from NZ’ers who think they may have something of interest – note that I’m not generally going to offer to buy them from you - but I can give you some advice on what you may have. I'm also happy to hear from those with feedback and improvements for this article.

Adam Miller adam78@clear.net.nz
Updated July 2014