Electric signs of the 20th Century

Value (2016) | $23,000 Auction$36,000 Auction

HOST: Seeing a giant like this may make you stop in your tracks, but that's the point, really. This 20-foot-tall genie now welcomes visitors to the American Sign Museum. But before he came here, he was a sign used to get people to buy carpet from a store in California. Inside, there are hundreds more examples of all kinds of commercial signs from the late 1800s up through the 1970s. Appraiser Leila Dunbar and I couldn't wait to explore the museum's electrifying collection. Leila, this place is amazing. So many signs, such bright colors, vivid images. I love the satellite sign right there, but I don't think that's going to fit in my living room.

Well, Mark, I don't think it's going to fit in most people's living rooms. A lot of these signs were used for a period of years and then afterwards, most of them were just destroyed, so we're very lucky to have a place where people can go and really appreciate great Americana. HOST: I know that one of the earliest signs here is the jewelry store sign--tell me about that.

The jewelry sign is made of painted metal, and it features incandescent bulbs. This sign is the best traits of late-1800s trade signs combined with the technology of early 1900s electricity. Think about walking down the streets in 1905 or 1910 and seeing this jewelry sign. Your girlfriend's going to make you go in there right that moment and get her that diamond ring. I would put an auction estimate of $8,000 to $12,000 on it because it combines all your best features, and it's one of the earliest examples of an electrified sign. HOST: So let's move on to this next sign, which is neon.

The Pure Oil sign was made in the 1930s, and it features a ripple tin cabinet and neon tubing. Neon was actually developed in France by Georges Claude in the early 1900s, and he debuted neon signs at the Paris Auto Show in 1910. Pure Oil was started as a company in the early 1900s, and in the '30s, '40s and '50s, it was as well-known as Sunoco or Mobil or Shell. It was phased out in the 1960s. These signs were custom-made. This sign was built by Flexlume, which is a company out of Buffalo that started back in 1904 and still exists today. It's double-sided. Collectors love double-sided signs because obviously you can see them from both sides, but dealers love them too because occasionally what they'll do is split the two, and they'll build a separate electric box. They can certainly sell two for more than what they can sell one for. HOST: Now, the tubing on this sign has been replaced, hasn't it?

Mm-hmm. HOST: Does that affect the value?

As long as it's being announced that it's been replaced, it generally does not affect the market, because you'd much rather have a working sign than a non-working sign. HOST: There are so many signs to pick here. There's one that just is pure Americana to me. I can remember as a kid, driving down the open highway and seeing signs like this one. And I'm of course referring to the Sky Vu Motel sign. Tell me about this one.

Think about the 1930s to '50s, when you had the great growth of highways in this country. So of course, we go from gas and oil to a motel, where you get to stop for the night. This particular sign is from Kansas City, Missouri. It's from the 1950s. Post-World War II, neon was still very popular, but costly because it's custom-made. Plastic is now being more and more used. And you see plastic in this sign, in the moon and in the clouds. You still have your neon stars, but it's sort of a portent of what things are to become because plastic is cheaper and easier to produce. HOST: Big sign, double-sided, what's the value?

The size is slightly a hindrance, and it doesn't have the same sort of collectability as the Pure Oil or the jewelry sign, but I'd still put an auction estimate of about $5,000 to $7,000 on it. HOST: Absolutely, so what would be the value of the Pure Gasoline sign?

I would probably put an auction estimate of about $10,000 to $15,000, and I'd think it could easily sell for more. HOST: Well, this has been a blast, thanks so much for sharing it with us.

Appraisal Details

Leila Dunbar Appraisals & Consulting, LLC
Washington, DC
Appraised value (2016)
$23,000 Auction$36,000 Auction
Cincinnati, OH (July 21, 2012)
Glass , Metal

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