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The In's and Out's of Vintage Signs
by Steve Roberts

Throughout my vintage sign-collecting journey, I’ve spoken with various magazine writers (and even news stations too!) whenever an interview about my collection was necessary. To ensure all that talk won’t go to waste, I’ve decided to cover some of the frequently asked and particularly interesting questions that I’ve gotten over the years.

 

WHAT’S THE MOST YOU HAVE PAID FOR A SIGN?

When it comes to being a sign collector, most would agree that we’re willing to pay any cost to get a piece that’s high-grade and rare, even if it puts us in a financial bind. In fact, there are still around three signs in my collection that I paid over $35,000 for. In addition, 20 more signs cost more than $15,000, so you can start to see how the bill of collecting adds up.

When collecting, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where you need to decide whether you prefer a stack of cash in your bank account that you’ll likely never see or something that you can enjoy looking at every single day (and you could even retain its value or appreciate it over the years). Regardless of what niche you’re in, all collectors can understand the logic there.

My collection may seem impractical to a lot of people, but it has brought me a great sense of pride and constant joy — something that a heftier bank account wouldn’t be able to match. How do I know how other collectors feel about these matters?

Well, I’ve run an auction house and thus have a whole network of collector friends who I’ve seen pay top dollar for the rare signs that they want. As a matter of fact, I would say that most of the $7,500+ signs I’ve sold were purchased directly by collectors or someone who couldn’t get a reasonable price for a piece they wanted and thus came to me for a fair offer.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PORCELAIN SIGN?

When you have a collection as large as mine, it can be nearly impossible to pick a single piece as my favorite. Further, my answer can actually change throughout the week, even if the question remains constant. When I was new to the industry, the young collector in me really loved signs that were related to automobiles and oil.

That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that I was rather biased at the time since I was at the phase of my life where road trips and fast cars were, in my eyes, the pinnacle of happiness. Once I got up there in age, I found myself more drawn to the country store and household brand signs.

As of right now, I’m a sign collector who wants pieces that represent history from the time they were in. The porcelain signs that tend to do that best are advertising art, so that’s what I’ve been going for most recently. While I’ve had my favorite niche through the decades, I’m still the type of guy to buy any sign at a moment’s notice if it takes my fancy.

Still, the odds of me buying one are boosted if it ties into one of my specific interests, like railroads, or brings a sense of local geography from the sign’s point of origin. As you can see, it’s difficult to put only one label on my collection, much less pick a favorite since 95% of the collection doesn’t fit into what I’d call my main interest.

It’s hard to put the feeling of buying/trading with fellow collectors into words, especially the sense of getting a special sign that you would never have even seen otherwise. In the interest of making my best effort to answer your original question, my MVP right now is the Santa Fe Scout sign.

It happens to be one of the newest pieces in my collection. Ultimately, asking a collector to pick a favorite sign is like asking a parent to pick their favorite kid — while all their children are in the room. Much like parents, my answer can rotate. I really love them all — but I just love some more than I love others from time to time.

HOW DOES A SIGN COLLECTOR KNOW WHAT A SIGN IS WORTH?

When a non-collector approaches me and tries to pick my brain, they often start with my valuation process. They seem baffled at how one sign can be worth $100 while another is worth significantly more at $10,000. How could two items be worlds apart in pricing despite being rather similar physically?

The full answer to that question is long enough to fill a book, but for the sake of concise basics, I can think of three different factors that determine the value of a sign.

First of all, porcelain sign collectors are always looking for something that has stunning graphics. Secondly, they often look for a genuinely interesting subject matter — either to them specifically or just in general.

Finally, they examine its condition. If something is in “like new” condition, then it will be more appealing to those who collect porcelain signs. Pieces that can hit all three of those marks could be worth over $1,000 even if they’re common. Rare signs that meet the same trifecta criteria will be worth thousands of dollars.

It’s essentially a process that comes down to comparing supply and demand while adjusting for the condition of the piece itself. You might think that the oldest sign is worth more, but age isn’t as big a factor as you’d think. Just because something is older, that doesn’t mean it’s better.

conclusion

While the field of porcelain sign collecting is somewhat nuanced at times, there are also some core principles that anyone can grasp, such as buying things that genuinely interest you or choosing something that’s in pretty good shape.

We’ll also be covering other topics like the different types of collectors, the scariest things about the industry, and how to best sell your signs, so stay tuned for that.