In November 2018, we had our largest estate auction, which featured more than 200 vintage advertising signs and a large collection of Native American pottery, baskets, rugs, and beaded items from multiple tribes. It was so large, it took four 24-foot moving trucks and two trailers to transport everything from the Camp Verde home to our Glendale auction house.
The vintage advertising signs were the star of the show, hammering at a collective total of more than $60,000.
Some of the signs that did well included a Pennsylvania Tires porcelain sign that realized $1,100, a Gargoyle Mobiloil cabinet with porcelain sign that hammered at $1,400 and a metal Wolf’s Head Motor Oil sign that sold for $800.
Not all signs were automobilia related. For example, a concave porcelain Barber Shop sign realized $225, a porcelain double-sided flanged sign for “Quality Wear-u-well Shoes” sold for $425, and a porcelain double-sided Chapman’s Ice Cream sign realized $650.
Why do people pay top dollar for old signs of past times? Some of it has to do with nostalgia, some like to collect history, and I think a lot of it has to do with the cool factor.
Some collectors focus strictly on one subject, like soda, transportation, farm equipment, or country stores and others like to mix it up. I’ve met serious collectors who have strict criteria for their signs. For example, they may only collect porcelain or stenciled tin signs.
Some people will pay $25,000 or more for one vintage advertising sign. Porcelain signs seem to be in demand the most. Also known as enamel signs, these signs can date back to the late 1880s. While not made from clay that we would typically associate with porcelain, these signs do contain a powered glass, called frit, that is a main ingredient of soft-paste porcelain. Some of the older signs were die-cut into various shapes – these tend to do very well at auction.
But like any collectible, there are reproductions and fakes. Whether you’re buying or selling, do your research on companies that manufactured the signs and examine stamps and other markings. Some fake porcelain signs are created with fake chips. If there is no layered enamel on the chip, it’s a good indication it’s not real. Rust can also be computer-generated. Check the mountings and spacing of the grommets and make sure rust appears to be dark brown or black rather than orange and red.
While age doesn’t always indicate value, it can help give a clue regarding authenticity. For example, expect to see natural fading on authentic porcelain signs. The lettering typically was created with a thinner paint, which fades faster than the thicker background paint. Red paints also fade faster than other colors.
Vintage advertising is in demand right now, and there’s no sign of that changing soon. It’s a great time to sell these signs of past times, but only if you’re done enjoying them.
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale.