"How much is too much for this model of typewriter?"
"I've lost five auctions on this same model of typewriter -- why can't I get one?"
"Why won't anyone just publish a price list for old typewriters?"
The questions at the top come up over and over in the world of typewriter collecting and typewriter use. I've seen upheavals of the community over these questions maybe ten times over all these years. It's time for a "seasoned collector" (that'll be me, folks!) to try to get the real deal out there on pricing.
THE TYPEWRITER MARKET - by Will Davis.
I'm going to first approach this from somewhat of an unconventional angle, so bear with me. Look at the following picture.
The above item is Dial soap. This item is on the market right now. It is generally available to anyone who wishes to purchase it, in any realistic quantity and is available at very many locations all over the country. This item is being continuously manufactured right now; a return on the item is available if the purchaser is dissatisfied. (I use it, so that's why I'm picking this as an example.) Should one like this product (as I do) then he or she can go right back out and buy more of it when the first bottle is expended. The product is being marketed now, and its comparative characteristics are advertised and at times tested by government and consumer advocacy organizations.
The item above (a Consul PRESIDENT typewriter) is not presently on the market. It is not with surety available at any specific location at any selected time, and its availability anywhere at any time is not guaranteed. The item has not been manufactured for many years, and no replacement is either guaranteed by anyone, or for that matter possible any any predictable period of time. The product is not being marketed by anyone presently, and the organization responsible for making it is out of business. There is no consumer advocacy or support of any sort available on this product. In addition, its mechanical operability may or may not be known to the seller of this product, and the buyer may or may not be able to ascertain its operability prior to purchase and may not be able to either repair the product (should that be required) or be able to find someone who can or will.
If I drop my bottle of Dial soap, I can have another just like it in the fifteen minutes it takes me to drive to the grocery store here and get one. If I drop a Consul PRESIDENT typewriter, I cannot with any certainty guarantee that I will be able to replace it at all. Yes, there is a high likelihood that since more than probably a thousand or two of this make and model were sold in the USA, I will see one again sometime. But to say I can have another one by Christmas is foolishness. There is no guarantee at all that this obsolete, long-out-of-production machine can be duplicated in make and model - and then even if it is, there's no guarantee as to the condition or operability of said replacement.
I hope that by the above example, I've made it clear that there IS NO TYPEWRITER MARKET. Not in the sense that we would think of a market, anyway. There's only one kind of typewriter on the general retail market in the United States right now -- and that's at Michael's craft stores, and it's $199. So the "market price" for a new typewriter in the USA right now is exactly $199. Or right about there - whatever they're charging for them. But you see my point. Other than that model there's no market as such for typewriters. They're obsolete; they're way past the end of their product life cycle.
What there is, is an auction market in which a disparate and disconnected community of sellers is providing random typewriters as individual sales; of course, there are the occasional "big time" typewriter auctions like Breker's as well. But there's no organized selling institution and thus no way to attempt to set any sort of pricing standards. This revelation is sometimes hard on new typewriter enthusiasts who wish to get that perfect little portable for use on a picnic table. It is never a hard revelation for the true antique collector, because the auction market is part of the hobby. The auction market provides occasional incredible bargains, and occasional incredible knock-down drag-out fisticuffs over a given machine. Indeed, the auction market giveth and it taketh away.
Auctioning as a scene really and truly is in a real sense a competitive situation or sport. In the old days, back when we could all see each other's ID's on eBay (and so we knew darn well who we were bidding against) we used to gleefully pummel each other with bids on either weird or else common enough but beautiful typewriters, and as always there was only one winner. Some slunk off to lick their wounds, but most found the process just a part of the hobby of collecting or (like me) researching typewriters, and it was par for the course to win some and lose some.
Can we just take a look at recent auctions and publicly announce what "the going price" for a given typewriter ought to be and nail that in stone? Of course not. That's ridiculous, and impossible. Let me show you why that is.
A Hypothetical Example of Auction Pricing.
A Hypothetical Example of Auction Pricing.
Let's say that on a particular Monday, the typewriter you see above (a red Barr portable) sells on eBay at eight in the morning on a "Buy it Now" auction for $25.00. Some quick enthusiast spots the machine after it gets put on line by a seller who just wants it gone and is not a typewriter person, and the thing sells in good shape for just that $25 buy now price, with no bidding process. Is $25 at that moment a fair or realistic price for this typewriter in this condition?
Of course not.
Now, let's suppose that some collectors are looking at various auctions and on some or other public discussion board somebody brings up the auction. He or she might say "Hey, who saw that red Barr that went for $25 the other day? Someone got a steal, that's for sure!" The discussion goes on as you'd expect with comments like "OMG" and "Too bad I didn't see that!" and lots of the collecting community sees the completed auction photos, and regrets not having been "that guy" who clicked into eBay right before breakfast.
Now, two weeks later another red Barr shows up on eBay on a seven day auction, with no opening bid. The auction gets the predictable "prophylactic bid" after open to prevent it ending early for any reason, but not much action and stays around $30. Then on the last day, in the last two hours, it jumps up over $200 and then finally at the last second ends at $242.00. The machine got 21 bids overall. Is this price a fair or realistic price for this typewriter in this condition?
Yes, it is. It's a far better and more realistic assessment than the "one shot and gone" auction from earlier in the month. It's more sensible to aim for this higher price as a guess than it is to average the two final prices since the first auction was in many ways a special circumstance. Will these always get that high, even if there's bidding competition? Maybe, maybe not, but it's a decent target. Now, the examples above are hypotheticals. Let me give you a real one, and we'll see what you think!
The Strange Case of the Visigraph.
Here we see the elusive Visigraph. This is an obscure, and failed, standard typewriter that is only found in what we might call 'higher end' collections around the world because they never really come up for sale. Maybe 4000 were made, and less than 20 are known for sure to survive today.
I won this on an eBay auction that ran seven days. I won it for $100. That's right -- only one hundred dollars. Is that a fair market price for this typewriter? Not on your life. This is easily a thousand dollar typewriter at any time. What happened? I'll tell you what happened --
No one else saw it. No one bid against me. After I got this machine and let the cat out of the bag, I cannot tell you how many of the major collectors told me flatly "I never saw it!" The only thing I can figure is this: At certain angles a Visigraph looks sort of like an L.C. Smith, and perhaps even though the name was in the title, the photo on the auction was not enough to halt any other collector while scrolling through the auctions. This typewriter would never under any normal circumstance sell that low. I got lucky, and the value of the machine is realistically probably vaguely ten times what I paid for it. What I'm telling you is this -- the "street value" of a Visigraph didn't plunge because I nailed this one at $100. In fact, the Visigraph buzz picked up and had another showed up soon, it could have gone much higher than my rough value estimate.
Keep in mind folks- there are on any day maybe 25,000 or 30,000 typewriters and related items on eBay. It's highly likely that some items won't be seen by everyone. It's likely that some items will be seen by only a few. But for those typewriters listed as "rare" or "antique" you can bet that collectors have their filters set to call these up. It's hard for these to go unseen, even though these labels are being used more and more on machines that aren't rare at all.
Let's get back to the Dial soap for a minute. That product might have a "manufacturer's suggested retail price" or MSRP that you'll see in an ad - particularly if the product happens to be "on sale" for a price below suggested retail. That whole suggested retail thing came into being years ago when I think J C Penney's was sued over the price of appliances. As I recall they had appliances listed as "originally $XXX but now this price!" and what happened was it was shown in court that they had in fact never once actually sold the product at the $XXX level. This was the doom of "originally" and the onset of "suggested retail pricing."
That doesn't exist for products that have been out of production for thirty or fifty or eighty or a hundred years. What exists are trends -- and trends are fluid, which is the opposite of an MSRP.
So now we see that pricing of any kind of typewriter during any given chunk of time depends on a whole lot of variables -- who sees it, who DOESN'T see it, how long the auction runs, and so forth -- a lot of intangibles that aren't directly connected with the typewriter or its condition. We also know that there's no real hard guide for pricing to just "start out with."
Yes, there are some collector books out there with prices in them. There's one whose prices are kind of low, which was written when that particular author was trying to buy machines. There's also another one whose prices are kind of higher, and which was written when that particular collector was trying to sell off his machines. Keep this in mind if you go by print resources... but also remember this:
Print resources that inject a time dependent item like price are often obsolete in that respect soon as they hit the shelves. Things happen in markets that drive prices -- things that the authors of the books cannot have foreseen.
Larry McMurtry has single-handedly pushed the Hermes 3000 typewriter to the height of hype and hysteria. The Hermes histrionics are horrendous, and the hyperbole unending.
So now, since this famous author's endorsement of what originally was a very highly overpriced machine in the States, no one can touch a Hermes 3000 for anything like the prices they were going for ten years ago. The elevation of price caused by this hysteria has so highly inflated the common perception of that particular model's value that there's no chance of any seller who does any sort of research putting one on eBay for $25. Are the Hermes 3000 machines worth what they're getting because of engineering or manufacturing that in any particular way excels above other competitive machines? No, of course not - just like there's always someone smarter or tougher than you in a building, so is there always a machine around that's better than another. The high clearing prices that the Hermes machines are getting is because of a phenomenon, not because of some innate value the machines have. Nevertheless, what they're NOW worth is what matters, and no one would be able to reverse that trend unless a whole warehouse full of them was discovered.
Then, we have the range of portable typewriters built from the 1930's to the 1970's which are being offered "fully rebuilt," or "fully serviced" and refinished and so forth, which are put on auction or direct sales sites for prices like $500 and $750 and some even higher. This range of machines I like to call "boutique" machines. This is not a slam against the sellers of such machines, but rather a term that I cooked up to segregate in my own mind that class of typewriter, and seller, that offers a super-premium price for a more or less guaranteed product. The idea of this angle essentially is to take the guesswork out of buying a typewriter at auction and then either trying to fix it up or find a shop that will. You get that "dream typewriter," and get it fully operable and warrantied. However, I will say that it's my opinion that the prices of such machines are generally far beyond what is required to acquire a complete typewriter and then have it returned to fully operable status by a competent repair shop ... IF THERE IS ONE that you can drive to. I know some of these sellers fairly well and they turn out excellent products.
Do the boutique typewriters have an effect of driving up prices on the average? There's no gauge for that but the common sense guess would be "probably," in so far as typewriters of specific models are being sold for the prices they are obtaining, and that cannot go unnoticed by other sellers who search completed items to gauge pricing.
Now, I'll get to the theoretical questions that headed up this long-winded diatribe.
•What should I pay for this typewriter? .... Well, that's entirely up to you. Do you have a disposable items budget? How much of that do you want to put on this particular machine? Is the machine you're looking at something that you MUST have? An example of this would be if you have a blue Barr portable and a green Barr portable and need the red one. That might cause you to bid far more money on one than you might otherwise bid because you're trying to fill a hole in a collection. If this bidding happens to involve several collectors who really want that machine, well, then the price is likely to get steep. Each buyer needs to look around, do some research and then decide if the range that machine seems to be going for as best as you can determine is something that the buyer wants to get involved with.
There was, when I started collecting, a sort of a "sound barrier" for typewriters at $200. That is to say, you really could not expect to get any good machines (from a COLLECTOR standpoint, that is, speaking about collecting as opposed to typing use) for any less than that, and the lowest tier of collectible typewriters almost always started right at that level. That's exactly what I paid for my very first collectible machine, the Blick Universal. I used that gauge for a number of years as a good tool to both buy machines and to advise others once I knew what was going on.
That's pretty much out the window now. For one, there are Royal typewriters built by the thousands that boutique sellers are pricing at several hundred dollars. This was not conceivable in August 1999 when I started out. No new-ish portable except a gold plated Royal or a sterling Smith Corona Sterling could have gotten near that price. Now, there are boutique portables in that range and of course Hermes machines, and various others. Alpinas can get up there. Torpedo machines, the fast portables can get up there. So, the $200 yardstick has been retired.
Deals are still out there, to be sure - whether it's because of a buy it now listing, or a machine found at a second hand store or even an antique mall, or even those where no one seems to see the same auction you're seeing (scroll back up to the Visigraph.) There are so many typewriters on eBay that it's hard to assume everything will get spotted by everyone.
YOU have to decide what you think you want to pay for something. What I might pay for something is very different from what this or that other collector might pay. It's very subjective... and as we've already seen, very competitive out there in auction land. Straight retail (like boutique sellers, or consignment / resale / antique stores) remove the haggles but increase the prices.
•"How much is too much for this model of typewriter?" Let's say 30% more than the highest price ever paid previously for that particular typewriter. However, if we're talking about a Sholes & Glidden here, and none has come up for auction in a while, and a bunch of big collectors are in on the action.. well, if you've decided to stick to that 30% rule you may just get passed by. And you need to be OK with that. Set a limit early in an auction process, in your own mind, and don't go over it. That isn't to say you shouldn't hope to get it cheap -- we all do. But be ready to pay up to your limit and be ready to let go beyond that.
•"I've lost five auctions on this model of typewriter - why can't I get one?" Simple - you aren't willing to pay enough money to get one IN TODAY'S ENVIRONMENT, IN THE SAME WAY. Try to get out and find one on foot, or on some other site, or put out a classified request for one. Or decide to spend more on it. There's nothing you can do to drive the prices back down on that brand X model X typewriter if they're up, so either find another way to get that machine, or belly up to the bar and pay more, or step away from that particular model for a while. Consider trading someone else two for one, or a machine and cash. Ask a friend to borrow one, if you've never used that model, to see if it really, really is worth all that money for you. Make specific inquiries on forums and then hope that someone who knows happens to see that question at that time. There are many ways to move ahead after a string of losses on a given model.
•"Why won't anyone just publish a price list for all old typewriters?" Go back and read all of this blog post over again in its entirety, slowly, to get this answer.
IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS
What should you pay for a 1957 Smith-Corona Silent-Super in Pink, with Holiday case and paperwork including instructions and bill of sale? Oh, and it has a cursive type face. In this case, I'd bet you'd need to put around $200 to have a shot. Maybe that wouldn't even get it. It's a gut feeling, taken from having watched thousands and thousands of auctions over many years and seeing the trends going up on pink machines, on cursive machines, on machines with all paperwork. These are value enhancers to be sure, and in your own mind you should know that every one of these individually drives up desirability. Together they'd be a killer combination.. for the seller, if lots of people see the machine and bid, and for the buyer if he or she can get it cheaply. And what is "cheaply?" I'd say if you got that for $100 you'd be in good shape. If you found that at an estate sale for $15? I'd be happy for you. If you had to have that, and paid $210 at auction? I'd say well, that's probably fair. If you got it for $550 from a boutique seller? I'd say you have a warranty and peace of mind.
Can I give you a price like this for every typewriter out there? No, and if I told you I could I'd be either a liar or a fool. (Or maybe a phony.) No one collector is likely to have a thumb on the exact running price trends of all models at once. Some of us use the "sixth sense" or "gut feeling" method, while some others meticulously track prices achieved every day. It's up to the collector as to which method they want to use to ensure they don't overpay too often for machines (unless price is no object - but how often is that possible?) Some collectors will commonly and publicly assess whether or not they think other collectors have overpaid or underpaid for this or that machine. This is common; ignore it. More than likely, they've both overpaid and underpaid as well. Your own opinion about overpaying for a machine needs to be set before you bid - if you win the machine on the seventh day on a bid you made on the first day which no one beat, you did not overpay. If you made a bid and then got outbid on the fourth day and then gave up, you probably did just fine in that. The danger is when you second guess yourself and bid like mad on the last day or in the last hour or minutes. This is something to seriously consider.
So, above I've given you a whole lot of my feelings and experience about pricing. For those who came here looking for a per-machine price guide, you now know why I cannot and will not attempt that. For those who really want to embark on collecting typewriters, whether to use or just to collect in the traditional sense, I hope you now feel a lot better prepared for what lies ahead.
Hobbies are supposed to be fun. If you're trying to make good deals or just make good investments, try the stock and bond market. If you want zero risk and little drama, maybe stamp collecting might be a good choice. I will take typewriters any day over any other collectible, and even with the drama of prices and auctions and so forth, intend to stick with it permanently. Consider the benefit of the whole before being caught up and pushed away by the height or heat of the moment.
Now, get out there and look for those typewriters you want.