The smart collector: Antique and early fire memorabilia is a white-hot collecting category

2013-06-09T00:00:00Z The smart collector: Antique and early fire memorabilia is a white-hot collecting categoryDanielle Arnet Tribune Media Services Arizona Daily Star
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Q: I got this fireman's trumpet, badge and bell at an estate sale and would like to know what they're worth. I was told the bell was used going to a fire.

A: Donning our clairvoyant's turban, we deduce that the reader seeks current market value because he's hoping he got a deal.

The reader adds that the badge and bell accompanied the trumpet.

To clue readers, fire memorabilia is a hot collecting category. Pardon the pun. Antique and early items, from badges to trumpets, bells, engine lights, fire extinguishers, hose nozzles, buckets and more are prized.

As with other areas of collecting, top dollar goes to certain objects with specific attributes.

Take that trumpet, for example. Pre-bullhorns, fire trumpets were for speaking. In this country, they go back to the 1700s. Imagine a metal cone up to 25 inches high with a flared bottom and what looks like an eyecup at the speaking end.

In the earliest days, fire protection was a for-pay service. As a form of insurance, members were issued a metal plaque called a firemark to put on the front of their house to indicate that they were covered. The fire brigade would see it and stop. A neighbor without a firemark would be out of luck.

It figures that given how collecting works, original firemarks are highly collectible. Warning: Marks have been widely reproduced since the beginning, and some repros are old and very good.

Widely used, old trumpets were made for use or presentation. Working horns used at fires were brass, nickel or silver-plated brass. Some were even tole, with a painted surface. Today's collector expects them to show signs of use, including dents and wear.

Presentation trumpets were also common, given for an occasion or recognition or as a gift. Some are quite fancy, with elaborate engraving and long decorative tassels.

As seen in an image, our reader has a working version: We spot what looks like a large dent in the bell. Images sent are not clear, so we can only comment generally.

Written info sent says the horn is 16 inches long, with a 6-inch-wide bell. The mark "Weidner" refers to a maker of fire equipment.

In this category, most current collectors go for fire items where they can connect. Some like regional fire companies. Others prefer items marked with obscure and/or obsolete companies. Still others want marked early items from existing companies in major cities.

Checking sale and auction databases, we found work trumpets resembling the reader's that sold recently for $180 up to $300. His is a standard version and would price on the low end, unless a buyer wants the particular maker's mark.

Presentation horns ran up to $3,000 depending on inscription and condition.

Badges sold for around $20 and up depending on company and markings. All were under $100. The bell is a cow bell, not a fire engine bell. I doubt that it was used going to the fire.

FYI: "Firefighting Antiques and Memorabilia" by James Piatti and Sandra Piatti ($49.95, Schiffer) covers the gamut of fire collectibles and is most complete guide available. Includes 2001 prices.

Q: I inherited a collection of antique spectacles. How do I find info and values for them? Is the completely dark pair for a blind person or a welder?

A: For serious information, go to www.oaicc.com online for the International Ophthalmic Collectors' Club. Founded in Britain, it includes pros in the field who know their stuff. Membership will give access to archives and expertise.

When an outstanding collection of nearly 500 pairs of early opera glasses sold early this year at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, members descended on the sale and/or bid online or by phone. They paid up to $1,875 each for stunning examples, and every single pair sold.

Another alternative is trolling the Web. You may find limited info that way. Welders wore protective goggles. The blacked-out lenses were for the photo sensitive or blind.

COLLECTOR QUIZ

Q: Why was leather adopted for fire helmets of the 1800s?

A: Leather deflected falling bricks and slate. Later, leather was embossed and painted.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to smartcollector@comcast.net or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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