Tidbits: Finding Gold in Your Old Record Collection

Other than questions about who sang what, and when did so-and-so record such-and-such, the question most frequently asked of PopularSong.org is: "How much are my records worth?"

If we had a nickel for every time somebody showed us a stack of Crosby-Sinatra-Como-Clooney records, with the mandatory Mitch Miller sing-a-long and a Kostalanetz Christmas Collection thrown in, we'd be wealthy. And -- sorry to say this -- our pile of nickels would be worth a heck of a lot more than those piles of records.

Yeah, but these Bing Crosby 78s belonged to my grandfather...they've been in our family for over 60 years!

Here's how PopularSong.org answers this type of inquiry: In that case, the records must be extremely valuable to you. They are a family heirloom, they represent memories of grandfather, and they've obviously been cared for. They must be priceless to you. Why cheapen them by putting a dollar value on them?

At this point, the truth comes out: The offspring really don't care about the old 78s. They just want to turn them into cash. They fail to see the fact that, if grandpa's old records have no value to them, why would they have value to a complete stranger?

Well, don't people collect them? They must be worth a lot of money to a collector.

The short answer is no. Very few people collect old records. Those that do already have the records that you have. Bing Crosby, for example, sold millions of everything he recorded. Sometimes dozens of millions. With four million copies of Grandpa's set sold, and with only a couple thousand people actively collecting Bing Crosby records these days, well, do the math. Had Grandpa visited the "wrong side of the tracks" and bought blues records by pioneering black artists that were pressed in low quantities on obscure labels, then you'd have something. Problem is, ol' pops liked the same music that everybody else did. As a result, that 78 of Perry singing "Til The End of Time" is more or less worthless, financially speaking.

This answer has been drawn out a bit to illustrate the train of thought that almost everybody with a box of albums in the attic goes through.

The process begins when you see a news story of a rare record selling for thousands of dollars. Or perhaps you were making your way through an antique store, and noticed an old Benny Goodman/Peggy Lee box set of 78s with a $50 price tag on it. Regardless of what prompts it, the wheels are set in motion, and you're convinced you've got a box of gold.

It's all about economics. The sad truth is that the rare record really is rare -- maybe one of three surviving copies that is sought by perhaps 1,000 collectors, a dozen of whom absolutely "must" have it. The Benny Goodman set you saw is one of tens of thousands that still exist, and might appeal to perhaps 1,000 collectors, all but a dozen of whom already have it. Supply and demand. The rare record results in a bidding war, the common record results in 10,000 people trying to sell their copy to 1 of the 12 buyers. That selling ranges from the high end -- the antique store -- to the low end, flea markets and garage sales, with everything in between.

Collectors who are seriously looking for fairly common records will usually troll Ebay. Most 78 RPM box sets, for example, listed on Ebay for the first time have an opening bid of $20, and don't sell. A couple weeks later they'll be re-listed for $14.95 and still don't sell. Eventually they are relisted in the $5-$10 range, and the few collectors out there may snap it up -- if they need it. They usually don't need them, so most of the records listed on Ebay go unsold. Especially grandpa's "rare" Bing Crosby box set.

bing crosby showboat LP

Above, an early 33 1/3 RPM record featuring Bing Crosby. Sold millions then, worthless today.

After tanking on Ebay, the unsold stuff gets put in the next family garage sale, where the LPs are priced at a dollar and Grandpa's 78s are tagged for five. Some garage sale shoppers may buy an odd album or two on impulse, but will certainly pause at the high price of a dollar. Why? They know they'll see that same Sinatra album at the next four garage sales, so they can probably get it cheaper if they wait, never mind that they'll spend $10 on gas getting to and from all these sales.

continues above, in column at right...

featured performance

Here's Frank Sinatra singing Stardust, from the early 1940s. Unless you have an exceptional copy, a 78 RPM or a later 33 1/3 RPM release of this has little or no dollar value. But as far as personal value, the sky's the limit! Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

Tidbits, continued from column at left

After a couple of years going unsold in the annual garage sale, you finally get tired of schlepping a heavy box of records up and down from the attic. In terms of the value of your time, these records have already cost you more than they're worth. But you're determined that they have some value, and you hate to just throw them away. Then one of the 78s in Grandpa's set cracks during a garage sale shuffle, so eventually you get wise and donate the whole mess to the church rummage sale. You present your treasure to the ladies at the front table, and if you're lucky they say "oh, more records. uh, ok...please put them over there with the others." You put the box down by the others, and notice that those boxes also have copies of the Rex Harrison/Julie Andrews My Fair Lady soundtrack. A few will sell for a dime or a quarter apiece, the rest will be discarded.

Parts of this scenario are playing out right now, all around the country. Just check Ebay if you have any doubts.

So What Records are Worth Money?

One in a million. Well, maybe not quite that high, but it's close. Honestly, you're about as likely to hit the lottery as to find a valuable record in an old collection. But if you must know, there are some instances in which records will sell:

  • Early records from emerging artists on regional record labels. Sometimes these are worth money, but usually not.
  • Some promotional or DJ copies, but only if they were made in small quantities and the artist has a large following of rabid fans.
  • Picture sleeves from 45 RPM singles that are rare. Generally those on a young artist's first label, before they hit the big time.
  • Hard to find records in mint condition. Sinatra and the Partridge Family are not hard to find. You can look up records in online lists and printed price guides. But remember, these people are in the business of printing price guides, not buying records. It's up to you to find a buyer (good luck).
  • frank sinatra strangers in the night album
  • Album covers with good aesthetics in good condition. These are usually sold as impulse items at garage sales or flea markets -- some Sinatra fan sees the fantastic photo on the cover of Strangers In the Night and thinks it might look nice in a frame. They'll give you a buck and throw the vinyl away. Unfortunately most records were kept in crates, or were constantly rubbed together, so they generally don't fit this category. (A caveat: Just because an album cover is compelling, doesn't mean it has any value. In the rock arena, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is a beloved bit of artwork, but there are 10 million scuffed copies sitting in U-Stor-it facilities all around the country. Sorry, yours is worthless too.)
  • Auction a collection. Dig up all your Neil Diamond 45s and list them on Ebay with a starting price of a dollar or two. Make sure there is still a fan base for whatever artist you try this with; two dozen Joni James 45s will get you nowhere. (We love Joni, but her records have no value. Sorry.) Best to do this when there's buzz about a certain artist -- a TV special, a bio movie, a comeback tour, etc.

Finding the Value in YOUR Collection

Once you've come to the likely conclusion that your box of old records isn't worth any real cash, it's time to step back and consider the "real" value in your collection.

It might be memories, it might be a shared experience, or perhaps you have vague memories of grandpa playing that old set by Bing. In the case of a set of Crosby 78s, you've got a piece of Americana that may not have monetary value, but certainly has historical significance. It represents a slice of time critical to world history, in addition to whatever sentimental history it may hold for your family and for future generations.

The sad thing is, more and more people are throwing records away. Would a few of the best examples do any harm sitting in your attic for a few more years?

One use you might consider is to contact your local library or historical society...or perhaps a senior citizen's center. They won't want your records either, but many have display cases or bulletin boards that have rotating exhibits or themes. Perhaps they'd be interested in a tastefully arranged temporary display of vintage records...it would be a nice tribute to grandpa, and to the music of a time gone by.

To revisit "Tidbits" from September 2007 featuring artists with hits in 4 or more decades, please click here.