From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, the 'golden age' of radio, the airwaves were filled with music, comedy and news reports, and a valve radio sat in almost every home. Many were produced in colourful ‘Bakelite’ cases by popular makers like FADA, Emerson, EKCO (E. K. Cole) and Philips. These are now very collectable, with values ranging from as little as £30 ($50) for a 1950s mottled brown Bakelite Bush DAC90 to over £29,000 ($51,000) for a possibly unique blue bakelite Air King 'Skyscraper'.
Many valve radios can be restored to working order, but you should always seek professional advice before trying to plug in any vintage example: an American Catalin radio, for example, would be severely damaged if used in a UK plug socket. However, it is primarily the style of the case, rather than the quality of electronics or the sound, that makes the difference to value.
Look for classic forms, and radios that reflect of the style of the period. The most desirable pieces are Art Deco in style, or what is known as Industrial or Streamlined in style. Brightly coloured cases, such as cherry red, blue or green, are also very sought after. Look out for contrasting details, such as a blue grille on a yellow Emerson 'Tombestone'. Though ‘bakelite’ has become a generic term for plastic made from malleable resin, cast in a mould and dyed, the most brightly coloured examples are typically made from Catalin, which first appeared on the market in 1927 after the Bakelite patent expired. Genuine Bakelite tends to be found chiefly in, sometimes mottled, black, cream and brown.
More recently, collectors have begun to re-examine transistor radios. The style of the case is important again, and the 1970s Panasonic 'Panapet' is a great example. Found in a variety of colours, and valued at £30-40 ($50-60), the psychedelic purple is the most sought after colour and can fetch up to £70 ($100).
Condition is crucial. Both Bakelite and Catalin were prone to cracking or chipping, or warping caused by the heat of the vales, so you always should examine and feel the surface/edges before buying.
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'Radio! Radio!', by Jonathan Hill, published by Sunrise Press, 1993.
Images supplied by and courtesy of On The Air.