"They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway” but with all due respect to…
Vintage neon signs can be both nostalgic and valuable.
When the first neon advertising signs went up on Earle C. Anthony’s Packard dealership in Los Angeles in 1922, they caused traffic jams. Anthony had commissioned two identical signs with the Packard script in orange and a blue border from the Claude Neon factory in Paris. They cost $1,250 each, and passersby were so intrigued with the vibrant colors, they would stop and stare. Inventor Georges Claude received a patent in 1915 for his discovery that a glass Moore tube filled with neon gas and bombarded with electricity gives off a bright intense red, and when filled with argon, a grayish blue. He also found that coating the interior surface of the glass tube increased the range of colors. When Claude’s efforts to sell General Electric an exclusive license failed, he offered licenses or franchises at a cost of $100,000 throughout the United States.
Neon advertising flourished into the 1950s. It was inexpensive to make and creative artists made “one-off” designs that were dramatic and often animated. Over the next few decades, however, the cost of creating these individual signs became more prohibitive as the standardization that franchises and chains required was more efficient. Fluorescent lighting and Plexiglas signs became the new look in advertising and neon signs were becoming things of the past.
Of late, there’s been a resurgence in the use of neon, particularly among car collectors. Large “Car Barns” lend themselves to the decorative touch of vintage neon signs. And oversized signs that a few years ago were of little interest are now very collectible and increasingly expensive. Condition and originality are factors sign collectors look for, and early neon glass in Ruby Red and Uranium Green are cherished as those colors are no longer available. The more colorful the sign the better, and of course, a figural design adds to the desirability.
Sign collectors are especially enamored with neon signs from early automotive dealerships, particularly with variations of the Chevrolet “OK Used Cars” and the Ford “Blue Oval.” Gas and oil signs are also in high demand with the colorful Richfield Eagle, Mohawk Indian and multicolor Polly Gas parrot heading the list. Dan Matthews, of Matthews Auctions LLC, conducts about half a dozen auctions a year that specialize in vintage automotive collectibles and points out that a Harley-Davidson bar and shield neon sign recently sold for $65,000, and a large Ford Jubilee sign for $60,000.
Four years ago, RM Auctions offered the Dingman Ford collection that included several hundred advertising signs. Dozens of neon signs were included, and the auction results were strong. A five-foot Phillips 66 porcelain shield outlined with blue neon with the embossed 66 wrapped with orange neon sold for $5,750. A striking Champion Spark Plug sign with five colors of neon realized $29,900. And car collectors didn’t limit their interest to automotive neon, as illustrated by the $27,600 paid for a colorful Thunderbird Motel sign.
Also sold was a 44-foot round Signal Gasoline sign for $11,500. The neon had been added and the sign had been touched up. As such, the price paid was rather surprising. Dan Matthews says that the value of the sign itself can be reduced by as much as 75 percent when it is drilled for neon. This is a disturbing trend as neon glass can be added for a couple dollars a foot and transformers are a touch over $150. With wiring and a backing can, a desirable sign can be converted to a neon sign with relative ease, but the sign’s value is lost.
Collectors may be interested in vintage neon signs as an investment first, but there’s also the nostalgia factor. After all, there’s nothing quite like the glow of neon to add a period look to a car collection and complement the vintage cars on display.
One of the biggest marketplaces for neon signage is the annual January Scottsdale Barrett-Jackson automobile auction (scottsdalecvb.com/planning-tools/events/barrett-jackson). Prices vary, starting in the $1,000 range and quickly moving well into five figures. Several of the Mecum automotive auctions (mecum.com) also feature neon signs.
Neon is relatively easy to repair, so a break isn’t the end of the world. Contact local sign companies in your area to find someone who specializes in neon signage. Electrical code in most areas requires a backing can for a neon sign and, even if it isn’t required, it is recommended as several thousand volts are in play.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.