What Are Old Banjo Ukes Worth?

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The subject of values is a controversial one when it comes to collectibles. No matter whether the items in question are antiques, medals, old cars, military items, or banjo ukes, often one's opinion is often influenced by how advanced he is in the hobby. A new collector has a very good reason to prefer modest valuations; he wants prices to be low so he can acquire specimens at a reasonable cost. On the other hand an advanced collector, or a dealer with a large inventory, would probably be thrilled to see prices go through the roof.

When dealing with banjo ukes, or any musical instruments for that matter, several factors come into play. Let's consider rarity first. It is logical to assume that a very rare item will be worth a lot of money. But suppose it is of interest to only a few people. Another, less rare item which is more popular might actually bring a higher price than its rarer counterpart. Thus, a Gibson model UB-4 banjo uke, while not especially rare, might sell for more money than a very rare model made by Lyon & Healy.

Another factor to consider is condition. Again, to a certain extent this depends on one's perspective. A collector will usually want an instrument to be in as perfect condition as possible. On the other hand, a musician buying it to play might not be nearly as fussy.

To some collectors, instruments that have been refinished, or had their metal parts replated, are less desirable and not worth as much as those that are original. Others want their instruments to be as nice looking as possible and so they might pay more for one that has been "restored."

My best advise to anyone owning a collectible instrument is to do nothing to it if you don't know what you are doing. Cleaning or polishing it could easily hurt its value, if not done properly. Remember, an instrument can always be cleaned or refinished but the original finish can never be put back. My personal preference is for instruments in original condition, and I'll pay quite a bit more for a banjo uke in that category than for one that has been "restored." I'm sure some would differ with that opinion.

Some of the more common banjo ukes appear on the market frequently, and these are not difficult to price. But what if only a few examples specimens are known to exist (and many of them fall in this category)? If one of them is offered for sale at a popular mail bid auction, and three collectors decide that they want to buy it, the resulting price might be difficult to rationalize. Very likely it won't be consistent with what a knowledgeable dealer would quote for an instrument having the same rarity and desirability.

As an example, let's say the three collectors place bids of $500, $1000, and $1500 respectively on the item in question. Bids are reduced, so the high bidder gets it for $1100 (ten percent above the second high bid). The question is, what is the instrument really worth? $1100? That's a logical assumption, since it sold for that amount. Now, what if another example of the instrument is offered at a later auction? The high bidder in the first sale no longer needs it so doesn't bid, and the other two collectors again bid $500 and $1000 respectively. This time the high bidder gets the item for $550.

Does this mean the instrument is only worth half of what the first buyer paid (and remember, that collector's bid was quite a bit more than the price he purchased it for)? Not necessarily. However, it does illustrate a set of circumstances that often exists in the collectible marketplace. My own philosophy is to discount an isolated high auction record and ask myself what the item is worth to me.

Banjo ukes were produced in large quantities during the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them can be purchased today for a couple of hundred dollars or less. On the other hand, some of the high end or fancier ones can easily fetch four figure prices. And, those instruments that are popular not because they are rare but because they sound great (the Ludwig Wendell Hall model comes to mind) will bring a good price for that reason.

One other thought that collectors should keep in mind: rarity and value don't necessarily go hand in hand. Some very rare banjo ukes don't bring very high prices. On the other hand, a Gibson UB-5 will always sell for a lot of money (for example, as I write this in May, 2008, a well known dealer is offering one on his web site for $3500). UB-5 banjo ukes are not rare. But, they are popular, and thus they command a good price. Remember, the rarest instrument in the world won't bring a high price if nobody is interested in owning it.

I realize that the information presented above is very general. Feel free to email me if I can answer any specific questions you might have.

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