Tips on Buying and Selling Traffic Signals
and Determining Fair Values

By Willis Lamm

Hardly a week goes by when I don't receive inquiries from potential buyers and sellers, usually new collectors wanting to know whether a potential purchase is a good deal, or sellers wanting to establish a value of something being sold. While I'm certainly happy to provide opinions when time allows, I've put this information sheet together to help guide those not heavily experienced in buying and selling traffic signals avoid making expensive mistakes.

What is a fair value?

There are deals to be found in the traffic signal world but there are also significant rip-offs. The ages of vintage signals are often either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresented. The rarity of a given piece or its provenance may be fabricated. On the other hand a seller may not know the actual age or rarity of a piece but just wants to get rid of it and the buyer can get a great deal. Actual values change over time so a good barometer involves checking with a large on-line auction site such as eBay and seeing what amounts signals like the one you are looking for are actually selling for. The item you want may go for more or less than average prices depending on age, condition, rarity and popularity.

Here is a brief summary of how signal values are often based.

  • Age

    Generally, the older the signal, the greater its value. So what is the actual age of the signal? Small details often provide clues.

  • Rarity

    Rarity increases value. Were tens of thousands of a particular signal made or are only a handful of a particular signal still in existence?

  • Make

    Some brands are simply more popular with collectors than others and demand keeps prices up. Crouse-Hinds is a popular brand and older Crouse-Hinds signals often bring higher prices than less popular brands that may actually be in shorter supply.

  • Condition

    Most old signals are pretty rough looking, but are all of the pieces present and intact? Vintage reflectors and other missing or broken components can be incredibly expensive to replace. Holes drilled into bodies or other modifications can significantly degrade the collector value of a piece. If your objective is to acquire a signal that would also serve as an investment piece, these issues can be significant.

  • Provenance

    Buyers will sometimes pay more for pieces that come from cities that they identify with, but is that provenance accurate? I often see signals for sale as being represented as being from places such as New York City or San Francisco which clearly were not the brands and models used in those cities. Some sellers make this stuff up and others may have been misled by whomever they acquired the signal from.

The type of signal being considered certainly affects value. A fixed 4-way signal is typically valued higher than single face signals or adjustable signal clusters. Restorable or working signals having flags or signs that move in conjunction with illuminated indications can be very valuable. Signals having extra features such as art-deco fins, down lights, "Presto Brite" sign boxes and other less common features can add to value.

So how do you as a potential collector or a seller know what is a fair price?

Compare before you bid or buy.

Signals for sale can be found on auction sites such as eBay and they also show up on places such as Craig's List. eBay has a section called "Traffic Lights and Signals." There are hundreds of listings with prices spread all over the map. Some sellers are asking ten times or more than the value of items listed, so establish a fair value based on items that are actually receiving bids.

Read the description carefully.

Once you have a sense of the value of what you are looking for, read the listings carefully to determine what you are actually getting. Has a piece sustained significant damage that would be expensive to repair? Are the visors present or would finding replacements add to your overall costs? Are the reflectors present and intact? Glass reflectors can discolor over time and can suffer minor stress cracks, but the big issue involves reflectors for which large chunks are missing or are absent altogether. Are the lenses original to the signal or have they been broken and non-original lenses replaced them?

Get as many views of the signal as possible.

Ask the seller for additional views if the ones posted don't show all sides of the signal, show the signal with doors open to verify the condition of internal components, and show the lenses. While it may not seem significant, having original lenses in a signal is important to preserving its originality. While replacement lenses can be found, costs can range from around $15.00 to over $100.00 each, depending on rarity, so having those original lenses can affect final restoration costs. Also with some manufacturers, various vintages of signals may appear identical on the outside, but clues to their actual ages can be found by looking at the interior components.

Knowing what is inside is important.

Also note that sometimes sellers will not provide interior views because the door latches and/or hinges are frozen. Such issues can be problematic when trying to restore such pieces, plus there is no way to know what is actually inside.

Older signals will often suffer from worn out internal wiring, especially if they had fabric coated wire. Old wiring, while potentially dangerous, is one of those issues that can be easily remedied. Please see the Restoration Tips section for advice on that issue.

Verify provenance claims.

When a seller claims a particular provenance of a signal and attaches that provenance as a basis for a high price, do a little research and determine if that provenance can be authenticated, or at the very least, if that type of signal was used at the location and time period claimed.

Selling tips

If you are selling a signal and are unfamiliar with traffic signals, these same tips apply. If you think you have a valuable piece, include the various views of the signal with your listing, including views with the doors open showing internal components. Providing a "complete look" at a truly valuable item can increase the confidence of potential buyers.

Continue to Tips on Determining Age

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