By Dan Matthews
It pays to advertise, so the old saying goes, but the real profits nowadays are in the signs that deliver the advertiser’s message, especially when it comes to petroliana. Ever since collecting gas and oil-related advertising became an organized pursuit in the 1980s, prices have increased steadily. Now, three decades later, the playing field is well established, with many auctions, collector clubs and shows that are dedicated solely to petroliana. As for prices, they aren’t on a gradual, northeastern climb anymore. They’re headed straight up, like a vertical line that you’d never see on a stock market chart.
Antique advertising, as a whole, is one of the most comprehensive categories in the collecting realm because there isn’t a product, service or business endeavor that hasn’t benefited from advertising and promotion since Pears Soap got the ball rolling in the 1880s. No matter what appeals to you – whether it’s soft drinks, Art Deco design or breeds of dog – you’ll find plenty of antique signs and other advertising items to suit your taste.
Like thousands of other enthusiasts, I’m attracted to petroliana advertising. I became involved with it in 1999, when only a relatively small group of men was interested in that sort of material. Now, both men and women collect, and let me assure you, a determined woman can be a formidable opponent at a petroliana auction.
The single most important catalyst to petroliana collecting was the Iowa Gas Swap Meet, which started in 1984. Another show that has had a huge impact is the Check the Oil show, held each year in June. It was actually the promoters of that show, who publish Check the Oil magazine, who coined the term “petroliana” to describe collectibles related to gas, oil and motoring.
There are four basic subcategories under the general heading of petroliana:
2. Oil and additive cans
3. Gas pumps
4. Gas pump globes
Of these four subcategories, signs command the highest prices across the board. The best examples have never looked back, pricewise.
Oil cans peaked in the late 1990s, after reaching very high levels due to a few aggressive, very competitive buyers. When they dropped out of the hobby, the market for oil cans crashed – but now cans are back up to where they were at their peak, and even higher.
The same could be said about the buying pattern for gas pump globes. That particular specialty was much more sensitive to changes in the marketplace because there were comparatively few people collecting them. For every one person collecting gas globes, there are probably 50 who collect petroleum signs. Gas globes are beautiful to look at, but they’re made of glass, and that scares off some potential collectors. Collectors like to display their items. There’s a risk in displaying glass of any type – I know that only too well from collecting art glass.
Also, it’s not very practical to display gas pumps in your home. That’s another reason why signs are so popular. They can be displayed on walls like artwork, and they’re made of metal, so they don’t break.
Petroliana collectors – especially those who collect signs – have to deal with a lot of competition from other collectors, but that’s nowhere near as great a concern as the number of fakes floating around out there. Petroliana is no different than any other area of antiques when it comes to repros. Whenever a collecting category becomes hot and prices start skyrocketing, fakes come out of the woodwork. It never fails.
In fact, there are so many fake petroleum signs out there, and some are so convincing, even I, myself, have almost been fooled. A knowledgeable collector of, say, pottery, can spot a fake a mile away. That’s not the case with advertising signs, which is why it is so important to buy from reputable dealers, collectors and auction companies that guarantee what they sell.
The gas and oil companies that, decades ago, commissioned the manufacture of high-end petroleum signs were absolute sticklers for perfection. Those signs represented their brand, and they wanted them to be flawless. I spoke with someone who had worked for a manufacturer in Ohio that made porcelain signs for gas companies. He told me Texaco representatives used to visit the sign factory to inspect new signs before they were allowed to be released. They would actually use a plumb bob to check the two sides of the “T” in Texaco to make sure the serifs were at exactly the same level. If they weren’t, the sign would be rejected.
Just about every petroleum sign is going to have some sort of flaw – maybe a slightly blurred line. That’s to be expected. But if you see a sign that is all blurred, that’s a warning. Beware of a repro.
Everyone wants to know where the market is headed for petroliana. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I feel reasonably sure that the answer is “up.” What worries me is that now there are so many places to buy, including eBay, and there’s such a high visibility for petroliana because of TV shows like American Pickers, that many of the new people coming into the hobby are not buying wisely. Not all of them are buying with quality as their primary focus. Because the demand has increased so much and there’s such a fever for petroliana, the prices are going up on the junk stuff, too, and that’s what will fall out first if there’s a shakeup in the market.
People are not paying stupid money – yet – but they’re still paying a lot of money for items of lesser quality. They should buy fewer items, but of higher quality. In 2001, at the second big petroliana auction I produced, I sold a Musgo sign for $20,000. Everyone was saying the buyer had overpaid and that the price would surely come down. Well, if I had that sign now, I could get $70,000 to $100,000 for it. I always say, if you’re going to gamble on whether something is going to go up or down in value, you’d might as well gamble on something that’s displayed on your wall, not something intangible like the stock market. You should buy a collectible because you like it. That’s very important.
Value depends on two things: scarcity and condition – and they play off each other. I’ll give you a few examples. If you had bought a perfect 10 out of 10 example of a 42-inch Texaco Gasoline & Motor Oil sign 10 to 15 years ago and paid, say, $1,000 to $1,500, it would be worth between $3,000 and $4,000 today. But a Musgo gas sign in 7 condition, with a lot of damage and only half of the porcelain remaining, is currently going for around $10,000. Why? Because only 7 or 8 perfect ones are known to exist, so a collector will settle for one in lesser condition just to have an example in their collection. Musgo had only two or three gas stations, and after they ceased operations, a plumber bought their warehouse and repurposed most of the remaining signs as septic tank lids. In the 1980s and ’90s, people went around digging up septic systems to locate the signs, which were worth $7,000 to $8,000, even in compromised condition.
Collectors on a budget might want to consider plates from Texaco Fire Chief and Sky Chief gas pumps, as well as Gulf No-Nox pumps. A few years ago they would have sold for $50 each, because they’re so common. But now there are many more collectors, so the price has risen to the $200-$250 range.
Attractive images always add to a sign’s value. A 1950s Harbor Petroleum sign, with beautiful marine blue, orange and yellow colors and an image of a seaplane landing on the water, could sell for anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. A Bruin Oil sign with an image of a bear is worth around $20,000. And a rare variation of a Socony five-point shield sign with a gargoyle mascot might sell for as much as $50,000 – only a few are known to exist. Collectors particularly like some of the petroleum signs that were produced by West Coast companies, too, as they tend to be quite colorful.
So how does a collector buy with confidence when there’s so much out there and so many caveats to consider? By becoming educated and purchasing from reputable sources – like Morphy Auctions – which will stand behind everything they sell. If a seller will not guarantee the authenticity of a gas or oil sign they are offering you, that should be a red flag. If you’re not smarter than the seller and cannot be sure of what you’re buying under such circumstances, my advice is to walk away from it.
The good news is, the hobby is full of enthusiastic, knowledgeable people who will share what they know and welcome you into their circle of fellow collectors. Collecting petroliana is endlessly fascinating, and once you start, you’ll never want the journey to end.
About Dan Matthews:
In 2007, certified appraiser and renowned petroliana expert Daniel K. “Dan” Matthews founded his own company, Matthews Auctions LLC of Nokomis, Illinois, following 15 years spent as a specialist auctioneer. The semiannual Peotone Petroliana & Automobiliana Auctions he founded, and continues to produce, are among the most popular and highly regarded events attended by gas and oil memorabilia collectors. In 2014, Dan merged his auction company with the Denver, Pa., firm Morphy Auctions, where he heads the Petroliana division. Dan Matthews is the author of The Fine Art of Collecting & Displaying Petroliana, Volumes I and II. Both books are in full color and include market values. The latter volume, which was released this year, focuses on tires, batteries and accessories.
To contact Dan Matthews about consigning to future petroliana and automobiliana auctions at Morphy’s, call 877-968-8880 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Morphy Auctions online at http://www.morphyauctions.com.