It’s Hard to Find Key to Some Values

Times Staff Writer

Question: I have a collection of very old keys--most are more than 50 years old. Are they collector’s items and are they of any value?--H.A.

Answer: Collectors say it is difficult to classify American-manufactured keys into a rare category that could produce exotic price tags. One problem is actually researching a particular key’s age. Unless you know the manufacturer, or unless there is a number code with which to work, you’ll have a problem with age, an important factor in appraising value.

Having established age, we see in catalogues that even 50-year-old keys don’t usually sell for much more than about $10 each. But there are notable exceptions.

Railroad keys, such as switching keys, are very popular among collectors, and a key from an old, or now-defunct, railroad could change hands for $50 or more. Old car keys, on the other hand, usually bring less than half this amount.

It might be a good idea to get in touch with other collectors through Key Collectors International, P. O. Box 9397, Phoenix, Ariz. 85068.


Our recent reply on slot-machine collectibles produced a letter from I. Nelson Rose, associate law professor at Whittier College, who noted that both the state Legislature and the courts have been sorting through the legal thicket of the legality of acquiring gambling items.

“Until recently it was illegal to own a slot machine, whether or not it was an antique,” says Rose, an expert on gambling laws. But then, in 1976, the law was amended so that “a slot machine shall be conclusively presumed an antique slot machine if it was manufactured prior to 1941.”

The problem with the law, Rose notes, is that “many slot machines have some parts manufactured before 1941, and some parts after, while other machines are either reproductions of earlier models or are considered antiques by traders, though manufactured after 1941.”

So last year, Rose observes, the California Court of Appeal held that “machines built after 1941 are also protected if they fall within a reasonable definition of ‘antique.’ ”

Separately, Rose says he’s interested in whether collectors of gambling items have run across the term “stud-house poker"--a game played in the 1880s in the Old West. His interest lies in the fact that he has been retained by a club that wants to allow stud poker on its premises--where one or more cards are dealt face up--as opposed to draw poker, where all the cards are dealt face down and which is legal in California by local option.

“I would appreciate it if you could ask your readers who collect old gambling collectibles if they have ever stumbled on that term, as it was used in the 19th Century,” he says.

Rose can be reached at the Ross McCollum Law Center, 5353 West 3rd St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90020.

Date book: The American Society of Camera Collectors’ Antique and Collectible Camera Show will be Sept. 29 at Machinists Hall, 2600 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $3.50, with many camera shops offering 50-cent discount coupons.

“One hundred exhibitors from all over the United States will be displaying used cameras, accessories, movie equipment, films, books, images and 3-D equipment. Much of it will be for swap, sale or trade. Also, free appraisals will be given upon request,” Society president Gene Lester says.

Added attractions will be displays of a 24-karat-gold camera collection and Civil War photos reproduced from Matthew Brady originals.