Unlocking the Secret Treasures of Keys

Times Staff Writer

Question: Before I spend a small fortune on an old collection of American keys, I’d like to know some price ranges. The keys in this particular collection are supposed to range back half a century or more. G.F.

Answer: Half a century old is not a big deal to a key collector, who could have keys dating back a century or more.

Additionally, most dealer prices we’ve seen--whether house, railroad, car or specialized keys--do not appear to sport steep price tags. Most of the keys were in the $10-to-$20 range or less, and only a few (in these cases, railroad switch keys) were in the $50-and-above range.

Also, key designs have been manufactured in such great numbers that sheer mass production has held their prices down unless they have some particular historical significance.


Experienced collectors can usually spot where a particular key was manufactured and can make fairly precise age estimates.

A collecting club, Key Collectors International, lists its address as P.O. Box 9397, Phoenix, Ariz. 85068.

A recent item on folk art and bead collecting brought responses from readers who said there is an abundance of information on the subject in or near Los Angeles.

For openers, two museums that specialize in folk art include the Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., telephone (213) 937-5544); and the Southwest Museum, 234 Museum Drive, in the Highland Park area, telephone (213) 221-2163.


The Craft and Folk Art Museum, according to director Patrick Ela, features folk art from around the world and has some bead exhibits. Its library is open to the public by appointment.

The Southwest Museum, as its name implies, specializes in crafts of the American Indian and has extensive bead exhibits. Its library is open to the public without advance appointment, according to librarian Maria Balicka.

The article also evoked a response in the form of a colorful brochure from the people who run Mingei International, the museum of world folk art in La Jolla (4405 La Jolla Village Drive). Established in 1978, the name of the museum combines the Japanese words for people (min) and art (gei) . It’s designed to further understanding of the arts of people throughout the world. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays and 2-5 p.m. Sundays.

Additionally, the quarterly magazine Ornament (P.O. Box 35029, Los Angeles, Calif. 90035, $5.25 a year) has published on the subject. The editor, Robert Liu, is nationally recognized on the subject of bead collecting.


Finally, Elizabeth Harris, librarian for the Bead Society (P.O. Box 2513, Culver City, Calif. 90231), said her organization would provide readers with information on when and where the group meets.

“This will put (readers) in touch with knowledgeable people and give (them) access to a specialized library,” she wrote.

Date Book

July 9-13--Beer stein collectors will want to attend the 20th annual convention of Stein Collectors International at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. “We expect more than 300 stein collectors from all over the world to participate in stein sales, lectures and auctions,” Mark R. Durban, the group’s vice president, said. “Every major stein dealer in the world as well as many private collectors will be there selling.” For further information, write Durban at P.O. Box BG, Monterey Park, Calif. 91754.


Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.