I've been collecting old neon signs now for about ten years.
Old Neon Signs Are Works of Art
The element neon was discovered in 1898 by the team of Morris Travers and William Ramsay, working in their lab in London, England. Scientists soon realized that this noble gas, which does not react with other elements, produced a pleasant glow when injected into an electric bulb. Just over a decade later, in 1912, the first neon advertising sign was placed into service by a barbershop in Paris. In 1915 the French inventor Georges Claude brought his invention to the United States and sold the first neon sign in America to a Packard dealership in Los Angeles.
So impressive was the Packard dealership's sign that Claude's business was soon flooded with new orders. Because of Mr. Claude's invention, the look and feel of American city streets at night were forever changed. Today, you'll find neon signs in almost every city on the planet, advertising everything from Vegas casinos to brands of beer and sushi restaurants. Neon sign collecting as a hobby has soared in popularity over the past two decades.
There are neon sign swap meets, neon collectors groups on the web, and even nationwide conventions of neon aficionados. Within the neon sign collecting community itself, there are many subgroups, including gas station sign collectors, neon amusement park sign collectors, beer sign collectors, and even neon clock collectors. I myself prefer to collect neon beer and soft drink signs.
If you've ever seen a neon sign being made, you'll appreciate those who seek to preserve these works of art. Some signs take hundreds of hours to complete, yet all it takes is a few years of neglect or vandalism to destroy all of that work.
Where Do You Find Old Neon Signs?
If you want to get into collecting neon signs and already know what niche of the hobby you want to participate in, then perhaps the easiest way to begin is to simply purchase used neon signs on auction sites such as eBay. If you are like some people, however, and want more of a challenge, then you may want to consider searching along country roads, as well as at swap meets, rummage sales, and junk dealers for old neon signs.
Next, you may want to try your hand at restoring those that you find. Below is a photo of a sign that I recently spotted along a rural road in Maine. It advertised Pyrofax Gas Service, a local gas dealer near Bar Harbor, Maine, which once sold propane refrigerators, heaters, and stoves. This particular sign has a broken lighting tube yet could most likely be restored by a shop or hobbyist specializing in the restoration of old neon signs.
If you have ever watched shows such as "American Pickers," you might know that old neon signs such as this one can be worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars in some cases. The estimated value of this old sign in the photo is around $2,000–4,000 if sold at the right auction.
Things to Look for When Collecting Neon Signs
Before you make any purchase of a used neon sign, always do your due diligence to make sure that it is authentic. Vintage neon beer signs are perhaps the most copied items. Authentic collectible neon advertising signs will show signs of rust, sun damage, broken pieces, etc.
Unless they have been professionally restored, you will find that authentic neon signs from the 1960s and earlier feature the old style of rubber or cloth-wrapped wiring. This wiring may need to be replaced as it tends to become unstable and unsafe with age.
Antique neon signs in good working condition are worth much more than non-working ones but are also harder to find. If you are considering purchasing a large, non-working neon advertising sign such as the one above, you may want to see how much restoration will cost if being operational is important to you. Neon sign restoration is not cheap since it is a highly specialized craft.
If you are thinking of doing it yourself, then you should know that the equipment needed to restore neon signs can run into the thousands of dollars. That being said, anyone can learn the skills needed to bend neon tubing, evacuate the air from it using a vacuum pump, and install new gas in the tube.
If going to this extreme is not for you, then chances are a local sign shop in your area will be able to restore any old neon signs that you bring them. Just be prepared to pay as much as $500 per sign or more for custom neon sign restoration work.
The Neon Boneyard
The Neon Museum, also known as the "Neon Boneyard" museum, opened a while back in Las Vegas. This museum is home to several acres covered with vintage neon signs that once graced the skyline and streets of Vegas. Here you'll find everything from old smoking cowboy signs to those advertising drive-in wedding chapels. For about 15 bucks a head, visitors can browse canyons of old signs and imagine how they must have looked when they were all lit up on the "good old days" of Vegas. We took a tour of the museum a while back, and it was well worth the visit.
© 2021 Nolen Hart
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 08, 2021:
Neon signs can be quite beautiful. I can understand why they are collectible.