Q: This record cabinet was passed down from my parents. Seeing your comments on a Regina music box jogged my memory on having this piece. Currently my wife is using it to store various craft items. I am just curious what kind of antique value a piece of this nature would have.
A: Most people who write us want to know what their specific item is worth, but today, the question is framed a little differently. The request is for a discussion of what “record cabinets” are worth in general, and we will address this issue, but we will also talk about what this piece is worth specifically.
In the letter, this piece is referred to as a “record cabinet,” and we think this is because that is the way that it was used in J.S.’s home, but that was not its original purpose. Instead, it is probably more correct to call this a “music cabinet” because it is our opinion that its original purpose was to store sheet music.
This piece was probably made sometime in the 1910s, and while musical recordings were readily available at this time, they tended to be found on cylinders rather than flat disks. The flat disk records that would have fit neatly into this cabinet and were so ubiquitous during the last 75 years of the 20th century were not really all that common when this cabinet was made.
True, Emile Berliner used disks for his “Gramophone,” with the first of these being marketed in 1889 — but only in Europe. They were 5 inches in diameter, and more of a toy than a serious music delivery system. In 1901, the 10-inch disk was introduced and in 1903 the 12-inch disk made its appearance — but it was not until the 1920s that disk records won the format war with cylinders.
When this cabinet was made, commercial radio was not even in its infancy (that had to wait until after the end of World War I). While many homes had disk phonographs, the cylinders would play only one song for a relatively short period of time (after 1909 that was just 4 1/2 minutes — and that was a great improvement over earlier cylinder playing time).
For serious home entertainment, people had pianos and friends and relatives gathered around these instruments to play and sing the music of the day. Many, many households had music cabinets similar to this one to hold their collection of sheet music, and these cabinets are found very commonly on today’s antiques market.
Many of these are very hard to sell and they bring very modest amounts of money — if they can be sold at all. Plain music cabinets with little or no decorative value struggle when they come up for sale. Those that are beautifully painted or have some other exquisite decoration might only retail in the $500 to $600 range.
Some examples with handsome marquetry or other inlay might retail in the $1,000 to $2,500 range (or even a bit more), but this would be a very rare music cabinet indeed. As for the example belonging to J. S., there was a time when it was very nice looking and may have retailed in the $300 to $400 range, but life has been very cruel to its surface and the doors look out of alignment.
There are now deep gouges on the top and the decorative diamond shaped corners are seriously degraded. These condition problems along with others mean that this particular cabinet has an insurance value less than $100.
Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.