How can you determine the value of an antique lightbulb? It's not easy to calculate, as their value is based only on what collectors are willing to pay for them. But here are a few ways to tell which bulbs are worth more than the rest.
Note: When I say a bulb "usually sells for $x", I am assuming that the bulb was sold on eBay, which is where we collectors get most of our antique lightbulbs.
Please use the following text as a general guideline only, and not as a set of rules. I won't take any responsibility if you list a bulb on eBay and fail to sell it, so be careful. You may contact me
for additional help if you wish.
In general, the older a lightbulb is, the more it will be worth, but there are a lot of other factors to consider which influence the price tremendously:
The most important factor that will determine your bulb's value is its functionality. (Here's
a tutorial on how to test a lightbulb without damaging it). If your bulb doesn't work, in most cases it will be worth little or nothing, and it is more than likely that you will not be able to sell it unless it is a very rare bulb. If your antique lightbulb is in absolute mint condition: Working, no glass darkening, no scratches, intact tip, no corrosion, and with an intact label... then you can expect to get a good profit from it. Take into consideration that a bulb from the 1890's in bad shape can be worth more than a bulb in mint condition from the 1940's, so you should not assume that because a lightbulb is in great shape, it is worth a lot. Consider the next value factors too.
It can be safe to say that all bulbs made before the year 1900 will sell at an online auction, working or not (assuming they are at least in "fair" shape). These bulbs are very scarce and in high demand. How can you tell if a bulb was made before 1900? A good way is to look at the bulb's base type. Common 19th
century bulbs have Westinghouse Pin Bases, Thomson-Houston bases,
or early Edison bases
, all three insulated either with plaster or with porcelain (note: Porcelain is white, not black!). Although there are a few exceptions (Westinghouse based bulbs with black glass insulation do exist), the most common pre-1900's bulbs have porcelain insulation on the bottom. A common bulb from that era in absolute mint condition can sell for hundreds of dollars, while a non-working one in fair shape can sell for about $5-$50. Though in the case of most Thomson-Houston based bulbs, they don't seem to sell well if they do not work, as they are not so uncommon. They may sell for as low as $20-$30 or a little more each, even in good working condition. I wouldn't list a non-working Thomson-Houston bulb on eBay, unless I had more than one at hand.
Below you can find pictures of early lightbulb bases. Hover your mouse over an image and a small description should pop up.
Note that there are a lot of other early base types. But they are so scarce, that they are virtually impossible to find, unless you go to a museum.
In the world of collectible lightbulbs, rare bulbs are those that are well known and that were produced in very small numbers. Most people think that just because they found a bulb that was produced in a small number, it is worth a lot. This is not true if the bulb in question was insignificant in the evolution of lighting history, and even more untrue if the bulb is not antique.
The bulbs pictured below are the top 2 most common antique lightbulbs. Hover over the images to see a description. Bulbs like these in good working condition usually sell for $5-$15 each, but are worthless in non-working condition.