Acquiring vintage telephones has been a way of life for Ryan Sluz, 21, since he was a schoolboy. Today he owns 50, and his collection is worth about £7,000. He says: “I expect it to at least double in value within the next three to five years.
“I would say I am spending up to £500 a year on telephones, but the return is way above what I could get from an Isa account. With judicious purchases I can guarantee a return of 10 to 20 per cent a year.”
While Sluz is happy to swap items with collectors, his investment strategy is to hold on to any telephone until he can improve on it and acquire the same one in perfect condition. “That way I think its value can only go up, and very considerably.”
“I tend not to keep any phones with a crack or defect for long. I had a black 300 series telephone from the 1950s with a big chip on the side, but a year later I managed to purchase another one. I sold the damaged one on eBay for £85, when I had only paid £40 for the better model.
“Bakelite telephones in good condition from the 1920s and 1930s can make a sound investment. There are not many of them around now, though they still turn up occasionally. Bakelite was introduced in 1911, and used to produce phones from about 1929 until 1964.
“The cheapest Bakelite model we sell is £69, from the 1950s, and made in Switzerland. In five years’ time it will be worth £129, because I think it is very high-quality.”
Sluz works in Cheltenham as an engineer and special consultant for Telephone Lines, the UK’s largest vintage telephone company, established in 1992. He joined the staff full-time at 16, having already worked there at weekends and during school holidays. He also auctions items on eBay, selling mainly to UK and US buyers.
The expert was 11 when he bought his first old-fashioned phone, after seeing rotary dial phones on a rerun of The Sweeney. He says: “I saved up my pocket money and spent it in the shop where I now work. They made a special deal on a 1970s cream 746 phone for £10. That would now be worth £39. My parents and friends thought I was crazy.”
Sluz went on to do a paper round as a teenager to pay for more old phones, amassing 30 by the time he left school. He says: “When I was 14 and in the school’s prop room for drama productions, I spotted a rare, ivory Pyramid telephone from the 1930s. I approached the teacher to ask if I could have it, and he said I could, at the end of term. When I came back I found to my horror that the phone had been dropped on the floor and was smashed to pieces, and half of it had been put in the bin. Today it would have been worth £500.”
At 15 Sluz came across a valuable black Bakelite King Pyramid phone from the 1920s. He purchased it for £5. Now it is worth about £300. He says: “It has got a chrome dial and was made before telephones had bells inside them. In the 1920s people who used telephones were very well off, and would have had a large house and several telephones with separate bell boxes in a number of rooms.
“This Bakelite model was compact and really modern for its day, as the bell box could be screwed to the bottom of the device. It is not rare, but was the first telephone to have the receiver and microphone in a one-piece handset.”
The telephone dates back to 1876 when Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell developed and patented the device. The first telephones were on the market in England around 1900, although the invention had been demonstrated to Queen Victoria in 1878. These early magneto designs had a handle on the side that you could wind up to get through to the operator in the local exchange.
In 1912 the first automatic telephone exchange opened in Epsom, Surrey. Telephones were then supplied with a rotary dial, which made them much more accessible.
Sluz says: “Many parts of England were still using the old wind-up magneto system. In those days telephone exchanges were manned 24 hours a day. It was not until about 1960 here in Cheltenham that the exchange was changed to accommodate telephones with dials.
“Interestingly, the Australians and New Zealanders used exactly the same telephones as we did and the same exchange to make them work, but everything was back to front. The old New Zealand and Australian dials went from zero to nine instead of nine to zero.”
One of Sluz’s favourite pieces was an absolute bargain. “After a chance meeting at a party, a lady gave me the number of a man with three antique phones for sale. The first two were not very interesting, but the third was a black Bakelite phone from 1934 that I would say was worth £200 to £300.
“He was asking £10 for each phone so I gave him £30 for the three of them. The valuable one still had the original dial label in a disc from the house, which definitely makes it more authentic.”
Sluz treasures a red 300 series phone from the early 50s. He says: “I paid about 150 quid for that from a flea market in Malvern about six years ago and today it is worth £600. Red phones were designed and sold only to the wealthy. In three years’ time I reckon it should be worth about £800.”
Besides antiques fairs, good sources of acquiring vintage telephones include eBay, flea markets and car boot sales. Sluz believes that the huge impact of eBay has made telephones more in demand than ever. He does, however, caution new collectors to seek expert advice, as the market is flooded with fakes.
Eighteen months ago the collector sold one of his favourite telephones and still regrets his decision. He says: “I was getting rid of some surplus stuff on eBay and I thought I would put this telephone on the market to see what interest it generated.
“It was a number two candlestick phone, with an extremely rare aluminium plate over the front of the microphone housing. The plate told you how to use the telephone. I sold this model for £250, which was a shame. It is now worth £375. Four years earlier I had paid £110 for it.
“I should never have parted with it because I will never find another one.”
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