Neon signs were highly valuable advertising tools, but now they are collectible items you can use to beautify your decor and make it unique. It is known that one Parisian barber used the first neon advertising sign in 1912, and it became trendy almost immediately.
Luckily, endless neon sign styles are available on the market, so you can quickly find those you like the most. Since some of these items can be worthy, you should check an antique neon sign value guide before purchasing.
Antique Neon Signs History
The name NEON came from the Greek word NEOS, meaning new gas.
History says the Frenchman Georges Claude invented neon signs in 1910, but the neon lighting concept dates to the 1800s. In fact, the path to modern neon is pretty long. Let’s see.
1675 – Barometric light
Jean Picard, the French astronomer, noticed that mercury discharged some light after shaking a mercury barometer tube and named this phenomenon barometric light.
It was the first time someone noticed atom activation in a vacuum that resulted in lighting. Understandably, Picard didn’t know that static electricity was the reason for this glow.
1855 – Geissler tube
German physicist and glassblower Heinrich Geissler applied electricity to gases in sealed glass tubes. As a result, he invented a glass cylinder with electrodes on each end and named it the Geissler tube.
After filling it with inert gas, putting it under low pressure, and turning on the electricity, the tube worked as a neon light. However, Geissler couldn’t solve the problem with partially evacuated glass tubes.
1898 – Neon gas discovering
Englishman Sir Ramsey discovered noble gases, argon, helium, krypton, xenon, and finally neon that never react with other elements. They soon realized neon produces a glow. The following step was to separate this rare gaseous element from other gases in the atmosphere by fractional distillation.
Sir William Ramsey won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 for inert gas discovery and finding the right places for them in the periodic system.
1902 – Claude system
French engineer and chemist George Claude invented an eponymous liquefying air system and patented his invention in 1915.
1909 – The first neon glow lamp
Daniel Moore from General Electric developed the miniature neon glow lamp seven years after Claude patented the neon process.
1910 – Neon lighting
George Claude used his system and created the first successful neon light consisting of 40 feet (12 m) neon tube. He presented his invention at the Paris Motor Show the same year.
1912 – The first neon advertising sign
One barbershop on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris was the first to use a neon sign for advertising. Soon after, Cinzano (an Italian vermouth manufacturer) and Paris Opera installed neon signs above their entrances.
1923 – Neon came to the US
George Claude brought neon to the USA and managed to sell it in Los Angeles. The Packard Automobile dealership was the first American company that accepted a neon sign as a way of advertising. They paid an astonishing $24,000 for this neon sign, which soon became an attraction.
1924 – Big businesses start
Claude sold neon signs worth $240,000 this year. However, small and large businesses discovered that neon signs pay off immediately, and he started earning $20 million annually after a few years.
Antique Neon Signs Styles
You can find antique neon signs in numerous styles, depending on the brand, motif, design, color, or shape. There were practically no rules in design, and the only crucial factor was to make a sign to attract customers.
Collectors enjoy numerous neon sign types but typically pick one and stay dedicated to it. It is possible to roughly divide them into a few groups:
Brand and logo neon signs
Neon beer signs
Companies used these neon signs for advertising in bars and restaurants. Vintage brands like Miller, Heineken, Coors, Carlsberg, Budweiser, and Tuborg are the most desirable on the current market.
Automotive neon signs
Most oil companies, like Gulf Oil, placed neon signs on gas stations to advertise their businesses. Collectors enjoy putting these pieces as unique decorations.
Iconic brands, such as Coca-Cola, 7-U, Pepsi, Fanta, and Orange Crush, were among the first companies with their own neon signs. They are in demand nowadays and are an excellent addition to Coca-Cola memorabilia or vintage neon sign collections.
Even though the campaign against tobacco has been hard during the last decades, collectors like vintage neon signs for tobacco companies. The most sought-after pieces are for Lucky Strike, Marlboro, and Camel.
Neon signs in shapes
Collectors typically adore shaped signs. You can find numerous models with appearances depending only on the designer’s imagination. Their advantage was to send a message without a word. The most popular are:
- Girl-shaped neon signs
- Coke bottle-shaped neon signs
- Fish-shaped neon signs
- Ice cream cone-shaped neon signs
- Anchor-shaped neon signs
- Guitar-shaped neon signs
Neon open signs
You can find these vintage neon designs combined with brand signs, but they sometimes come on their own. Companies used them to inform customers that the sales point was open.
Neon word signs
Restaurants and shops used neon signs with words, such as Snack bar, Cocktails, and Eat signs, to let customers know what the place offered. The most interesting old signs in this group are those featuring holiday messages. My favorite is – Merry X-Mas!
Neon Sign Value
Claude Neon, the French company, introduced the first neon gas signs in the US in 1923. Most antique and vintage neon signs are worth $100 to $350, but you can find some exceptions to the rule. The list of the most expensive ever includes:
The most expensive antique neon signs
|Production year||Neon sign type||Price|
|1926 to 1927||Musgo Gasoline||$164,700|
|The 1930s||Harley-Davidson Motorcycles||$86,250|
|The 1950s||Chevy Boy (Chevrolet)||$69,000|
|The 1940s||Cadillac||$10,000 to $28,750|
|The 1950s to 1970s||Scene-o-Rama (Hamm’s Beer)||$500 to $1,500|
The most expensive neon sign ever was designed to advertise Musgo Gasoline. Almost no one ever heard about this company because it worked only from 1926 to 1927.
It is estimated that only a dozen of these neon signs still exist, and one collector paid $164,700 for one in immaculate shape at auction in 2016. The following year, another piece reached $55,000.
A scarce Harley-Davidson neon sign from the 1930s is a real gem. One of the fanatic Harley admirers paid $86,250 for it at auction in 2015.
Car collector Ron Pratte sold his auto advertising collections at auction in 2015. The real rarity was the Chevy Boy, a Chevrolet dealership neon sign from the 1950s since only two were produced. One collector paid $69,000 for it.
According to auction records, you need to set aside $10,000 to $28,750 for a 4 by 6 feet (1.2 x 1.8 m) Cadillac neon sign STANDARD OF THE WORLD from the 1940s. The price typically depends on the sign type since the company produced both one- or two-sided models.
Hamm’s Beer Scene-o-Rama
Breweriana (old-school beer advertising signs) are always pricey, particularly pre-Prohibition beer signs. Pieces in excellent condition are typically worth a few thousand dollars.
The Lakeside Plastics company created the back-lit sign, so-called Scene-o-Rama” signs, for Hamm’s Beer, and they were popular from the late 1950s to the 1970s. You can find one for $500 to $1,500.
Things to Look for When Collecting Neon Signs
As you can guess, older neon signs are more expensive than pieces produced during the last few decades. For instance, collectors appreciate those made in the 1950s and are prepared to pay a lot for antique pieces in excellent condition.
The first step when buying a neon sign is to check whether it is authentic. Be particularly careful with vintage neon beer signs because they are the most sought after, and fraudsters often copy them.
Authentic neon signs created before the 1960s always featured cloth- or rubber-wrapped wiring style. Since you shouldn’t use the sign before replacing this wiring, most professionally restored signs have modern ones.
It is almost impossible to find an old neon sign without traces of wear since they were mostly installed outside. In other words, they were exposed to bad weather and direct sunlight, and you can notice rust, broken pieces, or fading.
As you can guess, antique neon signs are worth more when they are in working condition. Non-working ones are also worth some money, but you should count on restoration costs in this case.
Be prepared to pay at least $500 per sign since it is a highly specialized craft. Another problem is the pricey equipment required for this job.
The rule of thumb is that more sizable signs are more in demand and are typically more pricey. However, it can be challenging to find collectors for oversized pieces since they require space for storage.
You can assume that complex and beautiful neon signs are worth more than simple unattractive pieces. Their purpose and usability are wider, and that is costly.
Judging by the antique neon signs trading on the current market, the most desirable are those used for oil and beer advertising. Remember that collectors are interested in all pieces produced during the first half of the 20th century. It is just a question of price, and more desirable brands’ neon signs typically cost more.
Antique neon sign value
|Neon sign type||Price|
|Duquesne Pilsner beer neon sign||$3,000|
|Budweiser beer neon sign||$600|
|Sapporo imported beer neon sign||$480|
|Heineken beer neon sign||$410|
|Carlsberg beer neon sign||$410|
|Tuborg beer neon sign||$250|
|Fallon light beer neon sign||$225|
|Lowenbrau beer neon sign||$185|
|Moosehead imported beer neon sign||$175|
|Banquet Coors beer neon sign||$165|
|Alaskan Amber beer neon sign||$90|
|Henry’s Dark beer neon sign||$65|
|Guinness beer neon sign||$33|
Uncommon and atypical neon signs usually cost more than standard ones. Rare pieces can reach high sums of money at auctions, particularly when they are in excellent working condition and feature all original parts.
Most antique pieces are worth only because of high demand, and the same goes for neon signs. When more people seek after a particular neon sign, it is more expensive and vice versa.
Useful neon signs are typically more costly. For instance, bars can still use vintage COCKTAILS neon word signs, and they are willing to pay for them. A SEALY MATTRESS neon sign is a piece of history but is useless and can only be a decoration in a garage.
Places to Buy Neon Signs
Neon signs have been an attractive way of advertising, plus they are gorgeous. Those are reasons why they are so popular among collectors nowadays. You can find them on eBay, Etsy, and Amazon or in private collections and antique shops.
Places Dedicated to Neon Signs to Visit
Many neon sign fans and dedicated collectors want to learn as much as possible about these pieces’ history. If you are one of them, you should look for a few really attractive museums in Las Vegas and Los Angeles with exhibits dedicated to this invention.
Books about neon signs
|Randall Ann Barna||San Francisco neon||$80|
|Martin Treu||Signs, streets, and storefronts||$53|
|Tom Zimmerman||Spectacular illumination||$35|
|Len Davidson||Vintage neon||$32|
|Group of professors||The motel in America||$27 to $52|
|P. Greenstein and Dydia DeLyser||Neon: A light history||$25|
|Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna||Saving neon: A best practices guide||$22|
|Samuel Miller||Neon techniques||$20 to $45|
|Christoph Ribbat||Flickering light: A history of neon||$20 to $34|
|Thomas E. Rinaldi||New York neon||$11.50|
|Peter and Sheila Laufer||Neon Nevada||$8 to $20|
Numerous books about neon signs show their importance in history, especially in American cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
All neon signs are collectible items, but collectors particularly look for custom-made pieces and rare ones created in the 1940s and the 1950s. Since their condition is crucial, you should check whether they work correctly before purchasing. Take your time and pick out a piece you are fully content with. Good luck!