Collecting Medical Antiques 101: The Basics

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player so I collected baseball cards.

A few years later, I wanted to discover buried treasure and learned to scuba dive, built a marine aquarium, collected seashells and coral, and studied Marine Biology at University of California San Diego.

Reality then kicked in and I became a physician. I love practicing medicine but during years of medical school, we only got a one hour course on medical history, pathetic!

Medicine is rich in our culture’s history and a collection of medical antiques can help to display that history, let you touch it, bang on it with an old reflex hammer, read it from a great heavy old book, and pick up an antique surgical instrument and think, what did that do?

If you are considering collecting medical antiques or just started a collection, great! Read on. There is good news and bad news. I will walk you through all the mistakes I made so hopefully, you can avoid some of them.

WHY SHOULD I COLLECT MEDICAL ANTIQUES?

The most important reason to collect medical antiques is because you enjoy it, not because it is going to make you rich (financially) although it may make you rich in knowledge of the history of medicine. Most medical antique collectors have are in the medical profession but that is not a must.

WHAT MEDICAL ANTIQUES SHOULD I START COLLECTING?

If you are lucky, then a family member or friend just gave you a bunch of old medical instruments and this can serve as a foundation for your collection. They may have family value, nostalgic value, and possibly, financial value.

I run a house call based medical practice so I started collecting different antique and vintage house call doctor bags in 2005 to display around the office. My patients thought they were “neat” or “cool” and “reminded them of the days when their doctors came to the house.” This made me feel good and that is what collecting is all about.


When I say “antique” I mean it was made before 1930.

When I say “vintage” I mean it was made after 1930.


Doctor bags are very common since they were used by most doctors from the mid-1800s to the mid to late 1900s. They can be bought on ebay.com for $10 to $500 and come in all shapes and sizes [See ANTIQUE MEDICAL INSTRUMENTS, SIXTH EDITION, PAGE 86].

The problem with doctor bags is that most are made of leather which is very hard to maintain. So after a few years, realizing that my doctor bags were not going to go up in value because they are so common, I decided to stop collecting them, donated them to my local charity, and claimed a charitable deduction which saved me money on my taxes! I think I sold a few on ebay so I at least broke even.

As you can see, I started collecting focusing on a specific subject area that interested me that I could also afford. This is a good idea in starting since there are so many different medical antique subject areas out there to collect.

WHAT MEDICAL ANTIQUES SHOULD I NOT COLLECT?

Most collectors say to stay away from antiques that are from the 20th century of younger with the idea being, the older it is, the rarer and move valuable it must be. I think this is bullshit. Collect whatever you enjoy. Just because something is old does not make it valuable. For example, there are hundreds of antique medical books from the 1600s to 1800s that are nearly worthless because of poor condition or because they were lousy books to begin with.

WHAT MAKES A MEDICAL ANTIQUE COLLECTIBLE?

There is an old rule in economics, the greater the demand, the more desired the supply. Like the stock market, medical antiques can go up and down in value. There are some basics to consider when buying a medical antique and to help determine its desirability:


  1. Does the antique have provenance? In other words, did it belong to a famous physician (and is there proof that hey owned it like paperwork or a mark on the antique)? Antiques with provenance are desirable.
  2. How old is the antique? While 19th century medical instruments are relatively common, 15th century instruments are not and therefore tend to be more desired by collectors.
  3. How rare is the antique? Is it “bespoke?” That is, are only a handful known to exist.
  4. Does the antique represent a significant change from its predecessor? For example, the first binaural (two-eared) stethoscopes created are far more valued that the monaural (one-eared) stethoscope they replaced in the 19th century.
  5. CONDITION, CONDITION, CONDITION! This is fundamental to all collectibles. If your antique is missing a piece, broken, fractured, scratched, etc. it will be a lot less valuable.
  6. Small (size of a baseball) to medium sized (size of a shoe box) medical antiques tend to be more collected than large sized antiques (IE Vintage Hospital Beds).
  7. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; however, items made of precious or rare items like gold, jewels, silver, or ivory tend to be more valuable.
  8. Collectibles that come in an original hard case are always better than the item by itself.
WHERE SHOULD I BUY OR SEEK OUT MEDICAL ANTIQUES?

I have heard a few stories of people finding rare antiques at garage sales but this is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The best places to find medical antiques are:

  • www.ebay.com: Offers everything from rare to common antiques. Ebay can be very “hit or miss” and I suggest checking ebay daily since you never know what will show up when.
  • www.fleaglass.com: A website with professional antique dealers, some more scrupulous than others. Be ready to pay top dollar.
  • From other collectors looking to buy, sell, or trade like us!
  • Auction houses
HOW MUCH IS MY MEDICAL ANTIQUE WORTH?

This is a much harder question than it sounds and it depends on a number of factors. It is important to remember that there is a food chain in buying and selling antiques. At one end a general dealer might buy something he thinks is medical with potential value from a car boot seller who does not know what it is, for say $10. Next if the general dealer turned out to be correct he might sell to a specialist medical dealer for $100. At the top end the specialist dealer might sell the same piece to a specialist collector for $1000. This example of the price increasing by an order of magnitude as it rises through the food chain is more common than you might imagine.

The internet makes information available about prices and specialist vendors in a way which increasingly allows dealers to be bypassed. The other factor which affects price considerably is demand. In a market place where availability is limited, it only takes two or three collectors competing with each other to see prices in that area double over relatively short time frames.

Likewise established prices can fluctuate considerably in response to availability.

ANTIQUE MEDICAL INSTRUMENTS BY DR. WILBUR has a price guide at the back that is somewhat dated but throws you a bone as to what your antique is worth.

If you want an informal appraisal, please contact us by emailing Natan Schleider, M.D. at nschleider@yahoo.com. Please include several images of the item along with dimensions, weight, and everything you know about the item.

WHEN TO BUY AND HOW MUCH TO PAY?

Having collected since 2005, I have seen the medical antique market go u and down like the stock market. As a general rule, better to buy one expensive flawless item for $1000 than ten flawed items for $100—easier said than done, I know.

WHEN TO SELL, WHERE TO SELL, AND WHAT TO SELL FOR?

If your antique has gone up in value and/or you need money, the best way to sell is to reach out to fellow collectors. They will not charge you selling fees and other fees associated with ebay and auction houses. However, I do sell some items on ebay from time to time to gauge the market and because it is fast and easy.

WHERE SHOULD I GET ADVICE AS A BEGINNER MEDICAL ANTIQUE COLLECTOR?

I bought a bunch of antiquarian books from a book dealer a few years ago. He “guaranteed me” that the books I were buying would be sure to go up in value. A few years later, I needed money and asked him to buy the books back at what I paid. He refused to buy the books back (which made no sense to me). Bottom line: Expert dealers you can trust are less common than the rarest of antiquities and arguably more valuable.

The best place for honest advice is from fellow collectors you can trust. This will take time but using this website is a great start!

HOW SHOULD I AVOID FAKES?

Great question. As a beginner collector, the best way to avoid fakes is to stay away from any known commonly reproduced collectibles and do your homework by cross-referencing your books. For example, I have been collecting for 10 years and I still avoid buying any ceramic antiques unless a fellow collector I can trust can verify authenticity.