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A General Television & Radio Corp. Model 5A5 Bakelite radio in a marbled green case color earned $1,700 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Plastic tabletop radio collectors favor eye candy over ear candy

NEW YORK — Plastic is omnipresent today, but during the Machine Age, which spanned the years 1915 to 1940, it was just coming into its own as a valuable yet affordable material. Chemist Leo Baekeland, who invented Bakelite in 1907, and the American Catalin Corporation, which developed the similar thermosetting resin-based polymer it named Catalin two decades later, are some of the pioneers. These and other plastics were easily colored and molded into shapes suitable for household products, including one that revolutionized the world, long before TV and the Internet — the radio.

Television wasn’t introduced until the 1939 World’s Fair, and it would take decades for most homeowners to muster the money to acquire one. Radios, however, were cheap enough to allow most people to place several throughout a home. Families initially gathered around a single radio to enjoy entertainment and news, but eventually, each person could go their own way, with Dad catching up on world events in the living room, Mom listening to Grand Ole Opry performances in the kitchen, and the kids laughing themselves silly at comedy sketches by Abbott & Costello.

A pair of early tabletop radios attained $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A pair of early tabletop radios attained $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $300-$800 in November 2021. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Radio manufacturers such as RCA, General Electric, FADA and Emerson relied on a new material, plastic, to produce these radios. Bakelite, Catalin and other plastics were pressed into service to create colorful, eye-catching tabletop radios from the Art Deco era through World War II. Due to similarities between the chemical processes used to produce Bakelite and Catalin, as well as their appearance, the two terms are often used interchangeably — and incorrectly. Many radios assumed to be Bakelite, the plastic that is better known to the public, were actually made of Catalin.

A 1939 Walter Dorwin Teague 500C radio for the Sparton Corporation, featuring a yellow Catalin cabinet with an apricot front, took $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A 1937 Emerson Radio & Phonograph Corporation Tombstone radio in tomato-red Catalin, an early form of plastic, achieved $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“Tabletop radios of the 1930s and the 1940s, the Golden Age of radio, continue to attract collectors and command strong prices at auction,” said Director of Arts and Design at Heritage Auctions Samantha Robinson. “Advancements in technology, namely the rise of plastics such as Catalin, allowed manufacturers to produce a smaller, lighter, and more affordable alternative to the mammoth wooden console radios of the previous decade.”

Walter Dorwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes and other industrial designers of the period applied elements of the Streamline Moderne style – simple shapes, sleek lines, and bold colors – to their radio designs, deftly merging form and function. “Today, these radios at once inspire nostalgia and appear contemporary, and therefore attract a diverse audience,” Robinson said.

A 1939 Walter Dorwin Teague 500C radio for the Sparton Corporation, featuring a yellow Catalin cabinet with an apricot front, took $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A 1939 Walter Dorwin Teague 500C radio for the Sparton Corporation, featuring a yellow Catalin cabinet with an apricot front, took $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A modern-looking 1939 Walter Dorwin Teague 500C radio in yellow or apricot Catalin took $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in Heritage’s June 2023 design auction, which featured nearly 150 tabletop radios that drew fierce bidding from collectors. This example shows the similarities between Bakelite and Catalin. Both are considered phenol resins and when faced with finished products made from each, it’s hard to tell them apart by sight alone.

This model 52 Air King Skyscraper radio, fashioned from green Plaskon, another early form of plastic, secured $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This model 52 Air King Skyscraper radio, fashioned from green Plaskon, another early form of plastic, secured $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Infrequently seen examples that attract sophisticated collectors include radios such as the model 52 Air King Skyscraper, designed by Harold Van Doren. One in green Plaskon, another variety of early plastic, achieved $26,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023 at Heritage Auctions.

These lightweight and highly stylized radios were a far cry from their bulkier predecessors, which were more akin to furniture. Manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic quickly jumped on the bandwagon. A 1932 model AD-65 Wells Coates radio, made by the British firm ECKO and celebrated for its simple, appealing cabinet design, earned $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.

A highlight among Art Deco-era radios is this 1932 Wells Coates model AD-65, which realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.
A highlight among Art Deco-era radios is this 1932 Wells Coates model AD-65, which realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

The spectrum of radio body colors varies from neutral and sedate to emphatically bright. Packing a design punch is the strikingly-hued 1937 Emerson Radio & Phonograph Corporation Tombstone radio in tomato-red Catalin plastic, which earned $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023 at Heritage Auctions.

Another favorite color was ivory, as seen in the New World Globus Radio type 700. Created by famed designer Raymond Loewy for the Colonial Radio Corporation, it consisted of an ivory-hued Bakelite base and globe. An example from 1933 sold for €3,100 ($3,400) plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023 at Auction Team Breker.

A 1933 example of The New World Globus Radio type 700 sold for €3,100 ($3,400) plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers.
A 1933 example of The New World Globus Radio type 700 sold for €3,100 ($3,400) plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers.

A well-known and distinctive form in tabletop radios of the era was the Model 1000 by the FADA Radio & Electric Company, which was produced in a variety of color combinations. A pair of early tabletop radios, including a bright yellow and red Model 1000 and an Emerson radio in marbled green having cream accents, sold together for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Dan Morphy Auctions.

Another fine example of the Model 1000 is an olive green and amber or butterscotch version that realized $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020 at Heritage Auctions. The radio is cherished for its streamlined shape, which has been likened to a bullet, and its clever features, which include an airplane-type dial. “The Model 1000 Bullet radio is an iconic and much-beloved model produced by FADA. This green and yellow example hammered well above its estimate in large part due to its pristine condition,” Robinson said.

The bullet-form Model 1000, a well-known radio from the FADA Radio & Electric Company, brought $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
The bullet-form Model 1000, a well-known radio from the FADA Radio & Electric Company, brought $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Plastics were sometimes mixed with other ingredients to enhance a radio’s appearance and give it a marbled tone. A General Television & Radio Corp. Model 5A5 Bakelite radio, made in the late 1940s and sporting a pleasing marbled green case brought $1,700 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023 at Heritage Auctions. “It retains its striking marbleized green color and achieved a hammer price near the high estimate, [which is] impressive considering the heat damage to the top of the case,” Robinson said.

It should be noted that collectors of vintage radios, if forced to choose between aesthetic condition and functionality, will invariably pick the former. “For most tabletop radio collectors, the completeness and working order of the mechanisms is of little importance compared to the condition of the case. While we test radios upon request, we generally do not, and we include a disclaimer in the condition report to ensure that bidders are aware that mechanisms may require repairs or replacements,” Robinson said.

This FADA Radio & Electric Co. Art Deco Cloud radio, model 845XA in onyx and alabaster, went for $1,040 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2020. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This FADA Radio & Electric Co. Art Deco Cloud radio, model 845XA in onyx and alabaster, went for $1,040 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2020. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

She went on to say that when a collector has to replace parts on a vintage radio, it’s important to ensure that they are original to the model. “Collectors pay premiums for radios in original condition that are free from cracks or chips in the case,” she said. “While a missing electrical component or damaged knob can be replaced, a crack or chip to the case can be concealed but never completely repaired.”

Most vintage radios sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, making them accessible to a range of experience levels and budgets. Prices can vary tremendously based on how pristine the radio’s condition is and for rare colorways. Determined individuals can easily assemble a collection of these important representatives of Americana and radio history that will add a cheery pop of color to the home.
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