Most Valuable Vintage Advertising Signs
If you've ever seen an episode of the History channel reality show "American Pickers," you know the antique-salvaging hosts are crazy for vintage advertising signs. And with good reason. When a rare, porcelain 1920s' gas station sign can fetch in excess of $150,000 at auction, you've got a highly lucrative collecting hobby on your hands.
Credit the "mantique" phenomenon, which eschews grandma's prized collection of frilly tea cups in favor of relics fit for man-cave decor; think vintage toys, sports memorabilia, booze accessories and, of course, advertising signs. By far, the most active and expensive sign-collecting sub-genres are automobilia and petroliana. But there's also a healthy number of hobbyists who focus on so-called "country store" signage — ads for soda, beer, tobacco and food.
In general, pre-World War II porcelain-enamel signs are most coveted. Yet collectors are willing to pay serious coin for metal, neon and paper signs if it's an iconic brand and/or the artwork is particularly pleasing to the eye, like the $70,000 Mobil Oil winged-Pegasus sign pictured above. To illustrate this nostalgic collectors' niche, we've rounded up 14 other vintage marketing messages spanning some eight decades of advertising history.
These are the most valuable vintage advertising signs.
Among petroliana's most popular advertising mascots, "DINO" the green dinosaur first appeared on Sinclair gas station signage and oil cans in 1930. Fiberglass statues of the green Apatosauras (yes, it's different than a Brontosaurus) began popping up at Sinclair stations in the early '60s and are still a hit with today's Instagrammers.
Antique porcelain signs featuring DINO can fetch anywhere between $800 to $3,000, depending on rarity, size and condition.
Smith-o-Lene Aviation Brand Gasoline
It's not just car guys forking over big bucks for petroleum advertising. If the piece is right, aviation buffs will pay sky-high prices for vintage airplane fuel signs. At a 2016 auction, bidding on a near-mint condition, 4-foot-diameter porcelain sign for the Smith-o-Lene brand soared to $134,200. If your wallet's light, metal reproduction signs can be had on Amazon for about $20.
Coca-Cola Paper ‘Cameo’ Sign, Circa 1896
The world of high-dollar Coca-Cola signs largely centers on early 20th-century metal and porcelain signs. Far less likely to survive the ravages of time are paper signs from the late 1800s, placing them atop the Coke sign-collecting pyramid.
Printed around 1896 by the J. Ottmann Litho. Co. of New York, this 30- x 40-inch paper beauty not only declares Coke delicious and refreshing, it also claims the soft drink "Cures Headache" and "Relieves Exhaustion" — all for a nickel. This particular sign, believed to be the sole copy left in existence, once hung above the soda fountain of a theater in New York City's Times Square. Destined for the trash bin, the sign was rescued by the theater's janitor and, in the 1970s, wound up in the hands of Coke über-collector Allan Pettreti. In 2011, he sold it at auction for $105,000.
French company Claude Neon first introduced neon gas signs to the United States in 1923. By the time neon's popularity peaked in the '40s and '50s, glowing glass tubes were being bent to spell out signage lettering on everything from motels and movie theaters to car dealerships.
Among today's most sought-after porcelain/neon relics are 1940s-era Cadillac dealership signs bearing the motto "Standard Of The World" and topped with the luxury car's crest logo. In neon-working order, these 4-foot by 6-foot Streamline Moderne-style beauties have commanded auction prices between $10,000 and $28,750, depending on whether the sign is one- or two-sided.
Signs die-cut in the shape of an object are always desirable, and a prime example is this circa-1940 porcelain sign for Hanford, California-based Beacon gasoline. Measuring 30-inches by 40-inches, the sign's lighthouse shape, striking graphics and extreme rarity have lent to auction sale prices ranging from $40,000 to as high as $84,500.
Chevrolet ‘Chevy Boy’
At a 2015 auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, sign hounds went wild as automobilia mega-collector Ron Pratte sold off his entire collection of classic cars and auto advertising. Among the rarities was this 1950s' Chevrolet dealership neon sign known as "Chevy Boy" — one of only two ever produced. Complete with the boy's blinking-eye light bulb, the junior joy-rider gaveled for $69,000.
Harley freaks aren't shy about opening their leather chain wallets for pricey antique bikes, motorcycle parts and memorabilia. And this rare 1930s' Harley-Davidson porcelain-and-neon sign offered at the 2015 Ron Pratte auction (see previous "Chevy Boy" listing) was no exception. A lucky hog fanatic carted the sign away for a fantastic $86,250.
An annoying, inevitable expense of car ownership is replacing bald tires. In the 1920s, eager for your business, the Goodyear Tire Company custom-made tin signs with fragile, milk-glass lettering for garages around the country. At a 2015 Mecum Auctions sale, this circa-1924 sign that once beckoned motorists to a garage in Minden, Nevada (near Reno) fetched $100,000.
Dairy Queen Drive-Through Sign
Generally, plastic signs don't command as much cash as antique porcelain, metal and neon — unless it's a piece like this illuminated, 3-D soft-serve ice cream cone sign you used to see standing at either the entrance or exit of a Dairy Queen drive-through. Measuring nearly 5-feet high and estimated to date to the 1970s, this particular cone (pictured) is the exit "Thank You" version and sold at a 2019 auction for $2,300.
A small number of these signs are reportedly still in use at older Dairy Queens in rural areas of America, so keep an eye peeled.
Hamm's Beer Scene-o-Rama
From Budweiser to Schlitz, old-school beer advertising (aka "breweriana") is a must for any man cave worth its odor of stale suds. In general, the most valuable pieces are early, pre-Prohibition beer signs that, in good condition, routinely fetch several thousand dollars. Yet for modern beer freaks, it rarely gets better than the barroom nostalgia of Hamm's Beer's mechanical "scene-o-rama" signs.
Made by Minnesota's Lakeside Plastics company from the late 1950s to early '70s, the animated novelty sign came housed in a box with a wood-shingled roof that gave it a mountain-cabin look. Across the front panel, a back-lit, semi-transparent scroll featured nature scenes in which waterfalls and rivers appeared to shimmer as if in motion.
The signs were made in both 3-foot- and 5-foot-wide dimensions; in working order they can nab between $500 and $1,500 on eBay. As for Hamm's famous commercial jingle ("From the land of sky blue waters..."), you'll need to sing it yourself.
Here's another porcelain die-cut classic you may remember from hardware stores back in the pre-Home Depot day. Sherwin-Williams' famous "Cover the Earth" logo debuted in 1893 and is still used today, much to the ire of environmentalists who view Mother Earth coated in dripping, blood-red paint as irresponsible. Famed graphic artist Milton Glaser sees things differently, once ranking the logo among "the most persistent and memorable surrealist images of our time. The image of paint entirely covering the Earth is as powerful as anything Magritte or Dalí ever produced." Um, okay.
The controversy is brushed aside by collectors who routinely pay up to $2,000 on eBay for vintage porcelain signs in tip-top condition.
Black Cat Cigarettes
In prehistoric times — before strawberry-scented vape clouds filled the air — people smoked real cigarettes. While "tobacciana" collectors mostly gravitate to signs for classic American cigarette brands (think Chesterfield and Lucky Strike), they're also drawn to ads with eye-catching graphics.
Enter Black Cat Cigarettes, a U.K. tobacco purveyor big in the 1920s and early '30s. Original porcelain signs from the period — featuring the brand's dour feline mascot — have asking prices of up to $7,500 on eBay. For the cat-loving puffer on your Christmas list, you'll find replicas online for about $25.
Never heard of Michigan's Muskegon Oil Company? You're not alone. The company sold Musgo Gasoline for only two years, from 1926 to '27. After Musgo folded, a plumber bought the company's warehouse stock of circular, porcelain signs — featuring a Native American chief in full headdress — and used them as septic tank lids.
Around 1980, petroliana collectors discovered exactly where the plumber had installed septic tanks and dug up the signs — unearthing about a half-dozen of the hobby's holy grails. How rare are they? Only a dozen total Musgo signs in display-worthy condition are known to exist. At a 2017 auction, one of the dug-up signs fetched $55,000. A year prior, an auction specimen in immaculate shape realized an eye-popping $164,700.
Orange Crush Tin Thermometer Sign
For entry-level collectors with only a few hundred bucks to spend on a piece, antique thermometer signs make a solid investment. Back in the day, these staples of mom-and-pop store advertising were primarily produced by soda pop, tobacco and auto parts companies. Tin thermometer signs were most common, followed by glass clock-style gauges.
A classic tin sign, Orange Crush bottle-shaped thermometers can be had for roughly $150 to $350 — a relatively small price to pay for an antique you'll likely check for the outdoor temp every day. One thing you don't need the mercury to gauge is the vintage sign collecting market, which is undeniably hot.