Collecting Tips

Before entering the wonderful and exciting world of medical antique collecting (and before exposing yourself to its disappointments and frustrations), there are several general rules that you should understand.


  1. You can't have everything.
  2. There will always be a better instrument or cased set; pass on an item if what you are considering is not exactly right for your collection or if the price is too high since eventually something better will be offered to you.
  3. Always have a philosophy or theme to your collection and do your best to stick to it (no matter how difficult that may be at times). The above guidelines have been learned after much personal angst, so hopefully you can benefit from some of my mistakes.
  4. Collecting (anything) can be addicting so prepare to accept the possible personal and financial consequences of starting.
  5. Others will not appreciate the charm of your collection so be prepared to answer the following from your spouse (family and friends):


    - Why would you want to buy this (piece of junk)?

    - How much does it cost and how are we going to pay for it?

    - Where are we going to put it?

Personal History

I have been collecting for over 40 years and began in 1974 when I was an Air Force physician and purchased a 1st edition of Sir William Osler's "Principles and Practice of Medicine." Dr Osler is generally considered to be the finest internist of the modern era and brought bedside teaching to medical schools in the United States, Canada, and England. This is the greatest modern textbook of medicine and reading it became a fascination. I thought it might be nice to have an autographed picture, so spent the next 15 years looking for one. As I visited medical bookstores, I began to see the same instruments about which I was reading. The adventure began and continues to this day.

- How do I begin a collection?

Everybody collects something, so having found this web site you probably have already begun. The most important beginning advice is to give your collection a theme and try not to stray, no matter how tempting that may be at times. Purchasing unrelated items reduces the impact of your collection and diminishes resources needed for other more relevant antiques. Your collection may be narrow (ophthalmoscopes), or broad (all items related to ophthalmology). My own philosophy is to collect the finest instruments of each category and avoid duplicates; if I find a nicer antique, I sell what I have. I don't buy something just because it is rare, though remember that the more costly an antique, the more likely it will appreciate in value. I also don't collect for provenance (history of ownership) which will usually double the cost of most pieces.

- How do I find what I want?

Up until the Internet age, medical antiques were few and far between. The use of eBay has made collecting a great deal easier since you can reduce a three-month search into an afternoon. Unfortunately, eBay rarely has "high end" antiques, though hopefully that will change with time. There are several medical antique dealers around the world (found on the Internet) who will get in touch with you if you give them your interests. Beware, however, that their prices may be quite high. Unfortunately, I have found that antique magazines and other auction houses are rarely worth the time and expense. Check the Links section at the bottom of the Resources page in this website for lots of dealers' addresses.

- What would be some good tips to use in eBay bidding?

You probably have some experience regarding this question, so I will give you my own painfully learned advice.

  1. Stay in contact with the seller and ask questions. An item may have an old date on it, so ask if you are bidding on a reproduction; the seller is not obligated to tell you unless you ask. Read the item descriptions on eBay carefully!
  2. Set your top limit and don't wait until the last second to bid since you are likely to get flustered and bid higher than you want to in the final moments. Many things can go wrong if you wait (despite your most careful and cunning plan), including the system going down, pressing the wrong button on the computer, etc., etc. Don't allow other factors to enter the bidding, including winning just to win. If you get into a bidding war and win at too high a price, no one will cover your mistake with a repurchase.
  3. When you place your last bid, think that that is the highest you would pay, and if someone gets it for more, he will have paid too much and you will not be disappointed. You should do a mock bidding session with yourself well in advance of the "final hammer."


- How can I determine the value of my antique?

The old expression is that an antique is worth what someone will pay. That is true, but there are some guidelines. Certainly the material and workmanship of any antique is obvious. Gold, silver, ivory, and rosewood were used on the finest antiques and the maker who spent money on these materials would likely spend the time in making a fine instrument. The price goes up for hallmarked instruments or those with maker's insignias. As mentioned above, antiques with provenance have great value. The first model of a long line of instruments, like the Laennec stethoscope, also has great value. An inexpensive piece may become costly if it completes a set for two or more bidding individuals. If you have a question regarding rarity or value, check with a reference (see the reference page on this site) or an authority before perhaps wasting precious funds on one instrument and missing out on something else that you may see once in a lifetime. Obviously the completeness of a set has great value, as does the condition of any of the instruments.

- How can I determine the age of an antique?

Probably the three most important factors in helping to determine the age of a medical antique are 1) The style of the instrument itself, 2) The material used in making the instrument, and 3) Any hallmark or label. Reference catalogues are most helpful here. Style: Some instruments were characteristic of an age, like the 18th century dental pelican and the dental key a century later, while the shape of an instrument can give a clue to its past. Amputation knives prior to 1800 tended to be curved with the sharp edge on the top for circular amputation while those later looked more like they do today. Material: Wood handled instruments rarely survived before the 18th century and high quality boxed sets made their appearance at the end of that century. The finest instruments ever made were produced over the next one hundred years when craftsmen used ebony, ivory, mother of pearl, and tortoise shell. Nickel plating was first used in about 1870, and instruments were usually all metal after about 1900. Hallmark or Label: Instrument makers changed their addresses on occasion. Thus the label on a boxed set can give a clue regarding the date of manufacture. For example, G. Tiemann & Co. was at 63 Chatham street in New York 1833 -1864, at 67 Chatham Street 1864-1886, and at 107 Park Row 1886-1921. The change of ownership of a manufacturer also can be helpful so that looking at the stamped hallmark on the instrument may give a clue. For example, the instrument maker at Rue de l'Ecole-de-Paris, 6, changed names several times: Robert & Collin, 1867; Collin & Cie, 1876-1882; Maison Charriere, 1885-1898, 1925. These dates were obtained from manufacturers' catalogues.


Common Errors:


Provenance: Never add or subtract an instrument from a set with provenance since the set will lose its history forever. Remember, we are but caretakers and have a certain responsibility to future generations who will eventually take over the care of our instruments. Though there may be some debate, I believe it is OK to add to a set as long as the addition fits well and is by the same maker from the same period (and, again. the instruments do not have provenance).


Restoration: I would not personally clean, polish, paint, or nickel-plate an instrument, and would leave cleaning only to a professional. The line between restoration and destruction is small so if work is to be done, it should be left to professionals to do as little as necessary. Although debatable, I believe manufacturing a small missing part by a professional is acceptable as long as there is no provenance involved, and on resale, the details of the restoration are made clear.


Exhibition: Antiques are rare for a reason, and no matter how careful you are, they are easily broken or lost. I would not recommend moving any of your antiques for exhibit, no matter how innocent the move may sound. Extremes of temperature and humidity are obviously detrimental, and light is harmful, both direct and indirect. Most experts recommend using rubber gloves when handling instruments to protect them from the natural oils on your skin. I like to display instruments in large dark wooden cabinets on  strong glass shelves, each shelf with a theme and individual lighting which should be turned on only for display.


Sending: When sending or receiving artifacts, make sure individual glass instruments are removed from boxed sets and individually covered with bubble wrap. Make sure everything is double boxed and use a reputable insured carrier.


Unfortunately all of the above lessons were learned by me the hard way! 


This is a modification of an ancient curse at the Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona that you may want to post near your collection:

    For him that stealeth an Instrument from this Collection, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no sur-cease to his Agony till he sink in Dissolution. And when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.