Collector's Guide to Antique Surveying Equipment
Web-exclusive: These tips will help you get started.
Collecting antique surveying instruments, books and memorabilia can be a lot of fun if you follow a few simple guidelines. Start out slow with smaller, less expensive items that don't cost an arm and a leg. Your "significant other" will appreciate these collectables more if they don't cost too much or take up a lot of room in the house.
Remember that condition is everything when it comes to putting value on any antiques, so the amounts quoted here assume that the items are complete and have nothing seriously wrong with them or have anything missing from them. Also, some American instruments sell for more in the United States than European makes, for instance, and some European instrument makes sell for more in Europe than in the United States.
Older surveying books make good collectables to start a collection. There are a lot of surveying textbooks written before WWII for less than $10 each, and many others printed before 1900 are available for under $50 a piece. This a good place to start a small collection and have some fun reading the old texts and looking at the pictures of that time period. You might be surprised at how some things have not changed that much in every day land surveying work for many years.
Old instrument catalogs are good as well, but harder to find because they have a lot of valuable information for antique collectors and dealers. Thus, these books are more expensive (expect to pay at least twice as much for some catalogs) than the more common surveying textbooks. The older the book or catalog is, the more you can expect to pay. Very few surveying instrument catalogs dating back over 100 years have survived, so those can cost more than $100 each if you can find them.
Now if you still can't get enough by reading a few old surveying texts, then it is time to move on to more serious items. Again, start slow and consider picking up a smaller, less expensive surveying accessory such as an old turnip-shaped plumb bob or hand level. But be warned: some old plumb bobs sell for over $100 if they are really rare. Also, some plumb bobs were used in occupations other than land surveying, such as industrial or carpentry applications, so know what you are buying.
Old maps and prints make wonderful collectables, as many are colorful and decorative. Prices of these items can vary from $5 or $10 to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for extremely rare maps. Old hand-colored maps can be true works of art, and the prices sometimes reflect that. Old photographs of surveyors and their instruments are fun to look at, but the cost can be outrageous for early tintypes and certain other antique photographs.
Gunter chains are a common surveying collectable still available from time to time. The prices range from around $100 to $300 for the more common varieties and can go up much more for rare ones. It helps to know a little about surveying chains before buying the first one you find. A common surveying or Gunter chain (named for its inventor, Edmond Gunter) is 66 feet (4 poles) long with 100 links, while some are 33 feet (2 poles) long. There should be tally tags every ten links; each link should be 7.92 inches long. The common engineer's chain is commonly 100 or 50 feet long with 100 or 50 links, respectively of one-foot lengths each. Tally tags are usually present every 10 feet.
Antique surveying instruments are the most fun items to collect but also the most expensive. It is probably a good idea to ask around about makes, models and prices before buying anything. There are a couple of books on the subject, but they are either somewhat outdated (price-wise) or incomplete. Some of the online auction sites are good sources for this type of information, but it takes a lot of researching to get a good feel for it.
Again, start out slow and easy with a readily available small dumpy or wye level. These can range from around $100 to $400 for most common makes. Older or more rare makers may sell for more money depending upon condition and other factors. An instrument with the original box and tripod should be valued at a range of $100-$200 more than one without these items. A nice old label with the maker's name inside the box cover is always an added bonus with any instrument.
Old surveying transits are fun to look at and can be educational to learn how to use (or use again). Look for the old solid brass models, but never the freshly-polished models; these may not be real or damaged. More on that later. Transits were made for many years and there are a lot of models available to collect. Pick a model and maker you know or have heard of rather than one you know nothing about.
Some special transit models have auxiliary telescopes for solar or mining applications. These models will usually sell for at least twice as much as a similar model without these special telescopes. Solar attachments are rare and sought after by collectors and dealers everywhere. Be prepared to shell out a lot more money for these items. Common transits can start at about $200 and go to $1,000 or even more for older makes, less common makers or rare models. Original boxes with tripods will always add to the value as will any accessories, such as tools or plumb bobs.
The antique surveyor's compasses are the most rare and collectable items for the surveying collector. These are usually all brass instruments, although some models made in early America (over 200 years ago) were made of wood or brass and wood. Some of the later brass compasses were fitted with telescopes for longer sighting distances or solar devices for finding direction using the sun rather than magnetic north. Again, be prepared to pay more for these special models than for common varieties.
A common and/or basic brass compass can range from $500 to $1500. Original box, tripod or staff will increase these numbers in most cases. Remember the main factors are age, condition, maker and accessories or attachments that can change these numbers. A really rare solar compass can easily be worth well over $10,000 to some collectors or dealers.
As I said, a bright and shiny brass instrument may have been damaged from the polishing or may even be a fake or replica and not really an antique at all. If you are not sure, or if the price seems too good to be true, it might be better to have someone check it out for you before you buy. Try to buy from someone you know or trust whenever possible. Find out if the seller will give you a money-back guarantee if you are not satisfied for any reason within the first 5 to 10 days. If you buy an instrument that is dull and dirty, don't try to polish it or it may lose its value. Just clean the surface dirt with mild soap and water, and dry with a soft, lint-free cloth.
Most important of all, just enjoy your newfound "toys" or collection of surveying instruments, books or memorabilia. Buy items you like, and don't go broke doing it. Good luck and happy collecting.
To learn more about collecting and surveying history contact: Surveyors Historical Society, 300 West High Street, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025-1912; 812/537-2000