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Ask A Worthologist Question: Polyphon Disc-Type Music Box

by Mike Wilcox (06/08/12).

Despite spending years in a neglected barn, Alex N’s discovery of this Polyphon music box could be considered a “great find.”

Alex N. found a music box while clearing out a literal barn-load of trash on a property he bought. The farm had not been worked for years and the barn was crammed with 40 years’ worth of old furniture, appliances, boxes of Mason jars and bundles of newspapers. Luckily, the music box was covered by a pile of magazines that had protected it from years of pigeon droppings that covered everything else. He’s never seen anything like it and wanted to find out what he has and what it’s worth. He contacted us via WorthPoint’s Ask a Worthologist service to inquire about his piece and his inquiry was forwarded to me. Here’s his question:

“I bought a rural property this year, a small farm that had been a rental and not worked for many years. The place was in rough shape and the first thing we did was start clearing out all the junk on the property. The barn was packed with junk: broken chairs, washing machines, bales of newspaper (stored there by a bankrupt recycling company), bottles and Mason jars by the case, and everything covered with years of pigeon droppings. This music box was one of the few things that was not covered with filth, as it was under a pile of magazines. It’s marked “Polyphon” inside and has pictures pasted under lid. The strange thing is it had what looks like a brass record in it. I wound it up and it does play. The case is not in the best condition—wooden box has many nicks and scratches—but it looks like it will clean up pretty good. There were also 10 other records in another box we found that seem to work in it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and would like to know whatever you can tell me about it and what it’s worth.”

Here’s my response:

This is what’s called a disc type music box. They appeared first appeared in the 1880s. Instead using of a cumbersome metal cylinder to pluck the musical comb, a replaceable disc was used, allowing multiple tunes to be played on the same machine. These were produced in a wide variety of sizes, from small tabletop machines such as yours, with discs less than 10 inches in diameter, to large free-standing units with 33-inch discs.

The disc players were made for a relatively short time and most companies that produced them closed soon after the invention of Edison’s phonograph. Polyphon was the world’s largest manufacturer of disc music boxes during the period of greatest popularity, 1895-1905. At one time the firm employed more than 1,000 people. In later years, the company sold mechanical pianos, pneumatically-played pianos, phonographs and other items. Today the smaller Polyphon players in need of some cosmetic restoration, along with a selection of discs, sell in the $800-$1,000 range at auction.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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