Bright and Colorful, Tin Advertising Signs Always Catch Your Eye!

But be careful, the true originals are big bucks!  Repros….not so much.

Bill Paesano owns “We Buy Stuff” in Somersworth, NH.  Here he stands in front of a grouping of authentic vintage advertising signs that would make any collector drool with envy.

You are a collector, an investor, a picker, or a vagabond, wandering from auction hall to antiques show, from flea market, to the “Wanted” section of Craigslist. You go to sleep at night, with your cell phone illuminating your bedroom, as you scan the pages of Ebay endlessly from category to category, in search of that one great deal that will feed your compulsion.

I feel your pain. Okay, I’m being dramatic, it’s not at all painful, it’s a blast!  But someone like “us,” who knows a little about many different things, can wind up proving the old antiquing axiom of  “I know just enough about that category to get myself in to trouble.”

One such category of antique collectibles is “Vintage Tin and Enamel Signs.” Right there in the four words that make up that category you’re presented with potential problems.  What the heck is “vintage” really?  And “tin”? …well it’s metal, but how do I know if it’s actually tin, and does it matter?  I saw a sign like that on Roadshow, and they said it was worth $10,000!   And “enamel”?… well how can a sign be made out of enamel?  Is the whole thing enamel?  I know that enamel license plates are supposed to be great, but this is a “sign” category.  Hmm, lots to figure out, and lots of trouble to get in to if you’ve just cashed your paycheck, and you drive by a dazzling yard sale with a dozen big colorful “antique tin” signs hanging on a garage door.

Well, like I do with any new “find” while I’m out in the collectibles jungle, I go to Worthpoint, and Ebay, and start looking at what’s selling, and for how much.  But this is one category where you may have to dig deeper, and research longer. We’re talking about large items here, and they are hard to capture on a low-resolution thumbnail photo from Ebay.  Some of the values can be huge, and there may be money to be made, if that’s what you are after. But conversely, there is big money to lose, and if you wind up eating a sign or two, they aren’t something you can hide way in a little box in the closet until you can face your shame someday, and sell it at a loss.

Your best bet is to talk to an expert, someone who has been at it for a long time, someone who’s seen the trends, maybe been burned a few times, but made some great scores along the way. So I found myself a good reputable dealer and collector locally who really knows his stuff.

Coca Cola is the Godzilla of advertising collectibles: bottles, pinbacks, ephemera, bottle openers, bottle caps, uniforms, toy trucks, syrup bottles, and on and on. But probably the first Coke collectible you’d think of are the thousands of tin and enamel store front signs that bring you back to Mayberry RFD, to the backroads of small town America of a day gone by. Bill bought this sign in 2010 for $1,000.00 and sold it shortly there after for $2,500,00. The sign lists today in 2018 for $7,000-10,000.

Bill Paesano owns “We Buy Stuff,”a shop full of funky collectibles and nostalgia, located at 154 High St. in Somersworth, NH, which is about twenty minutes from Portsmouth.  I found him at the front cash out counter in his store, scanning various collectors’ websites and ad postings, in search of something that might catch his eye, while his daughter played next to him with some of the many colorful gadgets borrowed from his store shelves.

I collect early American bottles and glass, and have also dealt in a long list of various antiques. But the things Bill offers at his shop are things that I usually find fun to look at, and check the prices on, but don’t usually buy.  This is because I don’t collect them, and I don’t know enough about the values to buy for resale, with confidence.

This knowledge and “buying confidence” is something Bill certainly has.  After only a few questions, I could tell he wasn’t new to the rodeo.  I asked him what was “hot” these days, like if he could have spent ten grand on something ten years ago, what would it have been?

Without hesitation, he nodded over towards a side room and said “ Funko Pops.” I walked on over to check them out, and found a couple of shelves, filled with 5” by 5” decorated cardboard boxes, containing distinctly unattractive vinyl figurines.  Think of it as a millennial’s version of Beanie Babies in square boxes. “I bought quite a few back about ten years ago, but if I had had ten grand to spend, I wish I would have spent it on them.”

Like it or not, “Funko Pops” are a collectible that are about as hot as it gets.  I’ll never buy one. That ship has sailed for me. But if you’re looking to invest for future value, these quirky little weird figurines are evidently a “wise investment.”  I can’t believe I’m writing that !

I shook my head.  Bill dialed up Ebay, and showed me what they have listed for under the most recent “sold items” in the Funko Pop category.  In addition to the pages where more common ones sold, multiple examples also sold for 3, 4, and $5,000.00 each!  I walked out of the room, understanding even less about Funko Pops than I did when I entered.

Fair enough, I understand his thinking. But he and I both have a love of antiques and vintage items, and most of the rest of the store is full of them. When I asked whether the “collectibles” or the antiques were his money maker, he said, “The collectibles are my quick nickels, antiques are my slow dime.”  Bill’s a young guy, but he’s already sounding like an old Yankee, with quips like that!

Bill gave me a quick tour of his shop, which contains a great variety of what you’d have to call “funky” antiques. Not a lot of oak dressers for sale here, many more unique and one of a kind objects and old advertising.  The walls are pretty much covered with various advertising signs. He tells me that since about 2010, the “sign” market has sort of split into two categories. One category that has stayed strong, is enamel gas and oil company signs. The other category is the wanna be “pickers,” who watch the TV show, and are drawn to the various colorful signs he has, whether they be original, or honest reproductions, as long as the price is right.

If I saw this sign at a yard sale or flea market, I’d assume it was a repro, and would walk on by.  If I did walk by, it would be my loss.  This sign was purchased out of an estate in N.H. in 2012, for $8,500.00.  The current 2018 estimate at auction would be $15,000 plus.

Bill tells me the “car guys” (auto, oil, gas etc)  are super particular, and if you want to buy in this still hot category, you really need to know your stuff!  You can buy some awesome looking reproduction gas signs for your man cave, and you’ll certainly not be wasting your money.  But if you want to invest high end, and buy  an original 1930s authentic tin gas or oil sign with original paint and colorful graphics, be prepared to bring your checkbook.

This SOCONY oils porcelain sign is one of the very hardest to find complete with its glass glove cover.  Bill’s only known of one in existence. Years ago, he bought a complete one for $300.00, and not knowing its true value at the time, sold it quickly for $2500.00 at a nice profit.  He learned a hard lesson he says, as the value of this same piece today is easily $20,000!

An awesome looking GULF neon sign like this will always command a high price, even for a repro, because they are made is such limited quantities and can change the whole ambiance of a business, or restaurant, never mind a private home!  If you manage to find an original one in working condition, you can double or triple its value because of the vintage collectors paying top dollar for the real deal.

Bill told me of one instance where he was doing the late night obsessive want ad scan that most of us passionate collectors do, and found a sign listed on Craigslist in a city 150 miles away.  It was 11:00 pm when he found the listing, but he insanely called the number anyway, hoping the guy on the phone wouldn’t call him out for waking him up.  But as it turned out the guy wasn’t upset at all, and agreed to sell it to Bill first thing in the morning for the listed price of $500.00.  Bill set his alarm for 4 a.m., drove two and a half hours to meet the guy at 7 a.m., and bought the sign.  He then drove to a nearby Burger King, and pulled in to find a spot to take a good photo of the sign.  He sent the photo, via his phone, to a long time client of his that he knew would be interested.  He sold it for a quick $1500.00.  A thousand bucks before breakfast, not bad!  That was just a few years ago, and Bill tells me if he had that sign back today, he’d be able to sell if for $3,000.00!   But you gotta keep the inventory moving, and his client got a good deal, Bill made out well, and the original guy with the sign got the price he was asking. Everyone was happy.

Any original sign with the vaunted name “Harley Davidson” is a safe buy, as it has the “cool” factor to go along with the other qualities that make original tin advertising signs desirable.

At the time this John Deere neon sign was made, only a few John Deere dealerships were in business, which makes a sign of this age extremely rare. Bill handled this piece for a time, and it wound up in a collection where, if it were to sell again today, might bring upwards of $60,000!   They’d better make sure an errant baseball doesn’t fly through that window.  That’s some serious money.

I’d like to thank Bill Paesano for sharing his hobby with me, lots of great information, and photos.  If you have a sign in storage in your basement that you think might be something special, I’d recommend doing business with Bill. His shop again is “We Buy Stuff” in Somersworth, NH. It’s easy to find, right on the main drag, or look him up on Facebook or Google for directions to his shop. Great stuff !

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at

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