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Vintage Paper: Cool Collectible Catalogs

This time we’ll focus on vintage drum catalogs, although there are certainly other paper products that are highly sought by collectors and dealers. These include fliers, posters, and artist endorsement photos, although letters are among the most sacred items in my personal archives because of the human connection. It’s one thing to see pictures and descriptions of equipment, quite another to step momentarily into the lives of the people who used and/or made that gear.

A high point in my career came when I acquired the personal archives of George Way, one of the most significant percussion personalities of the 20th century. The files include papers ranging from his birth certificate to his burial expenses. It was my additional good fortune to find that Way’s wife Elsie had a secretarial degree and meticulously organized her husband’s correspondence for decades. There are whole files of correspondence that include carbon copies of Way’s letters attached to replies from folks such as U.G. Leedy and Wm. F. Ludwig Sr.

What are they worth? I could only shake my head when asked that by the previous owner that had inherited the files. “They’re priceless,” I told him. “You can name any figure and I’d be unable to argue that it’s unfair, because there are no comparables — these documents are unique. All I can do is tell you what I can afford to pay.” We worked out a time-payment agreement and I purchased the lot over the next year. (I’ve kept the collection intact; the ultimate repository will be a museum.)

Types Of Collectors. The folks who purchase old drum catalogs seem to fall into three categories: 1) There are the nostalgic folks who remember these “wish books” from the countless hours they spent drooling over every photo and description; 2) collectors who use the catalogs as reference tools to identify and date equipment; 3) investors who buy catalogs with the intent of reselling them at a profit.

The first and third groups are interested only in original catalogs or exact reproductions. For the second group, any reasonable facsimile is fine; scans, photocopies, even photos. (I once borrowed a rare catalog from an individual who sent it with the understanding that it would not be photocopied or even opened flat. I had to have someone carefully hold it and gently turn the pages as I took photographs of each page.)

One of my first projects when I decided to pursue a career in drum history in the early 1990s was to accumulate as complete an archive as possible of American drum manufacturers’ catalogs from 1900 to the present. For nearly a year, I did little else. (I’d still be working on that if not for the generous help of several collectors who had already been at it for years.) Before I could determine what was missing, I had to try to determine what had been published, and when. That is a task that I probably will never be able to call complete.

Inconsistent Dating. Even the largest companies didn’t publish easily identifiable catalogs on a predictable schedule. Letters of the alphabet identified Leedy’s earliest catalogs. They were not published annually and did not include copyright dates. Publication dates can only be determined through some detective work; finding a dated price list, comparing prices with other catalogs, or examining career milestones of featured endorsers. Leedy later identified their catalogs with numbers such as “Catalog 45.” That particular catalog was not the 45th catalog published by Leedy, nor was it published in 1945! Still later, Leedy published catalogs that included copyright dates and cover designations linked to calendar dates.

Tracking Them Down. Where do you get catalogs and catalog reproductions? Pretty much the same places you find the drums: eBay, estate sales, garage sales, classifieds in Not So Modern Drummer and Classic Drummer, and at vintage drum shows. If you seek a specific item and can’t find it anywhere, it’s a good idea to take out an ad asking for it. A few catalogs are available as reprints, while others are available as scans on CD-Rom. (A great collection of authorized high-quality Ludwig catalog scans is available from Clay Greene at ludwigdrummer.com.)

If you are determined to build an archive and want to include catalog photocopies, you should hook up with an archivist willing to supply pages in bulk. For a number of years, the going rate seems to have leveled off at about 25 cents per page. Finding that archivist may be the real challenge. Many, including myself, prefer to swap page-for-page for catalogs missing from their current collections, rather than send copied catalog pages for money.

In my opinion, vintage catalogs are an excellent investment. They don’t take up as much room as drums, and I’m confident they will continue to appreciate. Don’t fail to recognize opportunities by restricting your collection to rare old catalogs. In 2024, a 2004 catalog will be 20 years old. You may regret passing up the chance to grab that free catalog at the NAMM show or drum shop.

Rob Cook is the founder and proprietor of Rebeats, a company specializing in drum history publications (rebeats.com). You can write to him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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