This is probably the question I get asked the most by email and the best answer I can give is that like anything else, an old harmonica is worth whatever someone is willing to pay you for it. I know that probably doesn't help very much, but unlike used cars and collectible pottery, there is no "blue book" of used harmonica prices. If you think you've found a valuable old treasure in the attic, it's likely that you are going to be disappointed. Whilst old guitars are often considered to be "vintage", old harmonicas are generally considered to be merely something that has been in someone else's mouth!
Harmonicas were made literally by the thousand and even sometimes by the million (Hohner, just one out of several companies to have manufactured them, produced their billionth harmonica a few years back). Even though many of them were quickly consigned to the garbage by parents with headaches, there are still a lot of them out there in boxes of unwanted toys, belongings of deceased relatives, junk stores and so on. The chances are, if your harmonica looks like a harmonica, then it probably isn't worth much at all.
However, if your old harmonica is shaped like a zeppelin, an automobile, a fish, a boomerang or a rooster, or if it features art deco style paintwork, or has bells, pipes or horns attached to it, then you may be holding something of value. If it is in impeccable condition and has its original box, then it is probably worth even more. On very rare occasions, even something which looks to most people like any other old harmonica may be a highly sought after model and a harmonica collector might be eager to take if off your hands. In fact, some harmonica collectors are so eager that I recently watched a couple of them bid more than $40 dollars (plus shipping) for a harp they could have bought brand new from their local store for a mere $4.95!
How do you tell if your harmonica is especially collectible? That's a tough one. A really tough one. There are very few books written about the history of the harmonica and even fewer of them go into much detail about the various models. Those that do are mostly in the German language and take some effort to obtain. The best thing if you wish to get a good price for it, is to list it on somewhere like eBay with a good photograph and a clear description of it, particularly of any writing that may appear on the harmonica or its box - then cross your fingers and wait for the bidding to start. Even some fairly common harmonicas may be considered collectible by some people. There is a commonly held belief (not completely without basis in fact) that Hohner harmonicas made before WWII are better than more recent ones. If you have a very good condition old Hohner Marine Band, or 64 Chromonica, then there could be a player prepared to pay a reasonable price for it.
A few words of advice. Many brands of harmonica have little medals engraved on the covers with various dates on them. These do not give you any indication of the instrument's age; they are merely the dates various trade awards were given. For example, a brand new Hohner Marine Band that rolled off the production line last week will still feature medals with the dates 1871, 1873, 1876 and 1881. The dates are not that helpful at all, except that a harp with an award dated 1937 is unlikely to have been made before 1937! Also, numbers such as 270, 365, or 34B do not indicate that the item was part of a limited edition (as I have seen suggested on various online auctions) they merely indicate the catalog number of that particular model. The number A440 stamped on certain Hohner harps indicates neither a limited edition, nor a model number - it tells you that it is tuned to standard concert pitch (see FFAQ10). One fairly reliable way get some idea of the age of certain Hohner models is by the trademark on the cover. Hohner used various trademarks over the years, but a particularly common one was a circle being held by two hands. Look in the middle of the circle - if there is a star inside it, then it is probable that it was made prior to WWII. Here is an example:
Later versions of that trademark omit the star. There are many other small variations in the Hohner trademark that may help give a rough approximation of the manufacturing date, but they are a little beyond the scope of this article. (I go into some detail about the changes of the Hohner Marine Band model on this page.) The significance of the six-pointed star has been the subject of much debate. It has been suggested that it was the Star of David and that it was removed because of the Nazis. I guess it is possible that anything resembling a Jewish symbol would have been risky to display as part of a trademark during those times, but there is no evidence that the Hohner family were Jewish, besides which they also used five and eight pointed stars in some of their designs. I have also heard it suggested the number of points on the star represented the number of sons that Matthais had. However, it is by no means safe to assume that an instrument bearing a trademark with fewer points to the star is older than one beaing a trademark with more points to the star. I have seen instruments that could be reliably dated to the late 1800s that had the six point star in the trademark and I have seen instruments that were definitely made after World War I that had only five points to the star. Figuring out the age of a harmonica is by no means easy...
All of the above raises the inevitable question of hygiene - is it safe to play something that has been in someone else's mouth? The biggest health risk is when you share a harmonica with someone within moments of it being used by the other person. Once the harp has had the chance to dry out thoroughly, there should be very little danger of any communicable diseases being passed on. However, you are in with a very good chance of inhaling someone else's dried mouth scrapings - that won't kill you, but it's not a very pleasant thought! If the harmonica has been lying around in someone's attic for a few years, you also have a chance of inhaling some other tasty delicacies. I once attended one of the UK's biggest antiques and collectibles fairs, hunting for old harps. I spotted an old F. A. Bohm tremolo harmonica lying on one of the tables and tried to suppress my look of interest as I approached it. Apparently I didn't do such a good job, as the dealer instantly pounced up on me and thrust the harp towards me with the words "You can play it if you like." Her willingness to let me blow into it suggested that maybe many other lips had been on its mouthpiece that same day, so I declined, at which point she said "It's perfectly OK - I've given it a good cleaning" and she put the harp in her mouth and proceeded to blow and draw with great enthusiasm. As it turned out, she was willing to sell the harp at a fair price, so I bought it. A couple of days later I got around taking it apart to clean it. During the cleaning process, I removed three or four dried out cocoons of who-knows-what sort of insect that had decided a harmonica would be the perfect place to incubate its offspring.
You have been warned!
It is probable that you found this page with a search engine, as you sit at your computer with an old harmonica in your lap, curious as to how much it is worth. It is also probable that you are now considering emailing me for more information on the possible value of your harmonica. Be warned: if you email me to ask how much your old harmonica is worth, I will simply reply with a link to this page. This page tells you pretty much everything I can about the value of your old harmonica without actually seeing it. I cannot provide free appraisals by email, not even rough estimates, so please don't ask.
If you require a professional appraisal of an old harmonica for insurance purposes or any other reason, I am willing to provide such a service. However, it is impossible to make an fair estimate of the value of an instrument without seeing it. I will require that you send the instrument to me, paying for the shipping and insurance each way. As this is a professional service, there will of course be a fee for it - and I should warn you that in the majority of cases, the cost of such an valuation will probably be more than the instrument is worth.
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