Where do you find TV lamps? There was a time when flea markets and garage sales were the first places to look for TV lamps. While they're still a good source, I've found that "the word is out" where TV lamp prices are concerned, and their value has removed them, for the most part, from traditional sources of bargan retailing. I've purchased from just about every source imaginable, and have had reasonable success with antique malls, although their retail mark-up can be imposing. Instant gratification, and the ability to inspect the lamp first-hand, can justify paying a bit more at malls. Plus, with antique mall/shop purchases there's no worries about poorly packed lamps falling victim to the oafish mailing services. One should inspect the lamps at retailers closely, as I've seen many broken/repaired examples, often fixed with such skill (cunning?) as to be all but undetectable.
While a good collector probably doesn't reveal his sources, I don't suppose eBay is a secret to anyone. You won't find such a variety and volume of TV lamps anywhere else, often with around 300 TV lamps at auction at any given time. But caution is advised to avoid getting caught up in a "bidding frenzy", as there are lots of folks with deep pockets that are willing to pay entirely too much to get the lamp they want. Dipping your toe into the eBay pool requires a good knowledge of what constitutes an appropriate price. Keep a cool head and you can find some real bargains as well as fair deals on the rare, more valuable lamps.
Which lamps should you look for? This should be dictated somewhat by the focus of your collection. There are simply too many great examples out there to jump at every one, although you might want them all at first. Narrowing your choices to a certain type of lamp makes things more manageable. Some folks concentrate on assembling a grand collection of panthers or horses, while another might go for a comprehensive set of lamps manufactured by a specific company or designer, such as Lane & Co., Maddux of California or Kron. Still others prefer to limit their collection to TV lamps, as opposed to the many TV lamp/planter combinations. Even color could be your guide, prompting you to find lamps that accentuate the existing color scheme in your home.
How do you know it's a good, collectible lamp? When a particular lamp has caught your eye, the next thing is to confirm that it is indeed a vintage lamp. This is especially important these days, as I have seen a number of new TV lamps that would pass for old to an untrained eye. I've seen a number of TV lamps on eBay in the past year or two that are out-and-out forgeries, obviously (to me) made by pulling a mold off of an original. This isn't too common yet, and the quality and sparkling new electrics are a giveaway. It helps to do a little homework on the subject, learning to recognize lamps as seen in books or on the internet. But you can learn a lot just by examining the lamp in front of you. Old ceramic pieces of any type tend to have "crazing" present... a fine crackle of the glaze. This is common in all but the most highly fired pottery and perfectly acceptable, not detracting from its value.
Also, a vintage lamp is liable to be a bit "dingy", with traces of dirt/smoke stains in areas that aren't reached in a casual cleaning. And although many old lamps have had the socket and/or cord replaced, the presence of the old plastic "bakelite" fixture helps confirm its age. The original electrics are often suspect in regards to safety and therefore replaced, but they actually add somewhat to the value providing they're in presentable condition. Over time I think that original electrics will become more important to a lamps ultimate worth, so if you replace the old socket and cord be sure to hang on to them. And remember, if you are ever in doubt as to the safety of a lamp... don't plug it in.
What else should you look for? Condition is extremely important, and dictates value more than any other factor. As mentioned above, the presence of the original cord and fixture is a plus, particularly if it's in good shape. But the most important thing of all is the condition of the ceramic portion itself. Chips and cracks hurt value greatly, and repairs do nothing to restore value. Crazing, that fine weave of cracks throughout the glaze, is an acceptable part of aged pottery and usually doesn't hurt the value of the lamp. Some might argue this point, as crazing is avoided by collectors of most ceramic items, but I haven't seen it have much of an impact on the TV lamp market. Also acceptable are factory defects. Glaze skips and pops are regarded as "character", and are not detrimental to value. On occasion you will see a lamp that has a "firing crack", and this too is acceptable if it is obviously a factory defect. (the colored glaze will typically appear to have "pulled away" from the crack) What does affect value is a lamp that is "uncleanable", which is to say that it has some type of mineral deposits or stains on the glaze that simply cannot be removed. In extreme cases smoke can cause this, as well as calcified deposits in the planter portion of the lamp. A tremendous number of people used the planter for live plants, and the soil and water would eventually damage the glaze. It's funny to think that a few years ago having water and electrical current in such close proximity wasn't an area of much concern. Today's liability-conscious manufacturers would totally obscure the lamp with warning labels!
How much should you pay? This depends on a lot of variables. You must consider condition, scarcity, and above all, if purchasing at auction, how badly someone else wants it. Know what the lamp is worth to you, and make an informed decision regarding how much you are willing pay. There's also a peculiar "seasonal" aspect that influences the ultimate value of TV lamps (and other things) at auction. Bidding tends to stay low-to-moderate around the holidays, probably because potential buyers have other purchases on their minds. Conversely, prices seem to spike a bit in the summer, perhaps driven by good "antiquing" weather. I suspect that tax refunds and the disposable income they bring also have an impact.
Everything else being equal, a lamp with more "visual appeal" such as a brightly colored panther is apt to bring more than a lamp that isn't figural. In other words, a lamp that's shaped like an animal will generate more market interest than one that is a decorative abstraction or rectangular planter. Lamps with a vegetative theme (and there's quite a few TV lamps based upon leaves, vines etc.) also fare poorly against animals in the marketplace. Does that mean that you don't want "leafy" lamps? Certainly not, only that you're apt to get a better buy on them. With a few exceptions, plaster, or "chalkware" lamps don't have the value of their ceramic counterparts, in part because they tend to be less attractive, and also because they are naturally brittle and not many have survived 50+ years without significant chipping. (such damage is tolerated to a greater extent than on their ceramic counterparts) A word about color: red lamps (True red, not the often seen maroon/burgundy shades) bring the highest prices, as they are extremely uncommon. Depending on the lamp, pink can add value as well, Lane's poodles being a good example. The pink poodles epitomize the '50s in the minds of many buyers, so they command a 50% premium over the same poodles in white. But the most valuable color for any given style of lamp is the one that is least common. As in any collectible, rarity adds value.
A manufacturers mark is also a plus, especially if it's from a maker that is highly prized. These marks can be etched into the original mold of the piece or a stick-on label, which can add even more to the value since most have been removed over time. Occasionally one will find a lamp that has an original "hang tag", a small card attached to the cord by the manufacturer, and these too add to the value. There are also instances where an unmarked lamp is documented as to the maker by some other source, and assuming the source is reliable, is as good as a marked item in terms of value and collectability. I'm referring particularly to certain major pottery companies such as McCoy or Royal Haeger, whose products have been catalogued in numerous books and periodicals. Just keep in mind that books are sometimes wrong, and more than one source is preferred. I'm going to take a moment to fuss a bit about an incorrect term often applied to marked lamps. Lamps with these marks are often said to be "signed", and this both misleading and inaccurate. An artists limited-edition print might be signed, which adds to the value considerably, but a car isn't "signed" because it says Dodge on the fender...it's simply a manufacturers mark. Am I comparing apples and oranges? Maybe, but I feel that collectors markets rely on the honesty and accuracy of their presentation, and misleading terms should be avoided.
So having said all that, I'll give some examples of what I've seen TV lamps do at auction on eBay recently. A particular (and very common) unmarked panther lamp/planter has been going for anywhere from $30 to $40, and is representative of what one might pay for a less treasured lamp. I've also seen several Kron Siamese cat lamps go for between $35-$60, and that's a lamp that Santiso's book values at $125-$150! This isn't an indication that the market is soft, but rather that you shouldn't let book values scare you...or influence what you pay. Author's set what they feel to be appropriate values at that time, and these values are affected by regional influences. Just remember that published data can be outdated, and is sometimes just plain wrong.
Another Siamese cat lamp, this one by Claes, fetches between $50 and $75+, and is the most affordable entry in the Leland Claes stable. Speaking of Claes, a few rare examples bring extremely high prices, often selling for over $600. These include the Claes Leopard, the Mustang Head (shown at the top of this page) and the Lioness and Cub. Recently the desire to collect the most valued and rare examples has been quite high, so prices may have risen above what one might be willing (or able) to pay. What the market will bear isn't set by the price guides, but rather by the passion of collectors. A rare pink Lawrence Welk accordion lamp, sometimes called the "holy grail" of TV lamps, sold a few months ago for somewhere in the $700 range.
The Holy Grail It must be said that the term "Holy Grail" has become a catch-phrase for several rare TV lamps, and its use denotes both rarity and desirability...the lamps that savvy collectors avidly seek. My thinking is that the Claes Leopard comes closest to deserving the name, as it possesses both rarity and attractiveness of design. The leopard also exists in sufficient numbers that it is generally known. Some lamps are a greater rarity than the prized leopard, so rare that the collecting community hasn't acknowledged them or their significance.
The extreme variance in values today is indicative of the fact that collectors are getting smarter. They won't pay too much for a common lamp but aren't afraid to shell out $$$ for a truly rare find. By far the most typical bracket I see lamps sell within is $50-$75, so you can definitely start, or expand, a collection without being a high-roller. Good luck!