By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Last September at Bonhams’ Knightsbridge location in London, an old television set with a 15-inch screen that no longer works sold for almost $30,000. While it comes with some spiffy extras (its oak-veneered cabinet also contains a record player, a radio and a minibar), it commanded £18,000 ($29,400) on an estimate of £15,000–20,000 ($24,500–32,600) because it’s a top-of-the-line T14 model from the long-defunct company of John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor who shaped television’s earliest history. Manufactured in 1937, the set is among the few hundred surviving televisions that predate World War II.
Michael Bennett-Levy, author of two books on the history of television sets, states that prewar TVs are outnumbered by Stradivari violins. But that didn’t stop him from consigning the Baird and more than 20 other prewar televisions to auction on Sept. 30. In 1978 Bennett-Levy founded Early Technology, a shop near Edinburgh that deals in antique microscopes, telescopes, naval and medical instruments, record players, old televisions and computers and other outmoded devices. He liquidated its stock in the 758-lot sale, which totaled £683,384 ($1.1 million), to prepare for a move to France. “The idea behind Early Technology is simple,” says Bennett-Levy. “There aren’t many laws in antiques, but the first in every field is important, regardless. I try to find the first in every field.”
His firsts made for strong sellers—parts of a 1958 Lyons Electronic Office LEOII/3, the first commercially sold computer, earned £8,400 ($13,700), exceeding its £2,000–3,000 ($3,200–4,900) estimate—but the prewar televisions were the stars of the show. Highlights included a 1939 TRK120 RCA-Victor television and radio console veneered in burr walnut, beech and ebonized wood that sold within its £4,000–5,000 ($6,500–$8,100) estimate for £4,800 ($7,800). It was known as the “World’s Fair TV” for debuting at the 1939 event, where it was displayed in a clear Lucite case to prove that the images on its 12-inch screen weren’t coming from a film projector. Also notable was the first commercial high-definition electronic television, a 1936 type 137T Cossor television and radio console with a 13.5-inch screen and resolution that was comparable to that of today’s mass-market HDTV screens.
Bennett-Levy nominates the Baird, which he found in a hotel basement in the 1990s, as his favorite among his prewar televisions. “Baird is the pioneer on this, and this is his top set from before the war,” he says. “It’s in absolutely top condition, and it’s possibly unique—there’s no other one I’ve ever come across.” Fortunately, the set has found a suitable home at the MZTV Museum of Television in Toronto.