This fall I had the great honor of appearing on the hit TV show Pawn Stars. No, I haven’t moved to Las Vegas where Rick, Chum, and Corey film most of their episodes. The hosts traveled to Denver as their first stop for their special miniseries, Pawn Stars Do America.
The fast-paced series featured a combination of onsite visits and an open call for people to line up at their temporary location with their prized possessions in tow. The lucky ones got to appear on the show and a few even made some money in the process.
My segment took place in a beautiful mountain home about an hour outside the city filled with an impressive collection of antique music boxes. Not the toy jewelry box kind with the little ballerina that pops up and twirls to the key notes from Pachebel’s Canon. These were finely made precision instruments with a rightful place in the history of mechanical musical machines.
The History of Music Boxes – The Cylinder Music Box
When the first mechanical musical machine was invented is a subject of great debate. The use of rotating pinned cylinders to generate musical tones was first documented in The Book of Ingenious Machines written by three Persian brothers in 850 AD. And during the Renaissance timeframe, huge hydraulically powered cylinders were used to operate pipe organs in some of Europe’s grandest cathedrals.
It wasn’t until about 1770, though, that a Swiss watch maker got the idea to use the cylinder technology from the largest musical instrument in the world to create the smallest. These first miniaturized cylinders were placed into pocket watches and snuff boxes and would produce a few notes when the item was opened. The idea caught on, and larger cylinders were made to accommodate consumers’ desires to hear more complete melodies. Eventually, stand alone cylinder driven music boxes became so refined and expensive that owning such a box became a symbol of wealth and status.
The first music box I valued for the show was a partial orchestral, table mounted, interchangeable cylinder music box by B.A. Bremond. It was nearly identical to the one shown below that sold through Bonham’s in 2020 for $7,525.
How the Cylinder Music Box Works
The cylinder music box plays notes when a cylinder loaded with tens of thousands of tiny hand tied pins rotates and passes over the teeth of a comb cut to different lengths to produce different pitches. Most of these wires pass soundlessly between the teeth of the comb. At the end of the song, the cylinder moves a fraction of an inch to the right on its axis, and a new set of notes from a new song are produced as different pins pluck different teeth. A single cylinder can play several songs this way, and if the music box allows for interchangeable cylinders, a single box can play a wide variety of music.
These boxes are very delicate, precise machines. A single bent pin on this cylinder or the presence of dust or rust can cause the music box to play out of tune or hit the wrong tooth at the wrong time. Fortunately, there are companies like Music Box Restorations that specialize in the repair such problems.
The cylinder box I valued on the show was called an orchestral cylinder music box because it also had a set of tiny beaters that struck a number of drums, bells, and castanets to create a more symphonic sound. Here is an example of a tabletop orchestral music box that sold at Sotheby’s for $2,643 in 2008:
Upright Disc Music Boxes
The next generation of music boxes, and the second box I valued for the show, was an upright disc, double comb music box with matching storage cabinet. It was produced by German manufacturer, Symphonion, similar to the one shown here.
These music boxes, which came out in the 1880’s, had several advantages over their cylinder predecessors. Most importantly, they were almost entirely machine made which dramatically reduced their cost and production time. In fact, Symphonion produced over 100,000 units in the few short years they were in business. They were hardier, and many coin operated versions were made for commercial use in amusement parks and dance halls.
The discs were interchangeable, and unlike the cylinder boxes which may come with a few custom made cylinders, discs could be purchased and played from several different manufacturers. The double comb technology produced a higher level of resonance as did the cabinets themselves.
How the Disc Music Box Works
It’s a bit harder to see how the disc music box works because most of the operating parts are behind the disc. These two photos show the inner workings of an upright disc music box with and without a disc in place.
The disc is machine-stamped in a way that creates small hooks on the back. The vertical tension bar presses the hooks along its edge into a star shaped wheel that in turn strike the teeth of both combs simultaneously.
The success of the disc music box was fairly short lived. It was soon replaced by the gramophone in 1898 which forever changed the dynamics of mechanical musical instruments and ushered in the era of true home entertainment.
How the Values Came Out
Unfortunately for the seller, I valued his music boxes far below his asking prices of $30,000 for the cylinder box and $8,500 for the disc music box. His cylinder box had several cosmetic flaws such as peeling and missing veneers which made it less appealing to a buyer who might want to feature it as a fine piece of furniture as well as a musical instrument. And his asking price was just not in alignment with actual selling prices. The disc music box had some rust on both the discs and the combs which caused the instrument to be somewhat out of tune. I valued the cylinder music box at $7,500 and the disc music box at $2,500. Since the seller was firm on his asking prices, Rick and Chum didn’t bother to make offers on either.
All things considered, I had a great experience on the show. Rick and Chum were fun and the whole production crew was supportive and good natured.
My only disappointment was that my segment was cut terribly short, and my lengthy discussions of the history, operation, and condition of the two music boxes as well as the interview they conducted with me after the segment never made it past the cutting room floor. And while I think the shortened segment can be seen on a few different streaming services, the version on the History Channel itself was cut from two hours
down to 45 minutes and my segment didn’t make it at all. Ah, well! At least I had my 5 minutes of fame, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world!