See: How to have Dr. Echols evaluate and describe a Civil War surgery set for you
By Dr. Michael Echols
The question of 'how much is that set worth' is one which confronts any researcher, collector, or dealer each and every time a new set is encountered. There are no hard and firm prices on any historical antique, it's a matter of what you think it's worth and what a buyer is willing to pay. Somewhere between those two extremes exists a number both of can live with.
If there is one variable that will greatly change the value of a set it is missing or replaced parts, not to mention condition and rarity.
The other factors are:
AGE: Prices will vary greatly from era to era and set to set depending on various factors: older (pre-1850) sets are more valuable than newer (post-1870) sets. Those sets made prior to 1870 are more valuable than later sets due to earlier sets are more ornate and have non-metal handles on knives. Earlier sets are lined with velvet or some similar material, later sets have all wood interiors up to 1900, after 1900, some sets had leather cases and blue velvet interiors. Non-metal handles are early, all metal handles are post:1880's. Ivory is more desirable than composite handles. Curved blades are earlier than straight blades.
CONDITION: with any antique, the condition is always of premier importance unless it is a historically significant piece with provenance which generates so much interest that condition might not matter. Such a set would be one marked for a given surgeon or period and accompanied by documents to prove who the owner was or how that individual was significant. These kind of sets are rare.
Usually condition will be a matter of determining the amount of rust or deterioration which has occurred to the blades or other metal parts. Heavily rusted, broken, or corroded metal is a major turn-off and greatly decreases the value. A bright and new condition set will always bring a higher price than one which is worn and heavily used. On the other hand, a worn and blood stained set due to actual use may not be a great factor if it was a military set. See the article and photos on altered surgical instruments.
The condition of the interior fabric liner of the case as well as the condition of the wood on the outside of the box and the type of wood will cause value to vary greatly. Dirty or missing interior parts of the case will decrease value.
Missing or broken hinges, locks, and keys are also a factor. If a cartouche has been inlayed into the top of the case and is unmarked, that is a positive as is an engraved name of the owner. A missing cartouche is a negative.
COMPLETENESS: If parts are missing from a set, the value is greatly affected. The more parts missing or incorrect for the slots in the case, the lower the value. If large parts are missing and very obvious, then the greater the negative effect.
With almost all sets, you can determine what is missing or replaced by the fit of the instrument into the slot which was crafted precisely for a given instrument. These sets were often custom made and no two are exactly alike. With military sets, they are more or less uniform and parts may be interchangeable from one set to another if they are similar sets from the same maker. With smaller makers, the sets and instruments tend to be one of a kind and the odds of a missing piece being replaced is slim to none. Another point to consider is what name is imprinted on each instrument if marked. A given set should have all the marks in the same font and name, but some makers mixed fonts or names from an earlier period.
If the instrument doesn't fit the slot exactly, then more than likely it is a substitution and the fact that is was 'found' in the set is irrelevant. It either fits or it doesn't. Don't force it. The instruments were custom fit to the slots. If the instrument is not correct for the set, it will not fit the slot.
MAKERS: Some makers are more sought after than others and value will vary accordingly. There were literally hundreds of makers in America and many more makers in continental Europe and Britain. Some sets were 'wholesaled' by supply houses and would be the 'Sears' of the sets. Those more common and utilitarian sets are less valuable than custom sets by the Eastern American or European establishment makers.
Dating surgical sets by the maker address
The better known names will usually bring a higher price than lesser known makers. However, some small production sets from little known makers are jewels and highly valued by knowledgeable collectors.
Consistent marks on the instruments will greatly increase the value. In other words if the instruments are all marked with the maker in the same font and style, more than likely it means all the instruments are original to the given set.
HISTORY: Civil War marked sets ( USA Hosp. Dept.) are more valuable than unmarked sets. Proven owners of a given set with documents are more valuable assuming the condition and other factors are the same. Actual Civil War issued sets are marked as such, but anything existing during or prior to the War may have been used in the War, but for the purposes of this discussion, we are talking about 'marked' sets .
SIZE: In general, the larger and more complicated the set, the more valuable. Removable trays or boxes within the set or multiple layers are better than simple sets with few instruments. The greater the number of instruments and parts, the better.
UNIQUE AND SPECIALTY SETS: If a set was designed with instruments for a given specialty like orthopedic, obstetrics, or neuro surgery, then those sets are more desirable. Sets designed for use on ships or during war time are more generalized, but tend to be larger and valuable.
RARITY: Of course the more rare the set, the more valuable, but this is something only a serious collector will care about. Many casual collectors of surgical sets don't really know or care what is rare and what is not. It's a fine point which will cause a serious collector to pay more or less depending on how many of a particular set show up for sale. With the advent of the internet and eBay, rarity is relative to how much you pay attention to the sales. Sets we used to think were rare are now turning up all over the place due to internet exposure.
What is all boils down to is value is in the eye of the beholder and the interaction of two individuals agreeing on what one is willing to pay and the other is willing to accept.
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Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016