Buying a pre 2nd WW Banjo

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Where to start?

Research is the key to investing in antiques and musical instruments are no different. 
If you have spotted the little jem on e-bay or in the local junk shop then start by searching the instrument for a maker's name or logo,  model name and serial number.  Look everywhere on the instrument .. Geo P Matthew often put his name on the non-visible side of the perch-pole (dowel stick) and for example Paramount is not a maker but a model name. 
Next search the internet for "Vintagebanjomakers", find the reference site for pre 2nd WW banjos and get to know your maker.  Here you will get their biography, details of where and when they were working and see some close up pictures of their instruments. 
               Now look more closely ...............
Frequently tailpieces go missing as do hooks and nuts and in collecting any antiques originality is the number one priority. 
Having said that a lot of people play their 120 year old instruments and it is acceptable in some circles to replace the tuners to make the instrument more playable.  This is because the banjo was at its peak of development in the 1890 when gut strings where the norm, steel strings were just starting to take over and the refinments in tuner technology were only just starting to happen.
Then search the internet for more information on that maker in places like Mugwumps and E-bay for an idea what prices are like, using the advanced search.
Then inspect for the following: fretboard wear ( from fingernails)  fret wear and action (steel strings on instruments designed for gut) repairs ( broken necks) loose fret boards, missing heels, twisted necks, conversions (fretless to fretted with the frets cut through the inlays) poor intonation cased buy incorrectly spaced frets, genuine tuners or replacements, missing inlays and so on ....
Is the skin split? this usually means you can pick it up for a lot less and replacing the skin is no big deal, costing a maximum of £30.
              Still interested? ..............
Having decided that you are still interested now look at what gives a vintage banjo its value.  In general terms from the same maker, five string banjos are worth more than 4 string and zither banjos.  Plus points are lots of inlays and a carved heel, where the workmanship is good, as this made the banjo more expensive when it was 1st made. 
However there is one indication of a quality instrument and that is the thickness of the ebony fretboard and/or the number of laminations that made up the fretboard/neck.  Not only was ebony expensive but laminating the fret board gave it better strength and rigidity, improving the tone and the life of the neck.
Initially inlays were mapped to the fretboard and fitted exactly but as mass production kicked in complex shaped inlays were fitted into inprecise holes with black filler.  Sometimes metal including aluminium (which was a precious metal up until the 1890s) was also used for inlays.
Originality/one of a kind is good where a maker will make a one off as a "presentation" instrument or work with another well respected maker such that both their names appear on the instrument; also provenance helps value and having the nut wrench, sale receipt and original case however battered is also a plus.
As far as collectors are concerned USA made banjos, unlike guitars, will sell better in the USA and likewise with a UK made instrument, so if you are in an auction in Somerset UK and see a Washburn you will pay less for it than you would do in Chicago where it was originally made.
Lastly, the banjo was the 1st really "popular" instrument, 1000s being made and played every week in the USA and the UK around the 1890s, following the American Civil War and driven by the industrial revolution.  It was not until the depression and the invention of the "pickup" in 1927 that the guitar started to take over ..
why?  volume, the louder you could play the more people you could entertain.
a £2000 Washburn bought at auction for £840 and £200 spent to restore it.
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a £2000 Washburn bought at auction for £840 and £200 spent to restore it.
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