Since 1912, when its lambent red glow was first harnessed to advertise a Parisian barber’s shop, neon has played an integral role in shaping the urban landscape. The proliferation of available colours (created by combining the neon with other gases and chemicals), coupled with the affordability and ambitious design of the glasswork encasements, saw neon signs achieve massive popularity in the early 20th century, peaking in the 1930s. But by the end of the 1940s they had fallen out of favour, considered synonymous with the seamy underbelly of run-down metropolises – with the exception of the Las Vegas Strip, whose neon-isation in the early ’40s kept the craft in business.
In the past decade, however, there has been a drive to restore lost signage and neon works – as at Dreamland, Margate’s relaunched amusement park – to their former glory. Marcus Bracey, a neon artist and third-generation owner of London studio God’s Own Junkyard, which houses the largest panoply of neon in Europe, says it’s the history that attracts people. “These signs are iconic, one-of-a-kind pieces. Some of ours date back to the 1930s, and we get a real kick out of bringing them back to life.” Bracey currently has a playful blue and yellow carnival sign (£2,650) that reads: “All the fun of the fair”. But many of the older signs that come to him are from Soho, made by his father and grandfather; these, he says, are “too sentimental to sell”. Hence, most of his business focuses on bespoke studio work and commissions, such as a hand-scrawled “Mossy” sign made for Kate Moss a few years ago.
By contrast, Alexander Walder-Smith, managing director of The Games Room Company in Surrey, deals mostly in vintage neon, acquired from the US. Among his inventory is a rare pre-1937, 2m-long Budweiser sign (£12,500), which he bought in Iowa; and a 1970s blue and yellow “Drugs” sign (£6,250). “I buy what I like, tempered with some of what I think will sell,” he says, before dispensing useful buying advice: “Examine the enamel carefully; if it’s heavily decayed, it could be beyond repair. And there is no way of knowing if something purchased from an online auction has been safely rewired.” One happy Walder-Smith client is Ioannis Dimopoulos, an oil broker from Jersey who bought a 1950s Pennsylvania Tires sign for £6,750: “I got it a couple of years ago for my ‘man cave’. I love the retro glow the blue and yellow light casts on my vintage car collection.”
For Icon Neon, the Berkshire-based supplier and restorer of neon art, the struggle is finding enough vintage stock: it sold 75 pieces in the past year, yet owner Paul Wright says that doesn’t meet even a small percentage of the demand: “It’s a seller’s market.” About half his vintage signs and restorations come from the US and advertise brands of beer, such as a 1982 Miller example that he sold recently for £400, or a 1976 Budweiser football sign that went for £475. Neon signs manufactured closer to home garner even greater interest; Wright says he’s restoring a 1920s double-sided neon clock advertising Belvedere cigarettes for one client; when it is repaired, he believes it will be one of the earliest working examples of neon in Britain, with a market value of £10,000.
The US market is bigger and more buoyant, with asking prices reaching $12,500 for a midcentury red, white and blue 3D barber’s-shop sign, and $38,000 for a 1930s sign advertising Paramount Pictures (both available through 1stdibs). Meanwhile, Rejuvenation, in Portland, Oregon, has a number of pieces in stock, among them a 1950s “No vacancy” hotel light ($3,800) and a 1940s martini glass ($6,500), complete with olive. “Scale and colour are important when considering a purchase,” says Rejuvenation’s antiques department manager Nigel Barnes. “Our big pieces tend to go to commercial spaces; having a 3m-long piece of neon inside your home would be overpowering.” More appealing to a private buyer might be a 1.5m-wide 1940s arrow-shaped, yellow “Taxi” sign ($12,000). “It probably comes from New York or Boston, and its patina has just the right amount of wear,” notes Barnes.
For serious collectors like David Webb – a retired engineer from Washington DC, who owns close to 200 signs – the search can be all-consuming: “The best examples are becoming harder to find, so when you stumble across something you have to move quickly.” Most of his collection is pre-1950, and while he counts a 1940s shooting gallery sign ($30,000) from Coney Island among his favourites, he prefers those that communicate without words, such as his animated diving lady ($75,000) and hamburger ($15,000) signs.
With its glass tubing easy to accurately mould, neon lends itself well to typography – as demonstrated by the cursive wordplay pieces of 1960s neon artist Bruce Nauman and, more recently, those of Tracey Emin. This isn’t lost on Matthew Cox, who runs an antiques shop in Gloucestershire and whose first purchase was a 1980s yellow “Disco” sign for a party (he later sold it for £750). Then five years ago, he spent £1,500 on a dozen 1930s Belgian neon carnival letters, which he restored before selling all but one – a white “C” that he kept for his girlfriend Camilla – for £750 each. “We’ve hung the ‘C’ on a chimney breast in our bedroom. We don’t turn it on often – the light is too harsh to read by – but it creates a cool ambience.”
LA interior designer Kyle Spivey owns two vintage signs – one advertising a chemist, the other cocktails – purchased for $400 each at a charity sale. Spivey extols neon for its ability to transform a space. “It is a natural showstopper, but in a home it creates a laidback atmosphere. And it’s refreshing to see pieces that are truly handmade and not mass-produced.” Christoph Ribbat, author of Flickering Light: A History of Neon, agrees: “These works were made by craftsmen whose breath shaped the glass. To own one is to establish a connection with that person.”