Buying or Selling Conn Instruments

Most people who visit this website have probably bought or sold a vintage Conn, or are planning to do so. The point of this article is to offer some tips, ideas, suggestions and advice with respect to that process. I would like to stress that these are my opinions and preferences. Some of what I say might be obvious. I will focus mainly on cornets and trumpets because I know most about those types of instruments, and on buying or selling through eBay. Much of what follows should be applicable beyond that as well though. What I will not talk about is bidding strategies and the likes; that is not the point of this website. I will first talk about selling an instrument and then discuss things buyers should be aware of.

Sellers: Titles and Descriptions
Titles. Titles of instrument auctions on eBay vary widely, from "Conn 15B Director trumpet" (nice) to "Trumpet" (not enough info) or even "saxaphone" (yes, spelled that way. No comment). From a buyer's point of view, I appreciate seeing a title which at least gives the brand ("Conn", in our case) and the model name ("Director" in my example) and what type of instrument it is (in this case "trumpet"). Including a model number ("15B" in the example) is even better. I can understand where someone not "in the know" could have difficulty telling the difference between a cornet and a trumpet. Generally, if it less than 19" long without the mouthpiece it is a cornet, although there are some cornets longer than 19". And please allow me to correct some more spelling here: the instrument is properly called a "cornet" and not a "coronet". As a matter of fact, incorrect spelling or leaving off the brand name ("Conn" in this case) will often cause an instrument not to show up in bookmarked eBay searches many people use.

Descriptions. As for instrument descriptions, buyers prefer to have as much relevant information as possible. This includes what is in the title: Brand (Conn), model number, model name. The model number should be stamped underneath the mouthpiece receiver on instruments with serial numbers starting with 2xx,xxx, 3xx,xxx or 4xx,xxx. If there is no model number underneath the mouthpiece receiver there should be a model name engraved on the leadpipe (usually) or the side of the bell (sometimes). A model number and/or model name is critical information for a buyer. Nice and rare instruments have been sold on eBay for well below their value because there was no model name or number in the description and buyers didn't catch on to what it was (I picked up a rare and almost mint 1960 10A Artist that way for $204.00, which is about one-third of what it should have gone for).

Serial numbers. Always include the serial number in the description. If you would rather not reveal the whole serial number, that is OK: just give the first three or four digits and replace the last two or three with X's. The common format is "123xxx" or "1234xx". This will tell a buyer what the age of the instrument is, and will save you from having to answer e-mails about that. Giving just the year it was built is better than nothing, but frequently Conn's woodwind and brass serial number lists are confused causing an instrument to appear to be several years older or younger than it actually is. The serial number on Conn valve instruments is always stamped on the 2nd valve. And here is another critical point: any digits or letters preceding the serial number are part of the serial number, and are VERY important. For example, a serial number could be "GB 321456". The "GB" in here is essential. Also, you can have a serial number such as "5 123456". Again, the "5" is important. Also, sometimes you will see auctions with serial numbers listed as "12345". If that is actually stamped on the instrument as "C12345", then not revealing the "C" makes the "12345" useless as a piece of information. Another thing to be aware of: the incarnations of the Conn company after 1979 (or so) have, and still do, re-use serial numbers. An instrument with a serial 712345 could be a 1957 instrument, or one made only a few years ago. Don't assume from the serial number that it is a vintage, Elkhart instrument. See under "pictures" below for some suggestions on this.

Be honest. It is in everybody's interest to have a description which is as complete and detailed as possible. Mention all dents, scratches and bent parts. Buyers will appreciate the honesty. Don't assume that someone won't buy an instrument on account of damage. Also, buyers contemplating buying an instrument will almost invariably ask about the condition of the valves and the slides. It is a simple test: Do the valves move up and down? Be gentle, don't use any force. Do the slides move in and out? Again, don't force anything. You shouldn't need to use much muscle power on either the valves or the slides. Talking about the condition of the valves and the slides will in my opinion make a buyer more confident about what he or she is bidding on, even if the answer is "stuck". Keeping it a secret will often result in a buyer hesitating and not taking any chances.

Pictures. Buyers like to see pictures of the instrument being sold. If there is no picture, you won't sell a thing. The best pictures are high resolution (large), in focus and with proper lighting. If a picture is small, out of focus or too dark then buyers will shy away. Show the entire instrument, both sides and front to back and from all angles. If there is damage (dents, bent parts): show them. If the mouthpiece is not stuck in the instrument then don't show the mouthpiece in the instrument. Most buyers aren't interested in the mouthpiece and will assume it is stuck in the instrument if the picture shows a mouthpiece in the instrument. Also show at least one picture of the original case if you still have it, even if it is in terrible condition. I don't know about other people, but my first impression of whether an instrument is actually an Elkhart Conn is usually by the way the case looks. This is especially the case for instruments with serial numbers that may have been re-used (usually in the 500,000 to 999,999 range. Also show a picture of any engraving on the bell; this can also tell something about when it was made.

Buyers: Assessing an instrument
When you spot an instrument you might be interested in buying, you of course want to know exactly what you are dealing with, its condition and base your maximum bid on that. Ideally you would like to hold the instrument in your hands, go over it closely and play it. That of course is not possible on most eBay auctions, so you will have to do with the seller's description and the pictures. It is important to carefully read the description. Perhaps even more though it is important to read between the lines: what is the seller not saying? Is there are model number and or name? Is there any word on damage? Condition of the finish? History of the instrument? Does the seller in fact know little about "such things" or is that an excuse not to give you information? If in doubt, of course, ask questions! Does the seller answer your question(s) promptly and completely? If not, what is the seller not telling you?

Pictures. Take a good look at all pictures. If the angle you want isn't there, ask for it. Be aware of small and dark pictures; the seller might be trying to hide something. Do all the pictures show just one side of the instrument, perhaps from different angles trying to give the impression you are seeing everything? Again, the seller might be hiding something on the side not being pictured. Something I often do is save all the pictures of an instrument I am interested in on my computer and then load them into a photo editing program. That will allow you to take a good look at your leisure, and to compensate for bad lighting and to increase the size (to a degree). If you are in doubt if an instrument is actually an Elkhart, look for pictures of the case and the engraving. Serial numbers have been and are being re-used by recent incarnations of the Conn company (very annoying), but the engraving on the bell will usually give you a strong clue.

Damage. The thing with damage to an instrument is, of course, the question "How bad is it?" With respect to dents, you could say there are three categories: easy to fix, difficult to fix and "forget it". It helps here to have an idea on how repair people go about removing dents. As I understand it they have a set of different sized metal balls that attach to a flexible rod. The rod with the ball at the end is inserted into the tubing and the dent carefully tapped out. I have been told that they will usually start with a small ball and slowly work their way up to the size of the bore.
The easy to fix category: This includes all dents in a straight line from an open end, except for the leadpipe (why is explained below) and anything up to the 90 degree point of the outside of a large bend. So this will be the bell up to 90 degrees of the bell curve and the straight parts of all the slides.
Difficult to fix: Sections of tubing beyond 90 degrees of a bend with no other access point. The classic example of this is the section of tubing between the 90 degree point of the bell curve and where the bell enters the valve section (the exception to this would be certain cornets which have another slide curving into the valve section such as the Director cornet). These situations require the affected part (most often the bell) to be unsoldered to allow access to the dent. Also in this category is the leadpipe. While the leadpipe often allows easy access from both ends, the leadpipe on most Conn trumpets and cornets is in fact double walled with the inside wall being tapered. The narrowest point is an inch or two beyond the mouthpiece receiver and it tapers out to the point where the tuning slide starts. To repair dents in the leadpipe first the outer tube has to be unsoldered and carefully removed and the dent(s) removed. With luck, the inner tube won't be dented. If it is, it has to be very carefully taken care of. The metal here is thinner and of course quite severely tapered. Definitely not an easy repair.
The "forget it" category: Inside bends of tight curves. These are situations like when someone inserted a rod behind the curve at the end of the third slide to remove a stuck third slide. The resulting dent on the inside of that tight curve at the end of the third slide is almost impossible to get out.

Holes in the metal can often be patched. These can be caused be red rot or by some foreign object piercing the metal (yes, that does happen). It depends on where on the instrument it is located. Here again, the leadpipe is a nasty spot, as is the main tuning slide. Unfortunately, these are also the most common areas. Holes in places like the bell or slide ends aren't too bad. On the subject of red rot: in my experience it doesn't progress very quickly. The key here is to keep the instrument meticulously clean.

Finish (lacquer, silver or gold plate). Instruments produced before 1930 are usually silver plated or sometimes gold plated, the latter commanding a significant premium. Instruments produced after 1930 are most often lacquered. Silver tends to go black after a while, so if you find an instrument which looks like it is in poor condition because it is black, consider that it might well polish up to a bright silver finish. Older Conn lacquer, especially pre-1955, tends to go dark with age. To me this is a sign that the lacquer is original (which is good). The darkening does not, as far as I know, affect the quality of the lacquer. However, this pre-"Lustre-Conn" lacquer doesn't stand up to perspiration nearly as well as Lustre-Conn lacquer does, so you are liable to find lacquer wear in the usual spots where the instrument is held. Consider this a sign that the instrument was played a lot and therefore might well be a good "player". In my opinion the temptation to relacquer even slightly tarnished or worn original lacquer should be resisted. Original lacquer even if it is in poor condition adds to the value of the instrument, as well as to the quality of the sound. Relacquering reduces the value of the instrument, at least to collectors. It might well also sound differently. "Modern" lacquer can usually be recognised by the fact that it is a different color, more pale. Relacquered Coprion is especially is to recognise: it turns pink, while the original is somewhere between a medium to dark red to a deep honey color. If you come across a relacquered instrument for sale, my opinion is that the price will reflect the cost of relacquering while the value will in my opinion have gone down from where it was before the relacquering. So you have a price difference there of $200 to $300. For a longer discussion on this topic, see To relacquer or leave original.

Engraving. I have been encouraged to write an article about engraving on Conn instruments. Perhaps I shall do so, but for now this will have to do. As a rule of thumb, the older an instrument is the more extensive the engraving will be. Instruments from the 1920's and earlier will often have extensive floral engraving. Between the 1930's and early 1950's the pattern is art deco with angled and straight lines. Up until 1955 Conn cornets and trumpets will have "C.G. Conn // USA // Elkhart, Ind." engraved on the bell. The "Elkhart" especially tells you it is an original. From 1955 onwards you see the "three marching men" engraving. Let me dispell a myth here: the three marching men engraving does NOT indicate a student quality instrument. With the exception of the Connstellation models which had an entirely different kind of engraving, ALL cornets and trumpets from 1955 on had the three marching men engraving. I own a a 1956 and a 1960 10A (Victor and Artist, respectively). These were just one step below the 28A Connstellation and both have the three marching men engraving. However, these Victor and Artist models (the 6A, 6B, 10A and 10B and probably also the 22B) do have of a floral type of engraving around the three marching men engraving. The Director models (which are student models) have the so-called "shooting stars" around the three marching men engraving. In other words: don't look at the three marching men, look at the engraving around it.

Serial numbers. Serial numbers are often a bit tricky. The point of a serial number in an auction is to accurately determine the age of the instrument. In my experience having the seller give just the date the instrument was produced and not the serial number leaves an unsatisfied feeling even though it is really all the buyer wants to know. Be aware of the fact that prior to 1955 Conn used two different serial number sequences for woodwind and brass. So be careful to look up cornets, trumpets, trombones, etc. in the brass serial number list. Also keep in mind that Pan American and Cavalier brand instruments use another serial number list again.
Another problem is that some of Conn's post-Elkhart incarnations (including the current one, I think) decided to re-use serial numbers. From what I know now, serial numbers between 4xx,xxx and 9xx,xxx have been used twice. To determine whether an instrument is an Elkhart or a later instrument, check the engraving and details such as valve caps. A "three marching men" engraving on the bell is a good thing. The model name engraved on the bell is usually a bad sign (example: later models Director had "Director" on the bell. These are never Elkhart instruments). Yet another trap is where the seller conveniently forgets letters or digits preceding the serial number. There is a difference in value between a 38B Connstellation with serial number "987654" and "GF 987654". With Connstellations the answer is easy: does the bell engraving include the word "Elkhart"? If not, then the seller "forgot" some letters.