Skip to main content

Furniture Detective: 19th century Roller Organ may be worth up to $850

In responding to a reader's inquiry about the value and history of an antique Roller Organ, Furniture Detective Fred Taylor reveals a rich history, fascinating details about accessories of the organ and an encouraging potential value.

Q I am enclosing a picture of a music piece called “The Gem Roller Organ.” The size is 12 inches by 15 inches, and it is 8 inches tall. When you turn the handle it plays like a player piano. We also have many rollers.

We have had it around 40 years. It was given to my husband’s grandparents by a school teacher who used it in her class room for music. On the bottom it has directions how it works and it is dated “September 21, 1901” and “patented May 31, 1887.” We think it might be a salesperson’s sample. Could you give us any information about it and the value of it? Thank you.

— M.S., Genoa, Ohio


Sears didn’t make the Gem Roller Organ, but they were one of the largest distributors of the turn of the century music box made by the Autophone Company of Ithaca, New York.

A Your Gem Roller Organ is not a salesperson’s sample — it is the entire real deal and was one of the most popular musical instruments of the late 19th century.

It was made by the Autophone Company of Ithaca, New York, and marketed extensively by Sears. It is on page 203 of the 1902 Sears catalog where it is presented as “Our Gem Roller Organ” for the price of $3.25, which included three rollers or “cobs” as they were called. A price reduction from the previous catalog’s price of $4.25 “was made possible by our contracting for the entire output of the factory which makes this wonderful little instrument.” Several hundred more cobs, each with a different tune, were available for 18 cents each. If that statement in the catalog is true, and many times catalog prose from that era is highly suspect, then your Gem probably came through the mail from the Sears catalog.

There is a wealth of information about these ingenious music boxes made available by Todd Augsburger online at The boxes themselves range in value from $350 to $850 depending on condition, and the cobs retail for about $20 each.


Q I read in your column several months ago about the gloss latex paint. That would solve my problem if I knew what kind of paint is already on the woodwork. How can I tell?

— A.D., Akron, Ohio

A There is one simple test, but it requires a little patience.
Paint a small section of your surface, two or three square inches, with some latex paint. Then let it dry. I mean let it dry thoroughly for a week or so. That’s the hardest part of the test – waiting for it to dry. Then scrape it with your fingernail or the back of a table knife. If it scrapes right off, then the underlying paint is oil based and should be repainted with alkyd enamel.

You also can test the paint’s reaction to solvents such as methylene chloride based

This top-selling book by Antique Trader columnist Fred Taylor teaches you how to solve the mysteries of antique furniture. Order your copy directly from the author at

This top-selling book by Antique Trader columnist Fred Taylor teaches you how to solve the mysteries of antique furniture. Order your copy directly from the author at

stripper. Oil based paint wrinkles with MC. Latex paint kind of just dissolves, if it does anything at all. But why mess with the solvents if you have time for the first test?


Q I have stripped the pine bed we found at a garage sale and am now ready to stain it. I plan to use a water based polyurethane as the finish. Does that mean I need to use a water based stain instead of an oil based stain?

— C.R., Celina, Ohio

A Make absolutely sure you are ready to stain before you stain no matter what stain you plan to use. After you have stripped the piece you need to wipe it down with mineral spirits to remove any stripper residue and then light sand the entire surface to smooth it out and prepare it to accept the stain.

It really doesn’t matter what kind of stain you use under the water based polyurethane. After the stain dries only the pigment is left. The vehicle, water or oil, will have evaporated. The real question is one of convenience and trade-offs. Slower drying oil stains are easier to apply and are less likely to produce streaks in your work. But that very characteristic, slow drying, can be an inconvenience if you are working on a tight schedule. Most oil stains need to dry at least 24 hours before finishing. Some professional varieties such as the “15 Minute Dry Stains” from Mohawk are much, much quicker but they are expensive and relatively dangerous, having a much lower flash point.

Water based stains on the other hand dry fairly quickly, only a matter of hours in most cases, and are very safe. However, water has a tendency to raise the grain of soft woods like pine, meaning you have to sand again after you stain and then restain it before you apply finish. Or, if you don’t want to put that much stain on it you could just wet down the wood with water first, allow it dry overnight and then sand and stain. This will get rid of most of the raised grain and requires only one coat of stain.
It really boils down to what you are comfortable using.

Weekly Showcase



Over 100 YEARS of Chinese History - Our pristine Jade Collection is extensive and beautiful!  Please visit our web site to get an idea of how beautiful this collection is.