Cowan's Corner

Antique Medical Instruments Are Out-ofthe-Ordinary Collectibles

By Wes Cowan

Of all the eccentric and unusual collecting fields, none are perhaps as haunting and grim as that of early medical antiques. But if eBay has taught us anything, it’s that there is a market for every collector’s whim, and medical collectibles are no exception.

Medical utensils, devices and tools produced in the early 19th Century and earlier serve as a wonderful documentation of the development of the profession. In many cases, such tools can be exceedingly rare because few were produced, and eventually, a more sophisticated tool or method was developed, thus ending its production. As with other collecting areas, the same concept applies with medical collectibles—the rarer the object, the better.

Dental tools provide an excellent example of this progression. Dental keys were produced as early as the 17th century, with steady development of new models and the continual abandonment of the older and less sophisticated. An early and rare dental key can command several thousand dollars at auction. A fine 19th-Century key with an ivory handle can bring several hundred dollars. A dental utensil from the 1950s would probably be deemed virtually worthless by a medical antique collector, but many years from now, it may be viewed as a veritable jewel, encapsulating a period of time when dentists worked with such “crude” tools.

An entire host of other medical objects were produced that can both fascinate and horrify. Bloodletting devices are especially cruel, providing a glimpse into the long-abandoned process of extracting blood to cure certain illnesses. Similarly, leech jars are especially popular with collectors, as leeches were used for the same purpose.

Some of the more gruesome utensils are early surgical and amputation kits. Used commonly during the Civil War, a complete amputation kit from an identified medical officer can command several thousand dollars at auction.

The industrial age and pioneering electrical inventions also brought along an array of interesting medical devices. For example, shocking machines were developed for persons with “nervous diseases,” designed to shock an individual into a normal state.

Outside of actual medical utensils, collecting items associated with the medical profession is also popular. For example, a 19th -Century portrait of a doctor is more likely to command a stronger price than an unidentified portrait of a man. The same is true for shaving mugs, fraternal items and a variety of other antiques. On items such as these, a visual symbol typically used to signify a doctor was the skull and crossbones.

Medical collectibles follow the general rules of antique collecting: they must be complete with no missing parts and be in good condition overall. A documented provenance, tying the piece to a particular physician or event, contributes to an item’s value. Of course, the rarer, and often, the more gruesome the item is, the higher its worth to collectors.

To say the least, medical collectibles cover a vast territory, but are an interesting field with much to learn about and discover. Many unusual items can be great conversation pieces, and many more are quite “shocking.” At the very least, these antique medical devices make us grateful we live in our current age of technology. 

About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at




Wrought iron dental key with unique locking mechanism, estimated to sell for $250/$350.

A fine 19th-Century blown glass leech jar, estimated at $1,000/$1,500.






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