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It's all in the motion

There's a retro craze going on right now and we bet you've never heard of it: the original motion lamp...

A motion lamp features a circular lamp base and a vertical double layered outer lampshade with a picture on it, with an inner shade that has opaque and clear motion details on it. The two shades are attached so they appear as one, with a metal top. Inside the lamp is a separate 'spinner' shade which is usually balanced on a metal pin above the light bulb. It's the heat of the light bulb that causes the spinning shade to rotate, causing the picture on the outside to come to life.

The makers of motion

One of the earliest producers of motion lamps, Scene-In-Action Corporation of Chicago started in 1925 and operated until 1936. They produced at least 11 different models of lamp. When the business closed it was bought and renamed Rev-o-Lite; their lamps, which were produced from 1936 until the mid-1940s, are usually the highest quality. Rev-o-Lite also introduced a pagoda version, with window panels containing scenes that are often of fairytales. They are currently selling for anywhere between $100 and $600.

Ignition Lamps made their lamps from pot metal and cardboard and sold them for just $1. They produced three scenes: a forest fire, a waterfall and a Native American forest fire, from 1928 to 1948.

Econolite Corporation, which started making motion lamps in 1946, became one of the major manufacturers. Their first three designs - Fountain of Youth, Forest Fire and Niagara Falls - were made entirely of plastic with a hard plastic top and base. One of the most sought after of their designs is called Miss Liberty, with a scene of New York Harbour and the Statue of Liberty; an example in mint condition has made $3000 on eBay. The Winter scenes produced by Econolite are another favourite with collectors; when in motion, the snow actually appears to be falling on the scene. They ceased production in 1962, with the last lamp being made for that year's Seattle World's Fair.

L.A. Goodman Manufacturing, based in Los Angeles, was also a prolific manufacturer and their lamp featuring the Japanese Festival Gardens, depicting an erupting Mount Fuji, sells for up to $800. Goodman's lamps are usually the largest, measuring around 27cm tall.

The Econolite Jnr of Robo View lamps are smaller - around 20cm high - and usually feature scenes such as the Forest Fire or Niagara Falls. They sell for anywhere between $70 and $300.

Although some motion lamps were made in the 1970s and '80s, most of those on the market date from the 1930s through to the early 1960s. A popular aquarium design by Goodman which features rippled paper between the two shades was reproduced in the 1990s by Visual Effects Co. The original Goodman lamp sells for $300 to $450 but the replica is worth around $100.

People pay how much?

If you've never heard of a motion lamp, you'll probably be surprised to learn that prices on eBay can be anywhere from around $200 right up to $3000. But if it's the Holy Grail of motion lamps you're looking for, you may have to shell out even more.

The Econolite Carousel lamp was made in 1955 for the opening of Disneyland. It features around 20 Disney characters, with Mickey riding the only white horse, as seen in the theme park itself. The only other model made for the Disney opening was the Train, which came complete with little flags on metal posts. Because it they have crossover appeal to Disney collectors, these lamps have been known to sell for several thousands when they come onto the market.

Another highly sought lamp is the Our Lady of Guadelupe, which in 2006 was selling for around $500 and last year brought more than $2500 when it was offered on eBay.

When a motion lamp stops

If the centre bearing on the top of the inner spinner shade is missing, the lamp won't spin and you may have to pay as much for the replacement spinner as you did for the lamp itself. It can also be damaged if the bulb wattage is too high; most will safely use a clear 40 watt bulb or lower. Anything above 40 watts can warp and damage your lamp, and a warped lamp is unlikely to function properly, if at all.

You want to use a clear bulb because it shows off the pictures a lot better than a frosted one, which can make them seem fuzzy.

What to look for...

Vintage lamps usually have metal or Bakelite bases. The metal bases are often tarnished, but this doesn't seem to be too much of a deterrent for collectors. Small scratches on the outer shade can be touched up using enamel paint, but keep away from using permanent markers as the depth of colour is too dense and it will show as a block. Many motion lamps are marked on the shades or have the maker's name cast on the underside of the metal top.

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.