Identifying Antique Skeleton Key (Types & Value Guide)

Antique skeleton keys are certainly a piece of art that continues to amaze collectors and traders of the modern era. If you, like the various collectors around you, have recently gotten interested in the massive world of skeleton keys, then you’ll be glad to know that you’re in the right place because we’ve got just what you need!

Skeleton keys prove to be the ideal collector’s item for modern-day collectors as, unlike various other antique furniture, tools, and objects, skeleton keys are relatively cheaper and much more accessible. While many skeleton keys cost a few bucks, you are likely to encounter pieces that go as high as several hundreds of dollars primarily because of the rarity and historical importance that they hold.

Furthermore, old skeleton keys are highly compact and can be stored easily without the need for large sheds or storage areas. They also require little maintenance relative to other collectible tools and equipment; therefore, allowing them to stay in optimum conditions over large periods of time without incurring significant physical damage.

If you’re new to the field of antique skeleton keys, then you need to acknowledge the various types and forms of old skeleton keys. You also need to comprehend certain steps and measures that you need to take in order to effectively identify how old a particular skeleton key is and where it originates from. This will also help you get an accurate idea of how valuable antique skeleton keys are to collectors as well as in today’s market. We won’t ask you to go through the inconvenience of performing extensive research to acknowledge yourself about the various aspects of skeleton keys, instead, we’ve compiled everything you need to know right here in this guide.

With that said, let’s not waste any more time and get straight into the topic!

What Are Skeleton Keys?

Vintage Skeleton Keys
Vintage Skeleton Keys Source: White X White

What comes to your mind when the word “skeleton key” comes up? Do you think of them as tiny keys with no modern-day practicality? Honestly, there’s much more to the concept of skeleton keys and we’re here to walk you through it!

A skeleton key conveniently fits the definition of a master key as a single key can be used to unlock multiple locks. With the wide range of locks, that a single skeleton key can open, these tools prove to be the ideal option for beginners trying to pick locks and professionals that need to open multiple locks in their everyday lives.

Where does the skeleton key get its name? The inside bit of the skeleton keys is hollowed to allow it to open many different locks by adjusting itself according to the shape of the lock. This popular attribute of skeleton keys allows them to closely resemble a skeleton and hence, the name. The serrated edge, which is present in most other types of keys is generally removed from skeleton keys, which also makes it possible for the key to open various warded locks in any system.

A skeleton key is generally made from iron or brass and has a specific shape that is convenient for most warded locks. A warded lock consists of specific obstructions inside that need to be pushed in a certain way to allow the lock to open. Generally, the name “skeleton key” refers to any antique key that consists of a bow, a solid shaft or shank, and a flat extension on either side near the bottom of the solid shaft.

How Do Antique Skeleton Keys Work?

To enhance your knowledge about the concept of skeleton keys, you need to know what they were used for in earlier times. Throughout history, the primary purpose of an antique skeleton key was to open warded locks and lever locks. Continue reading to understand how a skeleton key can be used to open these different kinds of locks.

Warded Locks – Unlike other types of keys, skeleton keys lack interior notches that interfere with wards or obstructions in the lock. This allows the key to open locks conveniently without much effort or force.

Keys for some types of warded locks often have a characteristic symmetrical shape
Keys for some types of warded locks often have a characteristic symmetrical shape

Lever Locks – A lever lock is significantly more advanced and complicated than a simple lock with wards since such locks consist of sets of wards and levers, both of which need to be attended to simultaneously to open doors that are locked. The skeleton key is used to push the levers to a certain height while also bypassing the wards or obstructions along the way. A master key or skeleton key can be used to open any of the locks within this system.

Animation of a lever tumbler lock mechanism
Animation of a lever tumbler lock mechanism

Is A Skeleton Key Same As A Master Key?

For starters, skeleton keys are basically a specific type of master keys; however, it isn’t essential for all skeleton keys to be the same. Skeleton keys may differ from each other on the basis of their sizes, shapes, and designs, and it’s crucial for a locksmith to accurately identify a particular skeleton key to understand its purpose.

A skeleton key can be easily distinguished from other types of master keys on the basis of the intricate details that these keys are known to have. Additionally, these details are also essential in making each antique skeleton key unique and valuable for collectors and traders.

If you ever come across a scenario where you need to urgently open a locked piece of furniture, such as cabinets, or other storage items, such as jewelry boxes, you may consider using common household items to try and click the lock open. However, this isn’t recommended as it is incredibly difficult for someone with little knowledge about locks to open small locks this way. Additionally, doing so can also damage your lock and prevent it from opening properly in the future. The best course of action for you would be to search for an antique skeleton key and use it to open the lock instantly.

Different Types Of Skeleton Keys

While a skeleton key is a particular type of key with a unique shape on its front end that is used to unlock locks with obstructions that need to be pushed out with the help of a key, people tend to refer to other types of antique keys with the term “skeleton key”.

Skeleton Key

Consists of a solid shaft along with a pre-cut pattern that is unique for every key. These keys are generally heavier than most other types of keys.

Barrel Key

Barrel Key

It is generally difficult to tell apart a barrel key from a skeleton key because both have similar designs and shapes. The only major difference is that the barrel key is that they are slightly lighter because of their hollow shaft that makes it possible for the key to slide over a post or pin in the lock.

 

Sewing Machine Key

Antique Singer Sewing Machine 3-sided Drawer Key
Antique Singer Sewing Machine 3-sided Drawer Key

These keys are often sold under the name of “skeleton keys”. They are normally small in size and consist of a barrel with no bit.

Interchangeable Key

These keys generally come with changeable bits that can be manually adjusted by the user to fit any lock. These keys are uncommon relative to other types of keys and are also valued higher in the market.

Bit Key

Bit keys are cut from key blanks and have a standard shape with a particular bit pattern that can only be used to open a specific lock.

How To Identify Antique Skeleton Keys?

If you’re planning on becoming an antique skeleton key collector, you need to be aware of how to properly identify a key you found while shopping online or at antique stores. This is also essential while deducing the purpose of the key, which will give you an accurate idea of how valuable the key is for collectors and traders of the modern era.

It can be quite difficult for a beginner to analyze and identify a particular skeleton key properly. Ideally, you are highly recommended to have a professional take a look and identify the key for you; however, if you feel like giving it a shot yourself, then our identification guide will certainly come in handy!

Here are some features that you need to look for in order to effectively identify any skeleton key in your collection.

Size Of Skeleton Key

First and foremost, you need to pay extra close attention to the size of skeleton keys since it can hint towards the suggested purpose of most keys. Skeleton keys come in various different sizes, each serving a different purpose. Although the variety of skeleton key sizes is huge, it can be categorized into three main sizes in that these keys are typically found.

Tiny Keys

Tiny Keys
TINY ANTIQUE HOLLOW BARREL SKELETON KEY 1 1/2″ LONG, $8.99 Source: eBay

These are incredibly small keys that are generally used to open small locks, such as jewelry boxes. These keys may be as small as less than 5 inches long and can go as high as somewhere around an inch. Tiny keys are easily the most difficult to store and maintain primarily because of their extremely small sizes.

Small Keys

Small Keys
Source: House of Antique Hardware

Small Fancy Solid Brass Drawer Key in Antique-by-Hand, $12.79 

Small skeleton keys are typically somewhere under two and a half and three inches long. These keys are commonly used to open cabinets and other types of furniture used for storage.

 

Medium-Sized Keys

Medium-Sized Keys
Source: eBay

Alt: ANTIQUE SKELETON KEY, BRASS. 2.5″ – 6cm LONG. ORIGINAL PATINA, $15.95

Most medium-sized keys range from anywhere near two and a half inches to up to four inches long. These keys are the most common size of skeleton keys and are readily accessible through online shopping sites and from antique stores. They are normally used to unlock old doors.

 

Large Keys

Large Keys
Source: Etsy

Alt: Antique large skeleton key from Germany cast-iron nice condition, $20.00 

Large keys are those which exceed the benchmark of four inches long. Such keys are generally used to open large locks, gates, and security purposes.

 

Material Of Skeleton Key

Material Of Skeleton Key
Restorers Antique Brass Skeleton Key – 1/8 Inch Pin Hole, $6.76  Source: Van Dyke’s Restorers

In certain scenarios, it is also important to know the material used to make a particular skeleton key in order to understand its purpose. This is because the keys of certain materials are specially designed to fit a particular purpose. Most skeleton keys are either made of brass or iron. You can use a magnet to distinguish between keys made from iron and brass. If the key sticks to the magnet, then it is made from iron, otherwise, the material used is probably brass.

You can also use other techniques to further clarify the material used in any particular skeleton key.

 

Age Of Antique Skeleton Keys

Age Of Antique Skeleton Keys
Aokbean Mixed Set of 30 Large Skeleton Keys in Antique Bronze – Set of 30 Keys, $7.99  Source: Amazon

You need to have an accurate idea of how old or antique a skeleton key is. Although it is near impossible to accurately determine the age of skeleton keys for someone with little to no experience handling antiques; however, there are certain tips that can assist you in the process.

Firstly, you need to check if there’s a date imprinted on the key. Although this is very rare, it could give you the exact age of the skeleton key, which would further help you estimate its value in the market. Alternatively, you can try to examine the key and identify whether it is handmade or not. Keys that are handmade are likely to be much older than the ones that are not. Consequently, handmade keys are much more valuable since they’re more antique.

 

Engravings On The Skeleton Key

Engravings On The Skeleton Key
ANTIQUE 1888 SARGENT & CO. USA LARGE DOOR SIZE SOLID BARREL SKELETON KEY #23, $19.99  Source: eBay

Alt: 

If your skeleton key has any sort of engravings on it, then analyzing them could certainly give you an idea of the age and purpose of the key. Some skeleton keys have hotel names and room numbers engraved on them, which are used in history to unlock doors in hotels. Other keys may have a manufacturer’s name or mark stamped on them, which makes it much more convenient to identify the origins and purpose of the key.

Most Corbin keys use this technique, which makes them ideal for beginners as they are incredibly easy to identify. You are recommended to research any sort of symbols or words to become familiar with their history.

 

Bow Shape Of Skeleton Keys

Bow Shape Of Skeleton Keys
Skeleton Key – Antique Heart Shaped Bow – More Old Rare Vintage Weird Keys Here, $24.99  Source: eBay

The key bow refers to the opposite end of the key, which is used to attach the key to a key holder. Bows are an essential part of skeleton keys since they contribute majorly towards the overall value of the key to collectors and traders. This is the first thing any collector notices while checking out any new skeleton keys.

These keys come with highly interesting and intriguing bow designs, shapes, and patterns, and each variation can have unique meanings in terms of the history and purpose of the skeleton key. Many keys feature recognizable motifs that can be associated with certain animals, such as a Lion.

Various keys come with common and appealing shapes, such as a heart. Other rarer and more valuable ones are known to have complex shapes and patterns, which are responsible for leaving a lasting impression on collectors, hence, explaining the high skeleton keys worth in the market.

 

Antique Skeleton Keys Value Guide

Lastly, if you’re planning on starting your own skeleton keys collection, then it’s essential for you to have a general idea of how valuable these keys are in the market today. While beginning collectors are expected to face some difficulty while trying to determine the accurate worth of antique skeleton keys, individuals with experience are able to do so with just a single glance.

Skeleton keys are generally priced at up to $10 and are readily available on online shopping sites as well as at antique stores. Certain older and rarer keys are also expected to go as high as $1000 primarily because of their uniqueness and historical importance. In addition to original antiques, various retailers have also started selling newer replicas of the original keys, which function the same way; however, have no historical importance.

Antique keys and locks date back to as early as 4000 BC when the concept of locks was initially invented. Original antique skeleton keys are highly valuable to collectors and traders of the modern era; however, their value varies on the basis of certain factors, which all collectors must be aware of. Here are some of the most prominent factors that help to determine the worth and value and a particular skeleton key.

  • Age – This is one of the most important factors since older keys are more antique and hence, much more valuable than others.
  • Rarity – How rare a skeleton key is can be determined by finding out how many copies of the key were originally produced. The rarity of a skeleton key also increases with the amount of difficulty that it takes to acquire the key. The more rare a key is, the more valuable it will be to collectors and traders.
  • Decorations – Skeleton keys with highly unique and intriguing designs that make them stand out from the rest are likely to be valued high in the market.
  • Use – The intended use of a skeleton key can also give you an idea of how valuable the skeleton key might be. For example, large keys primarily used to open gates are priced higher than others.
  • Condition – Naturally, the condition of the skeleton key is likely to have a significant impact on its value. Keys that are rusty and worn out are generally cheaper than those that are properly maintained.

To give you a clearer idea of the value of antique skeleton keys in today’s market, here are some examples of keys sold on eBay:

Rarer examples include this Oversized 1920s Metal Skeleton Key Decoration Found in France that was sold for $595 online.

Conclusion

Now that you’re fully aware of the various types, aspects, and prices of antique skeleton keys, you should be feeling much more confident in beginning your own collection. Just be sure to use the identification guide listed in this article every time you come across a new skeleton key and decide to add it to your collection.

With that said, we hope you learned something from today’s guide. If you have any questions, be sure to let us know in the comment section below.

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