Posted in: Mobile phones

What it’s like to collect old phones: An interview about a passion

Collecting phones is a thing you do out of passion. And as passions go, I've rarely seen someone as enthusiastic about old mobile phones as Momchil Nechev - Maxx, who quite happily agreed to bring most of his personal collection of phones to our office.

Going through his stuff, I felt as excited as a boy going through his Christmas presents, only these were not presents I was handed but boxes full of memories. Those boxes held Momchil's memories, but mine as well. It's fascinating how you can share so much with someone you barely know.

Our get-together was a fun experience, and we did a lot of shooting and a lot of talking. You already got a glimpse of what came out of the shooting, and today I have here the result that came out of the talking.

Momchil is a genuinely nice guy and he had a lot to share about what it's like to collect mobile phones. I hope you will enjoy his insight as much as we did.

GSMArena: When did you discover that you have a collector’s passion about older phones?

Momchil: Every man has got to have his hobbies, right? I’ve always had a thing for collecting stuff – I’ve gone from comic books through sports posters to various other miscellaneous stuff. I’ve been looking for something bigger but I realized I don’t have enough money to collect antiques plus I didn’t really understand them.
One day a friend gave me an old Nokia phone and this is when it struck me that these things held sentimental value for me.
So for several years now I’ve been collecting old mobile phones. I also have a few newer ones but these are either really popular models or really unusual models.

GSMArena: How many phones do you own?

Momchil: I haven’t counted them recently, but I would assume my collection is around 200 phones. The core of the collection however, the phones that I wouldn’t sell under any circumstances (even if I needed the money) are about 10.

GSMArena: Is collecting phones an expensive hobby?

Momchil: Well, that would depend on the type of collectioner you aspire to be. There are generally two types. The first type – mine – doesn’t have an issue with the phones bearing marks of use or with phones that have their panels changed to custom ones.
Your expenses in this case depend on your haggling skills and on how varied is the second-hand phone market that you have access to. The downside of this approach is that sometimes I have to buy five different units of one model in order to assemble one that’s in truly good condition.
In contrast, the second type of collectioners would buy only phones that have their retail boxes and all the manuals inside intact. These would be phones that are barely used or even new. The expenses in these cases can be quite high.
For instance, a high-end Nokia phone complete with its retail box, manuals, its charger and hands-free set – all intact - can go for as much as US $300.
Lower-end or midrange phones, which are not as exclusive, rarely reach a price as high as US $100.

GSMArena: Which phones do you find the easiest to obtain?

Momchil: Well, the mid-range phones are readily available, but they are not in that good condition. As for the models, which are rare or high-end, it’s a matter of luck.
Sometimes I stumble upon models I hadn’t even known existed and I get them quite easily.
Other times, when I go and look for specific models deliberately but getting them turns into quite a challenge - their owners quite often are not willing to sell them either due to sentiments or because they refuse to believe that something that has cost them so much to purchase is worth so little now.

GSMArena: How do you go about finding the phones you want?

Momchil: I constantly go through the local and international websites, featuring private classifieds for used phones – websites such as OLX and Ebay.
But usually, the most interesting models I get offered directly from people who I’ve already had business with. They’re already used to contacting me directly whenever they have something interesting to offer.

GSMArena: Do you spend lots of time in meeting potential sellers?

Momchil: No, I try not to. I usually arrange that they either come show me what they’ve got or they send (the cheaper) phones by mail. The more interesting phones I like to see in person first, because it’s not out of the ordinary to find fakes and replicas. Even then, I usually get whatever they have – I just offer them a different price.

GSMArena: What if the phone you get doesn’t work, do you repair it?

Momchil: That’s an extremely important aspect of the whole hobby. When I get them, most old phones won’t even start because their battery is too depleted from the long periods without use.
Repairing phones is not my forte, so I rely on the services of a small local phone repair shop. Most of the phones I take there just need a little boost of the battery to start working again.
If there is a more serious technical malfunction, the guys there usually take care of it too. When they can’t source the needed spare parts, I just put the phone away in a box to wait for better times.

GSMArena: What sort of other technical issues are most common with the old phones you collect?

Momchil: Well, I have the hardest time finding genuine body panels and of course, some electronics boards.
There are almost no genuine replacement parts available on the market. If I were to use third-party Chinese replacement parts such as body panels, the phone usually loses some of its collector’s value. This is the reason why I rarely repair phones using new parts.
Another challenge in this sort of hobby, is finding qualified technicians who know their way around older phones – these are so much different from the modern phones. It’s hard to find somebody who knows how to carry out maintenance work on them or how to even flash a new firmware.
Another common issue is the poor state of the rubber on the phone panels - it’s usually phones with enhanced endurance that suffer from this such as the ones made by Ericsson or Siemens. This rubber tends to decay pretty badly and it turns into sticky goo. There’s no way of fixing that.
Quite often, the reason for it would be the use of inappropriate cleaning agents. But other times you can have phones that have hardly seen any use and yet their rubber parts go bad and you shouldn’t even try to touch them as it gets worse.

GSMArena: Is there a fun side to collecting phones?

Momchil: I enjoy myself a lot with the reactions of younger people when they see me using phones such as the Nokia 7110 or the Nokia 8110 along with my iPhone 6.
Another fun part is when I stumble upon certain rare phones which are so hideous in design and uncomfortable to use that it makes me wonder how they’ve even got to be released. Usually, this sort of phones come to me almost unused as they’ve spent most of their time lying forgotten somewhere in a drawer. I have several of those and they are among my favorites.

GSMArena: What about luxury phones such as Vertu? Do they have any collector's value?

Momchil: I’ve never taken interest in those. How do you price a phone that used to cost some $20,000 or $30,000, but had questionable design qualities and functionality even at the time it was released?
Anyway, I find those phones rather garish or kitsch, if you like. They are not good phones either.
Also, their owners would never part with them for anything even distantly resembling a reasonable price even though they no longer use them.
I’ve heard from fellow collectors that they are quite hard to find since once they are out of fashion, they are all but gone. I don't know what their fate is. I’ve never seen anyone offering them online.
But I find it debatable whether phones such as Vertu or Mobiado deserve their outrageous pricing even as new, let alone having any collector’s value now. Perhaps they have their fans, but I am not among them.

GSMArena: Which phone have you chosen to use daily?

Momchil: Well, I have a modern phone and a vintage phone. My modern phone is the Apple iPhone 6. I am a big fan of the expensive cases that the US company Element Case makes for the iPhones.
My vintage phone of choice is the Nokia 7110, which is in mint condition. I’ve been using it for years now. The battery is good for at least 5 day worth of active use. If I just leave it lying on my desk, it would probably last up to 2 weeks. But I use enhanced batteries, which are extra durable because I tend to talk a lot on it.

GSMArena: What about Android phones? Have you tried using one?

Momchil: As a matter of fact, I have. My first modern phones were the Samsung Galaxy S II and subsequently, the Galaxy S III. Unfortunately, Android didn’t grow on me.
My first iPhone was a gift – it was the iPhone 5 – and from there on I’ve always had an iPhone and a Nokia.

GSMArena: What do you like about iPhones specifically?

Momchil: If I have to be honest, I don’t like them that much. In fact, I don’t like any of the newer smartphones – they are all slabs to me.
The iPhone has the most universal appeal out of all of them so I got it out of vanity. Plus I can accessorize it with my favorite cases by Element Case. It’s these cases that make it stand out for me.

GSMArena: Which are your favorite phone models of all time?

Momchil: Part of my urge to collect these phones comes from the fact that I couldn’t afford any of those back in their hayday some 15 years ago or so. Now I have them all.
The list of my favorite models, which I wouldn’t sell for anything on this world, starts with the Ericsson R380s. When it launched, it was so outputtingly expensive, that no one in their right mind would buy it. That’s why I got the Ericsson R320 instead but my hunch for the R380s has remained ever since. Today, ten years later, I have one that’s as good as new, in perfect condition.
My next favorite model is the Nokia 9300 – one of the Communicator style of phones. When you put it on its docking station, it looks better than any of the current phones can ever hope to look.
Back in its day, it was a status symbol for the most prosperous of businessmen. Back then it looked absurdly cumbersome, but it seems I’ve always wanted to own one of those too. I think I had to buy five or six used units so I can assemble them into the single unit, which I own right now - it’s in immaculate condition. I enjoy it a lot and sometimes, I would use this one instead of my regular Nokia 7110.
Next up on the list are all the P-series phones by Sony Ericsson. They are beautiful and functional and being brick-shaped, they are equally good as means of self-defence [he chuckles] as they are in leaving a striking impression. I have them all – the P800, the P900 and the P910 – all in great condition.
I like my phones to bear the signs of use – this is what shows they have a soul and their own history. It’s as if I sometimes can feel what their previous owner felt.
The “last action hero” among my favorites is the Nokia N91. It’s the one with the funny baseball bat shape. When they released it back in the day, I was stunned by just how ugly it was. I couldn’t believe that somebody came up with this absurdly looking phone.
It seems I was wrong, as I really like it today. In fact, I had a really hard time tracking down several of these ugly ducklings to construct one in perfect condition as people tend to be very fond of them. Even now, it offers quite the level of functionality and a lot of people like it.
Another phone on the list, though not nearly as popular, the Nokia 6108, managed to surprise me nicely with its hidden scratchpad. I had already gotten it for a couple of months, when somebody showed me that there was actually a touch-sensitive scratchpad under the keypad where you could draw symbols with the most awkward looking stylus.

GSMArena: Which phones are you looking forward to obtain?

Momchil: Well, I am after all the phones from the 88xx and the 89xx series by Nokia. Their prices are still quite high, even the ones that don’t work. A Nokia 8910 in good condition would probably run you something in excess of US $300 even without its full retail set.
Eventually, I would also like to get some of the newer models, such as the Nokia 8800 Arte series or the 8800 Sirocco. But they are still quite expensive so I am not interested in them for now.
I would love to collect the full set of Siemens Xelibris and the Siemens SL phones. The ones that I’ve been able to find lately are in quite sad condition.

GSMArena: What do you think about smartwatches in general?

Momchil: I consider smartwatches to be the first truly meaningful application of the modern day smartphone technologies. I already have one – from a low-profile Chinese brand – and I intend to buy other ones as well. At least their styling sets them apart unlike the uninspiringly rectangular slabs that are today’s smartphones.

GSMArena: Do you think that the modern day phones, which look so much alike each other, will be collectable items some day?

Momchil: It’s hard for me to say. I would be amazed if they become ones.
I am perfectly aware of the benefits that the latest technology brings us but I find the way that they alienate people repulsive and someday, this all will be coming back to haunt us.

GSMArena: What’s your advice to someone who is looking into getting started with collecting old phones?

Momchil: Well, for this sort of hobby, you need some money to burn (almost literally) and some spare time on your hands. I go through the online classifieds daily and once a week I do an extensive search, which can take up from several hours up to a full day.
The next thing of importance is having access to a reliable phone service shop that you can trust. A well-meaning technician will be able to diagnose the phone malfunction correctly and will advise you how it can be fixed in the most reasonable way.
If the technician is somebody who you don’t know, you could get ripped off even for simple tasks such as battery boosting.
I cannot overestimate the importance of having a service shop that you can trust because a huge chunk of the money involved in the whole endeavor will go namely that way – to fixing phones that won’t work for one reason or another.
You also need to be clear with yourself about the reason you’re in for it. For me, it’s the sentimental aspect of having those phones around. I love the way they look, I even like how ugly some of them are. I have personal history with some of those models. But everyone is different so your reasons could be other. Just make sure you are dead clear about them with yourself so you have clear goals in mind.
And don’t expect to get rich out of it, at least not for another ten or twenty years.

GSMArena: Great. Thanks for this opportunity and thank you for allowing us to go through your collection and show some of your phones to our readers.


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