Defining exactly what a vintage saxophone is can be tricky. Collectors and experts agree that there are several other factors to consider besides the instrument's age. Quality plays a big role; so does playability. The condition of the horn itself can have a bearing on whether it is deemed "vintage." Another important factor is the history of that particular brand and model. If the instrument was once played or owned by a significant musician, or was only manufactured for a short period of time, that certainly adds both monetary value and vintage credibility.
Woodwind restoration and repair experts stresses that there is a vast difference between vintage and just plain old. An instrument’s date of manufacture does not necessarily confer vintage horn status. Even during the golden age of sax manufacturing (from approximately the 1920s to 1960s), there were always plenty of cheap instruments on the market. Not every instrument made in the 1920s is a particularly good instrument, certainly not on the level of a Selmer, a Conn or a Buescher. Yet, compared with many modern instruments, a 1920s vintage saxophone — even an inexpensive knock-off brand — may still be far superior.
Other considerations in determining whether a saxophone is vintage are: Has it maintained its original value? Increased in value? Was the horn produced and marketed as a top of the line professional model when it was made? Is that particular model still in production today? Does it have any specific collectible value, a famous former owner, or a unique history?
Playability of a vintage saxophone is important but not always a determining factor. Many pre-1950s saxophones were high pitch, meaning that instead of being tuned to the standard A=440, they were tuned to A=456. This makes them virtually unplayable with modern orchestras or ensembles. Horns produced before 1880 were made in a wide variety of pitches. While these are not considered at all playable by today's standards, the playability drawback makes them no less collectible. A beautiful vintage saxophone in good to excellent condition still commands a pretty penny today, even if it is not playable in a practical sense.
Because there is still much confusion over what constitutes a truly vintage saxophone, buyers are encouraged to research an instrument's history before purchasing. It is not uncommon to see a saxophone advertised as "vintage" only to find that the instrument is actually less than 30 years old and has no particular historic value. The best way to confirm the date of a saxophone's manufacture is to cross-reference the serial number imprinted on the sax. Armed with a serial number, a person can look up the horn maker's original dates of production. This is also a way to learn more about that particular horn's history.