This Hobby Has Changed
by Jeff Wichmann
Having been a collector of antique bottles since the 1970’s, I have watched as the hobby has gone from a national past time to a whimper and back again. Like any hobby that involves assembling various objects for display or simply for the astute collector to sit and admire, the collecting of antique bottles (mainly bottles made in America from 1840 to 1900) has been a most rewarding one for me.
Before we go too far, you may be asking what and why old bottles? Well, that’s a good question and the answer is as complex as it is a simple one. Antique bottles have an inherent beauty and history that few other collectibles can match. Not convinced? Well first off, you can display bottles unlike coins, stamps or baseball cards. They beautify your home. They teach you history. Bottles are divided into east and west coasts. Since the east was more populated the bottles they made are more diverse and, well fancy. Collectors usually collect from the part of the country they live in. Some, like me, collect anything that attracts them. Collectors go for form, type or category like medicine or whiskey bottles. Most collectors stick with one category, inkwells, sodas, etc. Most bottles come in one color like amber or aqua, when a blue one pops up the price can escalate quickly. They can also come in a combination color shade like greenish amber. That adds value. The three most important factors are color, condition and rarity. Rarity can be in both the bottle itself e.g. how many are known, and by having a rare color. Age is also a factor, but it doesn’t mean it’s more valuable. Rarity, although very important with some bottles, doesn’t mean nearly as much for others. Bottom line is collectors are looking for the best looking, rarest and best condition bottle as possible, in the category they collect.
As a teenager I lived in Aptos at the center of the Monterey Bay between Monterey and Santa Cruz. We had the best of both worlds with the bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains within walking distance. My friends and I would venture up the “old mill, “searching for spots we thought may have bottles. Today this is strictly forbidden as it is a national park and even now the thought of going up and taking something gives me goose bumps.
So as I got older and went to college, I still occasionally thought about old bottles. Back then it was a hobby where if a person used their heads they could find them on their own. Unlike stamps or rare coins where you have to go to shows and search others inventory or attend auctions, finding bottles was basically free for the taking for savvy searchers. It was harmless fun and people from all over the country scoured the earth for bottles.
In the eastern United States collectors had more bottles to choose from and a diversity we never dreamed of out west. Although the first bottle clubs had begun in the west, the eastern folks had taken bottle collecting to a new level. As a young man I was not privy to such salient tastes but preferred western made bottles anyway. I could get them by digging them or going to antique malls. My original collection was long gone by the time I finished college and began working for a living. I had a few dollars in my pocket and now thought about bottles in a new way, where did people get antique bottles I wondered?
I soon thereafter saw an ad in the local paper for a bottle show in Auburn, CA and I went. To my astonishment I met one of my old time friends from my teens there who happened to have some whiskeys for sale. He viewed our meeting as a sign from somewhere and we put together a deal that yielded me a great many nice old whiskey bottles and him some cash. I didn’t know it at the time but everyone at the show was trying to get him to sell his whiskeys to them. Being a newcomer I had no idea I was now the center of attention and I went home with my new collection and beamed ear to ear. I was once again hooked on old bottles.
What I didn’t fully know at the time was that the bottles I collected as a kid weren’t even close to what I had picked up. I was in a new league now; some of my bottles were worth
thousands of dollars. I had swindled this old friend and I didn’t even know it. Apparently he wasn’t aware of the “new” prices either and the deal was made with friendship and personal history in mind and while I thought I was being fair just as he was I was in fact buying for pennies on the dollar. We rectified things down the road.
I soon thereafter created Pacific Glass Auctions at first and changed the name to American Bottle Auctions as we went more and more on a national level. I wrote a book, joined in the national bottle fray and enjoyed almost every minute of it.
It’s been over 20 years now and we’ve sold some of the greatest bottles I never knew existed.
I look at the hobby now and see how much it has changed. I remember sitting in my room wondering if I would ever get more bottles and realized I had in a way created a monster. In the beginning we had just our common embossed whiskey bottles or an occasional embossed fruit jar and it made us happy. Now I was auctioning bottles in the many thousands of dollars and it felt a lot different.
The people in the hobby, well of course they’ve changed. Bottle collecting used to be an innocent hobby, of course you had your sharks typical of any hobby but when bottles started becoming valuable you saw a different group of characters entering into it. In the 70’s it was reported that bottle collecting was the second most popular hobby in the country. It had everything. You could search for bottles with family and friends, you studied history, found old garbage and you did it without the notion of value preceding each conquest.
What has changed most over the last 40 years is the collector base, the way bottles are sold and the prices. In the 70’s bottles didn’t have a clear definition. In other words, today we know that there are three known of a certain bottle, and we even know what color they are and even who owns them. Back then we had no idea because they hadn’t been found yet. Most of what is to be found has been now and only the real die-hards find something fresh occasionally. In a way that’s good, but finding your own treasure in a vacant lot is all but gone.
In addition the outlet for buying bottles has grown enormously. Going online you’ll see hundreds of different antique bottle sites. Auctions like ours and for sale sites, very specialized areas of collecting and numerous educational websites have also been created. The number of books that have been written is tenfold. So the learning curve of collecting has grown by leaps and bounds and that’s a great thing. The hobby has become educated. The collectors are more knowledgeable today. And let’s face it, computers changed the way we do everything and antique bottles are a good example of that.
Prices are another part of the change in the hobby. We sold one rare bottle in 1999, the Bryant’s Stomach Bitters for $68,750 which was a new world’s record at the time. It was a big
deal and even aired on CNN but today bottles sell for that on a semi-regular basis. Of course I’m talking about very special bottles with very special pedigree. Generally most of the $10 bottles from the 70’s are still in that price range, some more, some less. As mentioned earlier, bottles have different categories and they include bitters, whiskeys, historical flasks, inkwells, fruit jars, sodas, medicines and some other sub-categories. Each of these categories fluctuates in their own right. For instance bitters and historical flasks never seem to skip a beat. Sodas are a whole other ballgame. From year to year they change in demand as do western whiskeys for instance. Some categories that went down as collectors from a certain era either lost interest or exited the hobby. But generally you’ve done well holding onto your glass treasures and a lot of it depends on what kind of collector you were from the beginning.
Some collectors, many in fact, just enjoyed the idea of owning an old bottle. They weren’t picky and a chip or two didn’t hurt. Today condition is everything. Back then you might trade what today is a $200 bottle for a $20 bottle because you liked it more. Today collectors can refer to numerous books and internet sites to find out values. Condition is everything in bottles today unlike years ago. A $50,000 bitters bottle can drop by half or more with a chip out of the lip.
Bitters and historical flasks generally bring in the highest dollars and only a handful of those command the big money. In the bitters bottles category we sold a turquoise St. Drake’s
Plantation Bitters in an auction last year for $37,000. It was one of a half-dozen known. We also sold a Kelly’s Log Cabin Bitters for over $45,000 in an earlier auction, one of two we’ve sold in the same price range and in very rare colors. We sold a clear Brown’s Indian Herb Bitters for almost $30,000, an aqua Wonser’s Indian Root Bitter for $31,000 and $26,000 for the same bottle in yellow. A Harvey’s Prairie Bitters brought $21,000. A gallon sized cobalt blue Columbian Master Ink, the only non-bitters, realized $31,000 in a sale, a bargain as an earlier auction realized $50,000. These are just a handful of wonderful bottles we’ve sold in the last half-dozen years or so. We sold one collection at auction for a million and a half dollars. This list goes on and we haven’t even talked about prices on some of the top historical flasks and other categories of rare bottles. Not to mention pieces that are currently in collections and aren’t for sale. A successful sale for us is 150-200 bottles totaling $250,000.
But great bottles can be had for less than $100 dollars today. Much of what buyers are paying for is rarity and color on the high dollar pieces. The bottles mentioned selling are an exception and certainly not the norm. The clear Indian Herb Bitters we sold for nearly $30,000 can be had in amber for around a grand today. An amber Kelly’s Cabin Bitters in its usual amber sells for around $2,000, not ten times that. Not to mention there are thousands of terrific bottles to be had in the $20 range. As time goes by everything fluctuates. Every collectible has its day. For bottles it might be now–or is it? Who’s to say that a green Kelly’s Bitters at $45,000 is a lot when a very average Monet painting can bring millions? Coins, stamps, baseball memorabilia, they all tug at the heart strings of the past and for the collector of the rarest of the rare, money is no object.