The enduring appeal of antique advertising is not hard to understand. The graphics are great, they hearken back to a simpler time and a distinct American identity and – perhaps best of all – are available across all price levels. That means buyers hail from all tax
brackets and walks of life.
“It’s like anything in collectibles and antiques,” said Dan Matthews, president and owner of Matthew’s Auction in Moline, Illinois, one of the nation’s top auctioneers of petroliana and the author of The Fine Art of Collecting and Displaying Petroliana. “The best stuff, the very top, sells no matter what. Right now the medium market is doing OK and the lower continues to drag a bit behind.”
The most reliable value in Matthews’ market continues to be top-of-the-line petroliana – names like Harbo Petrolium, Keller Springs, Quiver or Must-go can command tens of thousands of dollars – but there is a definite hierarchy at play and, if you are thinking of expanding your collecting horizons to include antique signage, you would do well to know the market.
Seasoned collectors will warn, with good reason, that money should not be the motivating factor in the hobby, so it may be somewhat deceptive to start this discussion with the idea of monetary value. The true value of antique advertising signs, from gas stations to country stores to soda pop, lies in the context of their production and the nostalgia they evoke of that time.
The best antique advertising evokes the meat of the first half of the 20th century, when signs were the most effective ways to catch the eyes of car culture consumers. The signs and symbols evolved to reflect the values and styles of the regions where they were posted and the products they reflected. A sign with bold color, great graphics and a catchy slogan can transport a collector back decades in an instant. Collectors feel a rapport with a piece; they don’t see dollar signs.
“Buy it because you like it,” said Matthews, “because you can live it with it and it means something to you. Never get into something because you think you’ll make money.”
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Look at one of the most collectible and popular markets: Coca-Cola. Fifteen years ago the best Coke pieces in the middle market could reliably command several thousand dollars. Coca-Cola manufactured hundreds of thousands of signs and related ephemera, millions even, and they began to come out of the woodwork. There is little more evocative of classic Americana than the red and white of Coke, but as everybody sold their pieces and everybody acquired their bit of nostalgia, the market cooled and prices went down significantly. Pieces that had routinely brought $500-$1,000 could suddenly be had for significantly less, and people stopped selling.
Now, however, with several years of very quiet action in the books, the cycle seems to be turning around. New collectors have entered the market and older collectors are leaving. Those collections are finding new owners at a decent price.
“Coca-Cola does seem to be coming back,” said Matthews. “It’s been stagnant for the past five years, but good clean signs are finding good homes at good prices.”
As with any category, the very best antique advertising will bring top dollar no matter what, as a look through the recent advertising sales database of prices realized at an auction house like Morphy’s will attest to. In those sales it can be seen that that the rarest of Coca-Cola paper and tin routinely bring tens of thousands of dollars.
That said, then, let’s talk money. Antique advertising provides a tangible place for collectors to put real money. Looking through recent prices realized at the top auction venues – like Matthews, Morphy Auctions and William Morford – it’s obvious that top dollar can be had for the true rarities in the business and that the middle market provides a solid outlet for design-minded collectors as opposed to those who collect to amass a sizable grouping.
There are opportunities everywhere for the educated collector – from the country auction to the flea market. Going head to head, out of the blocks, with the top collectors in the business at the top auctions can result in frustration. Rather, if you’re just getting your feet wet, research online, email experts and ask for resources. Do your due diligence in seeing what the market is bringing and, then, take those skills to unlikely places and see what turns up.
“All the fields we deal in seem to be doing quite well right now,” said Matthews. “Gas and oil, which there’s more of than anything else, keeps going up more and more. The best thing to do is buy from reputable auction houses and dealers, from people who guarantee your product.”
Barring the finds you can make at small antiques shows, shops and markets, expect to go into an auction ready to spend an average of $500 for a quality piece of petroliana, for pieces like rare oil and gas cans. A sharp and patient buyer can grab a steal for $10 or a masterpiece for a $1,000. As with anything else, a seasoned and practical eye comes with practice. The prices broaden greatly when the market is expanded to include country store advertising and specific brand advertising, like Campbell’s Soup.
“Like most kinds of collectibles, everybody starts out buying middle grade stuff and graduates to the higher stuff,” said Matthews. “Collectors in this hobby are very dedicated; prices on the best stuff haven’t peaked yet, that’s for sure.”
A lot of the steadiness in the market is coming from the exposure antique advertising is getting in places like cable television, via shows like “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” where a premium is placed on supreme objects.
“These kinds of shows are only helping the hobby get bigger,” Matthews added. “Take Ford Oil cans, for instance. Before these shows, the market was dominated by a handful of players. The prices ran way up. Those guys all got out, cans went down to $500 or so from $1,000 or more. Then these shows premiered, oil cans got some attention, and now a lot more collectors are back in at $1,000.”
Factor in the pop culture value, as blue collar treasures are increasingly regarded as art, and the horizon is bright for this working-man’s collectible.
“I see younger generations continuing to get into this hobby more and more,” said Matthews. “As long as we have to put gas in our cars and food in our mouths, people will collect this stuff.”
|About our contributor: Noah Fleisher received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University and brings more than a decade of newspaper, magazine, book, antiques and art experience to his position as Public Relations Director of Heritage Auctions, one of the country’s foremost auction houses. He is the former editor of Antique Trader, New England Antiques Journal and Northeast Antiques Journal, is the author of Warman’s Modern Furniture, and has been a longtime contributor to Warman’s Antiques and Collectibles|