Glass from the Past

Breaking news! Antique bottles have been “rediscovered.” As a hobby, antique bottle collecting is quickly gaining attention, and bottle demand and values are reflecting this. And for anyone with an interest, this sector of antique collecting is entry-level friendly.
With a variety of shows across the country and great bottles starting as low as the 50 cents, collectible bottles are relatively accessible. This, together with the fact that all bottles have their own fascinating history and make beautiful decorations as well, are enticing new collectors to this colorful antique sector.

James Hagenbach, owner of Glassworks Auction in East Greenville, Pa., a strictly mail, phone and Internet-bid auction service that specializes in antique bottles and early glass, said he has seen the number of collectors increase over the last several years, which has put upward pressure on prices. “That’s not saying everything goes up all the time, but generally there has been a good amount of strength in the bottle-collecting community,” said Hagenbach.

Part of the increase in the value of antique bottles is due simply to dwindling supply. “Years ago, when the hobby was young, a lot of bottles were found in old farm estates and houses, but as time has gone on, less and less of these finds are coming out,” said Hagenbach, noting this is mainly because of lack of accessibility to dig sites due to insurance and liability reasons. “Today most collections are built via the auction route.”

This creates simple supply-and-demand effects, he said. “If you have a reasonable amount of new collectors coming into the field and there are no new bottles, price is going to go up.” However, bottle collecting is a fairly broad description with specialized subcategories, all of which have their own relative peaks and valleys reacting to popularity and demand.

“Antique bottle collecting is a very, very large category,” said Hagenbach. “Years ago, collectors used to be general collectors – they collected a bit of everything.” As prices rose and the popularity of the hobby increased, most collectors became specialized and would gather one or two types of bottles.
There are six main categories of bottles, according to Jeff Wichmann, owner and founder of American Bottle Auctions. Most bottle experts agree that those categories are: sodas, whiskeys, bitters, medicines, inkwells and fruit jars. Historical flasks could also be considered a category,  Wichmann said, but only pertaining to Eastern bottles, as Western bottles were not made until the 1860s and were created more for function as compared to the luxurious, ornate historical flasks of the East that served more decorative than utilitarian purposes.

Although the popularity and value of each category changes with time, experts in all parts of the country have seen an increase in interest for most categories, each with a variance of appeal in different markets and regions. Currently, several peripheral categories (smaller “sideline” categories that have fewer collectors and not as great a supply of potential material) are gaining momentum, for instance target balls (see sidebar).

Hagenbach said that, based on what he observes from his own business, early canning jars probably comprise the largest category in terms of the number of active collectors seeking them. “However, in terms of value, the ‘Cadillac’ of categories over the years has always been the early historical flasks.”

Terry Kovel, co-author (with husband Ralph Kovel) of Kovels’ Bottles Price Guide, said she has seen the bottle-collecting hobby change over the more than 30 years she has been involved, with recent trends being very positive. “Bottle collecting goes through cycles,” said Kovel. “Prices go up and up and up, then they go down. I’d say at the end of the 1980s, the bottle industry kind of hit bottom.” But, she added, she thinks the hobby has gained momentum. “We’re really starting to see more bottle shows, with kind of a younger group of collectors,” she said, noting that some of the more popular trends they have seen include the “pyro-enamel” bottles, or those with labels painted on the surface of the glass, especially Coca-Cola bottles. She also noted milk bottles and fruit jars have always been popular, as well as any kind of figural, perfume and Avon bottles.

Michael Polak, author of Antique Trader Bottles Identification & Price Guide, said bitters bottles have always been very popular, as have Western whiskey bottles. Currently, he said, in addition to the rage in target balls, he has noticed painted soda bottles and any old soda bottles from the 1940s through 1960s with slogans on them seem to be very hot items.

“Patriotic bottles are also very big since 9/11, when patriotism really picked up steam,” Polak said. “All bottles with a patriotic theme of any kind – whether they be milk, soda pop or old Avon bottles – are becoming a real collector’s item.”

And although there’s no crystal ball to look at what the future of glass bottles will be, Hagenbach said if he were to choose a category that may currently be undervalued, it would be the “Saratoga-type bottle,” a generic term for a spring-water bottle that was initially used in the Saratoga County, N.Y., area to contain natural mineral waters. After the success of the original entrepreneur, a number of springs around the country started selling water using the same type of bottle. “A number of the bottles that were sold some years ago sell for more than what they do today, but this always turns around,” said Hagenbach, speculating on a possible rise in value.

Beyond aesthetics, this potential appreciation in value is a factor drawing many enthusiasts to the hobby. “In addition to the fact that they are neat to look at, people are also looking at bottles as an investment,” said Wichmann. “Whatever you collect, it’s nice to have it increase in value at the same time you’re able to enjoy owning it and looking at it.”

So if you think bottle collecting is the next antique pursuit for you, be mindful of the important steps experts recommend to novices:

1. Research – The first step for beginners is to study the subject using a variety of resources, such as magazines and prices guides (see below).

2. Get Involved – Go to some shows and start looking at bottles. There are approximately 90 clubs for bottle collectors – including clubs for almost every category of bottles – in the United States. Additionally, there are several international clubs and almost 20 different shows across the country each month.

3. Learn – Talk to people, do some research and just get a feel for it, say the experts. Start out with easy stuff, and when you discover what your niche is, focus on that area.

4. Buy – The key in collecting is to buy what you like, according to enthusiasts. Hagenbach cautions: “Sometimes collectors get caught up in the specialization, and buy something they don’t really like but feel they have to have because it’s part of that category they collect.” Polak said finding good buys still takes a little “digging,” even at auctions. “Look under the table – sometimes there are bargains under there that the dealers just haven’t taken the time to clean and polish up to sell,” he tipped.

Antique bottles seem to be appreciating in value; however, the attractiveness of the hobby will always remain distinct from other collecting categories in several unique ways. Diggers aren’t finding bottles at nearly the rate they used to, Wichmann said, “but it’s probably one of the only hobbies where you can still go out and find your own thing in the ‘wild’ versus getting it at an antique store. That’s what’s intriguing about it. You can’t go out in a forest and find a painting by Mary Cassatt, but you can go out into the forest and find a bottle that maybe an old lumber mill worker discarded years ago.”

Kovel notes that for those who have access to a dig site, the hobby also seems to lend itself well to family activity. At a lot of shows you’ll find families who dig together and pursue this as a group endeavor, she said.

Polak says the most important thing for bottle collectors to remember is that it is a hobby. “I have a slogan I sign all my books with: ‘Have fun with the hobby of bottle collecting.’ Don’t get carried away with the money issue.”

Target balls a sure-shot for collectors
World record set with $17,050 sale

Among the many peripheral categories of bottle collecting, one that is gaining fast-lane status is that of target balls. Patented in 1877 by Captain Bogardus, these approximately 3-inch-round glass spheres were launched with a special apparatus to be shot at by marksmen of the day. Target balls were only manufactured for about 30 years before the turn of the 20th century, at which point they were replaced by the clay pigeon.

Add the short production time to the fact that their original purpose was to be blown up, and you can appreciate what a rare find an intact target ball is. On July 5, a target ball sold for $17,050 (inclusive of 10 percent buyer’s premium) at American Bottle Auctions, an online auction company based in Sacramento, Calif. The price realized is believed to be a world auction record.

The target ball that brought the big money was 2 1/4 inches in diameter, medium to dark amber in color, and was embossed with advertising. It was made sometime between 1877 and 1890 by Bogardus & Co., and is one of only two known examples – the other having lettering that is not as clearly embossed.

According to American Bottle Auctions, the winning bidder (who wishes to remain anonymous) said, “I would rate this Bogardus gallery ball as the ‘Holy Grail’ of Bogardus balls. On the whole, I consider it the very top Bogardus.”

The target ball was one of 10 sold that day from the immense collection of the late Alex Kerr, a member of the noted Kerr Glass Co. family. His collection continues to be dispersed, and American Bottle Auctions said their tentative plans are to sell 10 or so balls each month throughout the year. In addition to Kerr’s cache of rare and valuable target balls, it was discovered that Kerr had conducted extensive research and accumulated considerable documentation on the unusual glass wares he collected – a valuable find indeed.
More information about target balls and Alex Kerr can be found at