To see Rich Gannon’s eyes light up, do one of the following:
A) Talk knowledgeably about passing routes, defensive sets and clock management.
B) Sing the University of Delaware fight song while wearing a Fightin’ Blue Hens T-shirt.
C) Reminisce about your favorite Gulf Oil single-sided tin sign that rates 9.5.
If you answered A or B, you might get a glimmer, but if you answered C, chances are you would also get a personal invitation to visit Gannon’s Garage.
Gannon, now retired, was the 2002 NFL Most Valuable Player as the starting quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. He devotes much of his free time to tracking down the best vintage oil and gas advertising he can find. (He also has an extensive collection of soft-drink memorabilia.)
Drafted in the fourth round from the University of Delaware by the New England Patriots in 1987, he was soon traded to the Minnesota Vikings, and maintains close ties to the region.
It’s no surprise that many NFL rookies invest in a nice set of wheels as tangible proof of their success. Gannon also had plans to get a special vehicle, but not the kind you might expect.
“My brother liked old cars, so after my rookie year (with the Vikings) in 1987, I went back to Philadelphia (his hometown) and bought this 1960 Buick convertible for $4,400,” Gannon recalled, while offering a tour of his converted storage building in suburban Minneapolis. “We spent about two years restoring it, doing the paint, interior, worked on the motor, new top, new tires.
“Then every year at the end of the season, instead of spending $100,000 on a fancy new car, I was buying these old cars. And at one point, I had nine cars, and nowhere to keep them. So I bought this building.” Formerly owned by a beer distributor, the brick building has large overhead doors and high ceilings.
“I had these empty, white walls,” Gannon said, “so I bought my first sign (advertising Buick Lubricare, with neon).
The walls are no longer empty, but the process required a certain learning curve familiar to all beginning collectors.
As he found out more about collecting, and read magazines about petroliana, Gannon benefited from the experience of advanced collectors.
“I can’t tell you how many times, in the beginning, I would be at a show and have something in my hand, and felt like I had a great buy, only to learn it was a reproduction,” Gannon recalled with a laugh.
His storage facility now boasts “Gannon’s Service”: A full-size Gulf gas station, complete with pumps, signs, working restroom, and counter with cash register, maps, and ephemera.
Gannon’s eagerness to share his collecting experience grew out of the generosity of other collectors.
“For anyone who’s just starting out in the hobby, most collectors are really approachable, and genuine, and happy to help,” Gannon said.
“Look for examples that are colorful, have great graphics, and are in the best condition. Buy quality, and that means condition, because even if you feel you are paying more than you’d like, the market will catch up with you.”
And, he adds, widen your scope, once you’ve gained knowledge.
“Variety is important. It’s fine to focus on globes, but there are so many great signs, cans, paper items, and you can see how different pieces relate to each other.”
Condition Is Everything
Every collecting area has its own language that presents a challenge for beginners. Aumann Auctions Inc. of Nokomis, Ill., a dominant force in the selling of petroliana, uses a number system, primarily to describe the condition of signs and containers. This system ranges from 10 (new in the box) to 1 (a total loss), but most pieces generally fall into the range of 5 (bad) to 9.5 (near mint). These numbers are established by considering the condition of labels, paint and porcelain, scratches, dents, chipping, extra holes, normal and excessive wear, fading, bending and warping. Add to this the factors that determine desirability, like graphic impact, rarity and regional collecting tastes, and you can see how difficult it might be for a group of collectors to be unanimous in their assessment of a given piece of petroliana.
Because not all sellers use a similar numbering system, and since opinions about value can vary—sometimes widely—from collector to collector, we are using the following descriptions that are used by enthusiasts in almost all collecting areas: near mint, excellent, very good, good, fair to good, fair, poor to fair, poor, very poor and bad.
The globes that once decorated the tops of gasoline pumps are the holy grail for many petroliana collectors.
Early globes were a single piece of glass, often with etched or painted lettering. “Globe” is a misnomer, since none here is truly spherical, and a complete globe often has three main parts: two lenses and a body, though some came with a single lens.
The body can be made of metal, plastic or fiberglass. A high-profile body has a standing seam around the circumference. A low-profile body has a flattened seam. A gill body has a rubber or metal gasket holding the lenses in place. Later Capco bodies are molded plastic with screw fasteners at the base. A hull body accepts notched lenses, and is open where the lenses are mounted, as opposed to a glass body where the lenses rest on a low dome. Gill and hull bodies take their names from the manufacturers that created them, but as the petroliana field has grown, these names are often found with lower-case spellings.
Some collectors secure the lenses on the bodies using silicone caulk, a practice that many object to because this can contribute to paint loss and it makes the lenses difficult to examine off the bodies.
Ripple and jewel bodies are among the most desirable, and hardest to find. Ripple glass bodies have an irregular textured surface, and come clear, white, and in a range of colors. Jewel bodies have round faceted glass “jewels” set into the surface.
Globes can range in value from $50 for a common or damaged example to almost $20,000 for rarities in near-mint condition.
Other Petroliana Items
Petroliana collectors also look for ashtrays, awards, attendants’ caps, banks, dolls, clocks, clothing, dinnerware, figurines, first-aid kits, lamps, license plate tags, lights, lighters, maps, paperweights, penholders, pin-back buttons, thermometers, toys, trophies, even salt and pepper shakers.
“Related” collectibles—often automotive in nature—that appeal to petroliana collectors, but are not directly tied to the production of oil and gasoline, include things like tires, spark plugs, heaters, etc., and transportation in general. An emerging subcategory includes advertising for bus lines and depots.