The state of collecting Coca-Cola

By Chad Erichsen

The market for collecting soda related items is strong with all brands, but one ranks supreme: Coca-Cola. One of the reasons collectors like Coca-Cola is the unsurpassed quantity of items produced. Whether it’s a new Super Bowl bottle or an old calendar, Coca-Cola offers variety. What is hot and what is not in 2019? First, let’s take a look at the beginning.

1942 Coca-Cola Tray, as seen in The Martin Guide to Coca-Cola Memorabilia (used with permission)

Coca-Cola collecting began gaining popularity in the 1900s with beautiful models printed on trays, calendars, signs, and even tiny pocket mirrors. You name it, and Coca-Cola would print advertising onto it. These items were given out liberally from state fairs to schools in towns all across the USA and around the world.

Many of the large, gorgeous cardboards and metal advertisements were placed with store owners and gas stations as promotional displays intended for seasonal use only to be discarded. Many of these items ended up as rubbish just like today’s temporary market. Signs were used to patch holes in roofs, line attic walls, or as target practice.

Calendars were cut down and used as photo backings. Just like today, it was disposable but also useful for other purposes. On rare occasions, a shopkeeper might save displays or a Coca-Cola route salesman might keep trinkets for memory’s sake. These items are sought after by Coca-Cola collectors everywhere, the rarer the better.

Collectors typically are interested in items that were produced from the late 1800s until the 1960s and avoid most newer items. The general public didn’t take much notice to collecting Coca-Cola until 1971 when a collector/dealer from Texas named Jim Cope pioneered a small softcover yellow book called “Soda Water Advertising.”

Bill Bateman, member of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club International, who helped secure permission to use “Coca-Cola” in the club’s name, shows off part of his collection. Courtesy of Bill Bateman

Soon afterward in the same year, a man named Shelly Goldstein started publishing yellow softcover Coca-Cola price guides with the items in full color. The following year in 1972, a hard-cover book appeared written by Cecil Munsey called “The Illustrated Guide to the Collectibles of Coca-Cola.” In 1974, the first edition of Allan Petretti’s “Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide” came out. It eventually went through 12 editions, with the last one appearing in 2008. Petretti added more features and items over the years. His last 645-page guide is still the quintessential reference book for Coca-Cola collectors today.

A group of Coca-Cola collectors formed a club in 1975. Since it did not have permission to use the famous Coca-Cola name, they settled on the unfortunate name of “The Cola Clan.” By the time of the 1986 convention in Atlanta at the Waverly Hotel, the club boasted a membership over 8,000 members. That year coincided with the 100th anniversary of the creation of Coca-Cola in 1886. At that time, executive board members Bill Bateman and Randy Schaeffer negotiated a contract with the Coca-Cola Company to use “Coca-Cola” in the name of the club. The new name for the organization was the “Coca-Cola Collectors Club International,” or the “Coca-Cola Collectors Club” for short. In return for this consideration, the club agreed not to violate the trademarks of the Coca-Cola Company and educate and police its members so they would also act accordingly.

Figure 1: 75th anniversary reproduction tray. Courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

Figure 2: Original Coca-Cola tray as appearing in The Martin Guide to Coca-Cola Memorabilia (used with permission)

In addition to the publication of a monthly newsletter, the club produced an annual directory of all members and planned an annual convention that was moved around the United States with a promise to return the annual convention to Atlanta every five years. The Club also encouraged the creation of what they called local chapters to facilitate finding other Coca-Cola collectors without traveling half way across the country to find like-minded individuals.

The Coca-Cola Company was proud to have its very own fan club. There are chapters all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The number of chapters continued to grow overseas in Europe; chapters were established in Italy, Spain, and Turkey . In the Far East and beyond, Coca-Cola collectors formed chapters in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Macau, and the Philippines. It’s quite amazing, really.

The nationwide interest in Coca-Cola collecting peaked with the sale of the contents of the Bill and Jan Schmidt Marvelous Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia. There were so many things to sell that it took three auctions, one every half year, starting in 2012. The Schmidts decided to put the proceeds in a Foundation to benefit the Elizabethtown–Fort Knox, Kentucky region where the museum was located. The second auction in the series in March 2013 resulted in the highest price being paid for a single item. It was an 1893 white marble soda fountain from the Chicago World Fair. The knock down price was $4.5 million. One bidder was in attendance and the other was on the phone. The phone bidder prevailed. The audience erupted in loud applause. The presale estimate was around $100,000. In total, the three auctions and other sales netted over $10 million for the charitable foundation.

Declining Prices for Coca-Cola Memorabilia?

Triangle Coca-Cola sign, 1936, sold through Morphy Auctions, $3,000 May 15, 2018. Courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

With the popularity of American collectibles across the country and the rise of many auction houses and internet sales such as eBay catering to that interest, collectors no longer had to depend on a club to find and collect Coca-Cola memorabilia. With web-based commerce, an aging population of collectors, the annual collecting events garnered lower attendance. What was once thought rare flooded the market. For example, an average condition 1942 Coca-Cola tray in the 1990s would easily fetch $450, while today that same tray might fetch around only $150 in mint condition.

The low and middle market for Coca-Cola collecting is steady but not what it once was in its heyday. The top end, mint and exceptionally rare, continues to be strong and growing. With TV programs like American Pickers and Pawn Stars, the market is solid for Coca-Cola signs. Original Coca-Cola signs, metal or porcelain, are fetching heavy money and breaking sales records. If you take a look at auction results online, such as from Morphy Auctions, the bidding is fierce when it comes to Coca-Cola signs. In May 2018, a 1936 Metal Cutout Triangle-Shaped Sign sold for $3,000 – and that was one of many signs selling with over a 20% buyer’s premium. Trays, calendars, coolers and similar common items have sharply dropped because these items are not as rare as they once were thought to be. One might have only seen certain Coca-Cola trays from the 1930s and 1940s infrequently in the past, but today, with eBay, Ruby Lane, and Etsy, you might find 20 to 30 in any given week.

Some long-time collectors are shocked at the changes in the market and lack of attendance at the annual conventions of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club. Many inveterate Coca-Cola collectors cannot even get their own children interested in the hobby. Millennials have found other things to collect and do. Coca-Cola collectors are still battling away at auctions and on eBay, but (like heavy smokers) they are a dying breed.

1893 Chicago World Fair soda fountain, $4.5 million, sold through Richard Opfer Auctioneering Inc March, 2013.

The Coca-Cola Collectors Club and other collector groups have to adapt or die. A basic law of survival. It’s not the end for Coca-Cola collecting, but the beginning of a new chapter. Today people can connect via social media and join a collecting group and talk daily about their habit and never leave the house. Even Facebook Live is now allowing individuals to auction items without buyer’s premiums, thus changing the way we think about bidding.

Except for the social aspects of collecting and the desire to see new places and have new experiences that the whole family can enjoy, how does one get people to a week-long collector convention at an expensive hotel? That’s the puzzle that collector clubs of all sorts have to solve if they want to continue to have successful conventions in faraway cities. The passion appears to still be strong, but more and more seem to be satisfied isolating themselves into being stay-at-home collectors that have some cool stuff to show on occasion. Our society is losing the importance of these collectibles in the development of and an understanding of life in general.

Reproductions and Fakes

Figure 3: Original Coca-Cola tray. From the Martin Guide to Coca-Cola Memorabilia (used with permission).

Figure 4: Reproduction Coca-Cola tray. From the Martin Guide to Coca-Cola Memorabilia (used with permission).

Because brand Coca-Cola has existed over 130 years, many collectibles have either been reproduced or are fakes. The difference between a reproduction and a fake is that there never was an original item like the fake. At first, the Coca-Cola Company made it easy to make their reproductions look like the originals that were produced 50 to 100 years before. For example, the reproduction trays from 1974 had only a small written notice on the rim of the trays to say they were recently made. That warning was easily removed in seconds by scraping it off with a pocket knife. For example, Figure 1 shows a 75th anniversary commemorative tray where 150,000 were issued. It’s easy to identify this as newer because it’s described on the back. Looking at the original tray (Figure 2) you would notice the tray has sharper lithography with a dark-colored back. This is a fairly simple reproduction to identify, but many are tricky to catch. In my second illustration, see what looks different between Figure 3 (original 1934 tray) and Figure 4 (reproduction). It’s again the less-than-sharp image and the light color of the tray’s back. The original 1934 tray is much richer in color with a black back.

Another clear difference that collectors should look for: The location of the trademark notification. In early years, it was inside the long trailing C in “Coca.” Starting in the 1940s, it moved to a position under the entire word “Coca-Cola.” That happened because the Coca-Cola Company lost a court case that started in Canada and ended up in the Privy Counsel of The United Kingdom of all places. The result was the loss of the trademark control over of “Cola” since the trademark notification was only under “Coca,” not under both parts of the logo.


This change was great for collectors who want to date Coca-Cola items as being before 1940, but lead to many problems for dating items made after 1940. Naturally many novice collectors do not know the difference and, as a consequence, end up paying high prices for items produced recently. I’ve seen many an antique store or website offering the reproduced tray as original.

Sometimes it is an honest mistake, but there are times the seller may be dishonest. In the last 10 years, fake porcelain signs complete with the pre-1940 trademark notification are being produced in India and other places. Newer collectors, who cannot spot these fakes, should rely on knowledgeable collectors or dealers. Honest dealers will return your money when a fake is discovered. Many honest dealers will return your money when you are dissatisfied. See if the dealer will agree to a return within a reasonable amount of time.

Suggestions

Purchase a collector guide for whatever you are planning to collect. It will pay for itself. If you only need to look up one item, then take a look at the book stand at the larger flea markets. Also, many public libraries also have copies that you can use for free. My suggestion for Coca-Cola collectors who want a personal guide to use at home, is to get the 12th edition of Allan Petretti’s “Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide.” His last edition is his best, although previous editions can also be very useful.

Blaine Martin has an informative website for vintage Coca-Cola items and a constantly updated digital online price guide that is available for a small yearly subscription. http://earlycoke.com.

Make friends with Coca-Cola collectors who have years of experience so you can phone a friend when you need info. Many collectors belong to local chapters of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club or the big Club for just that reason. You can find them on social media or at trade shows. Pick their brains. Most times, they really enjoy sharing what they know with others.

If you don’t mind the price of admission, there are many museums across the U.S. devoted to soda collectibles. The biggest museum in the United States is located in Atlanta, Georgia at Company Headquarters. Use the internet to locate other museums. Many larger Coca-Cola bottlers have small museums of their own that you can visit for free.

Conclusion

What may ultimately be the most important thing about collecting Coca-Cola for you is that you collect to have fun. It’s an exciting hobby and diverse in the kinds of objects you can collect. Many collectors specialize in a particular subset of items such as bottles, trays, calendars, clocks, matchbooks, toys, etc. Some pick a category like Fanta or Tab. No one can buy it all. Keep in mind that quality items maintain and increase their value whereas lesser quality pieces tend to stay at the same price for longer periods of time or lose favor altogether. Do your research before making a purchase – especially an expensive one. Consult more than one source for information. Lastly, when possible get to know experienced collectors. They can save you time and money and sometimes point out good buys for you since they know what you like.

Special thanks to Bill Bateman for his historical insight and editing ability. Thank you to Blaine Martin for the images for the 1900, 1934, and 1942 trays. The Martin Guide to Coca-Cola Memorabilia can be found at http://earlycoke.com/.

Chad Erichsen is a graduate and Certified Appraiser of the Asheford Institute of Antiques. Additionally, Chad Erichsen works with Auction Charleston Antique Mall, in Summerville South Carolina. He can be reached at chaderichsen@gmail.com


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