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Terry and Kim Kovel, Published December 09 2013

Kovels: Interest in bottle collecting waxes and wanes over the years

The ancient Greeks collected bottles, but only a few wealthy American collectors were buying bottles in the early 1900s.

At the time, only commercial flasks that held whiskey and a few other hand-blown bottles were considered important.

Probably the earliest book for bottle collectors was written in 1921 by Stephen Van Rensselaer. In 1941, George and Helen McKearin wrote “American Bottles” and created a system of identification that listed, numbered, described and sketched all known historic American flasks.

Bottle collecting became a hobby of the middle class in the 1950s. Valuable bottles were dug from backyards and river banks or found at resale shops or yard sales.

The first collectors club, the Antique Bottle Collectors Association of California, started in 1959. By the 1960s, articles on old bottles were being published in magazines and books.

Kovels’ “Bottles Price List,” written in 1971, was the first of 13 editions. We wrote the last in 2006. Interest in bottles has gone up and down during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, but clubs, shows and collections remain.

Prices of historic flasks have gone from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Fruit jars, soda bottles, commemorative bottles, perfumes, poisons and inks attracted new collectors. But who would have guessed that old bottles could become part of modern art?

Amateurs could buy kits that helped them take old bottles and stretch them into elongated modern shapes. Early 1900s bottles were turned purple by exposure to the sun or radiation.

Claire Falkenstein became famous for sculptures made from iron rods and drooping bottles. An English artist, Barry McGee, made modern art from bottles he painted with pictures of heads. He chose empty whiskey bottles to picture street people. His bottle art sells for thousands of dollars.

Still, the most expensive commercial bottles today remain the historic flasks. Rarities can sell for more than $40,000.

Q: A few months ago, my husband and I bought a mahogany bookcase with four leaded glass doors at an estate sale. It’s about 54 inches high, 66 inches wide and 12 inches deep. There is a small brass plaque on one of the shelves that reads “Library Bureau Sole Makers.” Can you give us the history of this bookcase?

A: Library Bureau was founded by Melvil Dewey (1851-1931), a librarian and the inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification System used by many libraries today. He published his system in 1876, the same year he founded a company that sold library supplies.

The company operated under different names until it became Library Bureau in 1881. It made a bookcase that could be joined with others to create a long wall of bookcases. The company was bought by Remington Rand in 1927 and became part of Midwest Library Systems in 1976. Library Bureau products still are being sold.

Q: I have a ceramic vase marked “Mougin Nancy” and “J. Mougin.dc.” It has been in our family for more than 60 years. I would like to know who made it.

A: The marks on your vase were used by Joseph Mougin (1876-1961). Joseph and his brother, Pierre, were French sculptors and ceramists known for their Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs.

They worked in Nancy, a town in France, from 1906 until 1916, producing their own designs as well as works by other artists. In 1916 they moved to nearby Luneville. Your vase, marked “Mougin Nancy,” was made between 1906 and 1916.

Q: I have a 9½-inch Orrefors decanter decorated with an etching called “Susanna bathing with the old men watching her.” I can’t find any information about it. Do you know what it’s worth?

A: Orrefors, a Swedish glassworks, has been in business since 1898. It has made many styles of decorative and useful glass. The story of Susanna bathing is an apocryphal chapter in the Bible’s book of Daniel. The story, about a pair of old men trying to blackmail a virtuous young woman, has been the basis of many pieces of artwork throughout the centuries. It is likely your decanter isn’t yet an antique (100 years old), but in 1993 one like it auctioned at Christie’s for $690.

Tip

Never store celluloid jewelry with metal or rhinestone jewelry. Celluloid ages and gives off an acidic gas that eats metal. The metal will become pitted and greenish. Celluloid “disease” also attacks pearls, paper and other organic materials. Store celluloid by itself.


For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit the Kovels’ website, www.kovels.com.

Kim and Terry Kovel answer as many questions as possible through the column. By sending a letter with a question, you give full permission for use in the column or any other Kovel forum. We cannot guarantee the return of photographs, but if a stamped envelope is included, we will try. The volume of mail makes personal answers or appraisals impossible. Write to Kovels, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.