RESTON, VA. -- You haven’t truly witnessed the affinity people have for the world’s most beloved beverage brand until you set foot in a Coca-Cola Collectors Club Convention. To say these collectors are fans is an understatement – they're artifact connoisseurs, brand super-ambassadors, and walking encyclopedias of Coke lore.
“Some of them know way more than me,” said Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan, whose celebrity status at the Coca-Cola Collectors Club 2016 National Convention rivals that of William Shatner at a Star Trek festival.
The convention brought together collectors from across the U.S. and Canada to share, buy and sell their treasures, and to meet new and old friends. Highlights of the five-day event included a seminar on distinguishing the "real thing" from fake artifacts, an auction preview where expert collectors predict how much each item will sell for, room hopping – like garage sale shopping – between collectors’ hotel rooms, an auction with everything from a branded bicycle to cardboard signs, and a massive indoor flea market of new and old Coca-Cola memorabilia, open to the public.
Here are five highlights of the event, through the lens of a newbie convention attendee:
1. Americana lives here.
The convention is a cross-section of America, from the collectors in attendance to their relics. Attendees from the Midwest mingle with Southerners, discussing and debating the origin of Coca-Cola treasures. You may not be able to trace the exact lifespan or whereabouts of a Coca-Cola bottle, tray or sign, but you can learn clues through the eyes of an owner.
Here, Americana thrives – red more prevalent than white and blue, of course – as attendees and collectibles harken back to when Coca-Cola was savored on porch swings or sipped in celebration after a Little League game. While other brands occasionally popped up – a Sprite sign here, a Diet Coke bottle there – Coca-Cola classic was the star. Most collectors grew up in the timeframe when Coca-Cola was the only beverage to the company’s name.
2. Authenticity is subjective.
The value of an artifact cannot always be determined by whether it is real – manufactured by The Coca-Cola Company at some point in time – or how much someone paid for it. Sentiment comes in all shapes and prices. Many lifelong collectors strategically buy and sell pieces as an investment. Others whose regard for an artifact’s authenticity drives them to heated debates with their fellow collectors. Some pick and choose based on appeal – what is artistic in nature but perhaps not a genuine artifact. Many collectors are a mix of all of these – giddy to find an asset, hoping for a rarity and appreciative of the beauty.
The exchange of folklore about various pieces is part of the mystery and part of the fun. This year, the talk of the convention was a large cloth Hi-Fi Club banner, which sold for nearly $1,000 at the auction. The Hi-Fi Club was a youth-centered club supported and promoted by The Coca-Cola Company in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. The most popular Club events were dances. The banner, believed to be in good condition and very rare, would have been hung at one of the Club’s events or dances.
The banner first appeared at the convention during the “What’s it Worth?” seminar, where a panel of experts estimated it could go for $600 to $1,500. The banner was then displayed as part of the auction preview for two days, as potential bidders inspected it among Santa cardboard cut-outs, framed posters and vintage menus.
3. Camaraderie over cost and collections.
Other than boasting their impressive Coca-Cola anthologies or searching for that one special item, the reason for the convention is simple – friendship. Most attendees have been collecting for decades and have built relationships with their fellow collectors. The convention is like a family reunion with a bright red, uplifting brand as its backdrop. It makes you wonder about other collector conventions and whether their lust for the rare or quirky or authentic is as fervent as the Coca-Cola crowd’s. One fact that cannot be ignored is that most attendees are older, the youngest collectors already in their 50s. With a limited number of next-generation aficionados, the 42-year streak of Coca-Cola Collectors Club Conventions could cap out in the next few decades unless they attract younger blood.
4. Anything goes.
Card board cut-outs of famous athletes. Fanny packs, bottle caps and a lone paper bag. Dinner trays, window displays, signs of all kinds, and clocks. Lots of clocks. If it dons the Coke bottle or distinctive script, it’s here and it’s for sale – for the right price. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, another gem surfaces. A matching comb, brush and mirror; a pewter train set; baseball cards; black, red and white gem-studded high heels that spell out Coke Zero, miniature cases of glass bottles; and even buttons that boast “I tried it! New Coke”.
“It's like opening the Coca-Cola Archives doors and letting 500 people walk through,” said Justine Fletcher, Coca-Cola archivist.
Your eyes cannot possibly take in all the artifacts and knick-knacks that sprawl across table after table, or during room hopping, atop collectors’ hotel beds and dressers. Nothing is too new or old or unique or tacky. At some point, it was at least one person’s prize.
5. Fostering a memory.
Asking why someone started collecting Coca-Cola items is like asking them to relay an engagement story. “So..." you say, dreamily, "How'd you get started?" Although every story is different, most share a similar theme. Coca-Cola reminds people of a pleasant pastime. Coca-Cola was the once-a-month treat he enjoyed as a youngster, or what she drank when she visited her grandparents. Some collections may manifest into a bit of mania, but they began with a nostalgia for simplicity – an ice-cold Coca-Cola.
If you collected something based on your fondest memory, what would it be? Coca-Cola collectors may have a unique hobby, but the origin of their interest is something we can all relate to – a time when we savored life most.
Interested in experiencing the convention in person next year or learning more about The Coca-Cola Collectors Club? Visit The Coca-Cola Collectors Club website.
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