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Collectors Column: Information for Collectors

By:  Phil Mooney Jan 1, 2012
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Collectors Columns

Phil Mooney, archivist of The Coca-Cola Company, writes about Coca-Cola® collectibles in these columns. He discusses types of collectibles, and the importance of appropriate preservation methods. These columns can be a valuable resource for both beginning and advanced collectors.
Read more about Phil Mooney here.

Getting Started
You've found a colorful old Coca-Cola® serving tray in your grandmother's attic and you wonder how much it's worth. You're even more excited when you learn that it dates back to 1934.

Before you rush out to spend the proceeds, you might want to get an idea of the tray's value. If you check the popular reference book Petretti's Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide (11th Edition) you might be shocked to learn that the tray could range in value from $1,800 in mint condition all the way down to $1 in poor condition.

You might also be surprised to discover that you've just found a hobby that can last a lifetime. Welcome to the wonderful world of Coca-Cola collecting, which has captured the imagination of thousands of people.

For more than 120 years, The Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers have issued a phenomenal amount of colorful, fanciful and beautiful advertising and promotional items that captured the cultural spirit and artistic trends of their times.

The Collecting Boom
Collecting these pieces of history from the world's best-known brand caught on with the public during the nostalgia craze of the 1970s and stimulated the formation of a group of collectors of Coca-Cola merchandise, independent from The Coca-Cola Company, called The Coca-Cola Collectors Club, in 1974. Today the club has more than 5,000 members all over the world, who hold a number of conventions and meetings each year. The club has a Web site (www.cocacolaclub.org) and publishes a monthly newsletter. Its local chapters hold meetings, swap meets and other social opportunities to get together with friends who share a fascinating and enjoyable interest.

Former Club president Karleen Buchholz offers this advice: "Educate yourself. And buy mint or good quality, instead of quantity. Read collectors books and get to know other collectors." The club is family-oriented, and Karleen says she and other members have made friends around the world through their common interest.

Today's collectors generally fall into two distinct groups: vintage collectors who are willing to invest large sums of money for the rare old items, and hobbyists who collect for the sheer fun of it. No matter which group you're a part of, you'll find an astonishing variety in the value and type of collectibles available. I can honestly say that I have never been to a Coca-Cola collecting convention where I have not found something I've never seen before. Coca-Cola collecting is always full of surprises.

If you are just getting started as a Coca-Cola collector, joining the Club is a good first step. Getting a copy of the independent Petretti guide is another important move. The 614-page guide, authored by Allen Petretti of Hackensack, N.J., is richly illustrated with black-and-white and color pictures. The guide provides historical summaries and offers valuations on thousands of pieces. Even a quick glance through Petretti will provide you with a glimpse into the virtually unlimited number of collectible items. The 12th edition of Petretti's guide is scheduled to be released during 2008.

You Never Know
A good example of the thrill of discovery is a letter I received about 10 years ago from a woman settling an estate in Texas. She wrote to me and included a picture of an item that she couldn't identify. When I saw it, I recognized it as an old-fashioned set of apothecary scales, made of metal and wood, which The Coca-Cola Company had given to druggists to promote Coca-Cola in the 1890s. I had seen the scales in advertising brochures from that era showing the premiums that were available. But I had never before seen the scales in person.

We purchased the scales for our archival collection, which documents the Company's marketing and advertising history. The scales have been added to the collection of ourcompany 1,200 pieces displayed at The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

When I speak to collecting groups, I often remark that historical photographs in our collection frequently show advertising pieces that are not represented in our collection. Where are they? What happened to them? It's exciting to know that some of the century-old items might still be in someone's attic.

The earliest promotional pieces are the toughest to find. We only know of a handful of samples of 1890s calendars, for example. Anything from that decade is considered rare and the prices on the open market reflect it, with some of the older items selling in the $20,000+ range, depending on their condition.

Competition for these valuable 19th century items is intense, but there are still many collecting niches that are affordable, depending on your personal interests. Even collecting toy trucks today could pay off for you in 20 years - if you save the original box! Toy trucks that sold for 49 cents in the 1930s can be worth thousands of dollars today.

I also caution collectors who have found an item from the 1920s and think they've won the lottery. Many of these pieces were produced in such large quantities that the prices reflect their widespread availability, even 80 years later. People who've found a 1920 bottle are often disappointed to learn that the contour bottles the Company began making in 1915 were produced in such large quantities that the dollar value as a collectible may remain relatively low today.

A Word of Caution
I believe that another word of caution is in order as well. As with any undertaking where large sums of money can be involved, you can expect to find counterfeit items, even in the wholesome world of Coca-Cola collecting.

The Coca-Cola Company aggressively seeks to stop counterfeiters, but there are bogus items in the marketplace. Petretti includes a valuable section that points out examples of counterfeit and fantasy items, including a series of bogus belt buckles peddled for years.

It is helpful to any collector to understand the Company's history, particularly in spotting fake material. For instance, if something purports to be an 1890s calendar and has a bottle in it, that's a pretty strong giveaway. We didn't have bottling until the turn of the century. Or if you see something from the early 20th Century with a contour bottle, it's helpful to know that this familiar bottle wasn't introduced until 1915.

It's also important to know that during most of our early history, up until the 1940s, the trademark registration notice was placed in the tail of the C in the word "Coca." That's a clear indication that something predates 1940.

So with those words of caution, we're happy to welcome newcomers to a great adventure. I look forward to sharing more with you in future columns.