By Phil Mooney
Director, Archives Department
For over five hours on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2003, people lined up with their potential treasures at the Harrah's Rincon Casino & Resort near San Diego, CA, hoping for some good news at the Coca-Cola Collectors Appraisal Affair. Close to 100 people came to the California appraisal event to learn about the value or history of Coca-Cola® items they had.
Among those who came to the event were local members of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club. Some brought prized items they just wanted to share, while others came to see the World of Coca-Cola on Tour exhibit on display at the resort.
At events such as this, bottles are the most common item people bring to be appraised, and this California event was no exception. I saw many embossed contour bottles from various time periods. Because the bottles were mass produced, and because they are so sturdy, many remain in circulation today. Even the earliest embossed contour bottles do not hold much value, with most worth about $5 or $10.
Many people have commemorative bottles -- those created to commemorate a special occasion or sports team -- in their collections. I saw a number of commemorative bottles in California, including a recent bottle with the Coca-Cola Santa and a bottle from the 1996 Republican convention. Commemorative bottles vary in value, based on how many bottles were created, the condition of the bottle, and how easy the bottle is to obtain. Even if they don't collect other Coca-Cola memorabilia, many people possess one or two of these commemorative bottles because of a particular interest. On average, most of these bottles are in the $5-10 range.
Another common item is lapel pins, usually created for the Olympic Games or another sporting event. I saw pins from the 1984 Los Angeles Games, pins for the San Diego Padres and several Disney pin sets. Pins often peak in value during the time of the sporting event, when the passion for pin trading is at its highest. Most of the pins I saw were only worth $1 or $2 each. I also saw a number of current collectible items -- those sold by licensees who produce Coca-Cola toys, clothing, household items and more. These licensed items are a wonderful way to start a collection, or even decorate a room in Coca-Cola items. Most licensed items are still too new to have established a value beyond the sales price.
Although not as common as lapel pins, people also brought light-up signs, 1950s picnic coolers and even vending machines. Fortunately, most of those with venders only brought photos to the resort, except for one person who had this machine in his truck and led me to the parking lot to see it live!
I saw a number of unusual and valuable items in California. One man brought a syrup keg from 1910, worth several thousand dollars. This rare keg, still containing the syrup and the original cork, had a full label on it; the paper labels usually are incomplete or damaged on these kegs. I also saw a 1940s sterling silver set of Coca-Cola salt and pepper shakers valued at approximately $5,000, and a very rare window decal from the 1920s. Another person had a carrier used to sell bottled Coca-Cola in ballparks in the 1930s; the style of these carriers is very different from the way drinks are served today, only holding less than a dozen drinks.
An unusual part of the history of Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola chewing gum. Most people don't know there was such a thing, but it was quite popular early in the last century. The gum was available in spearmint, peppermint and wintergreen. Although the sticks of gum are very rare, I actually had two different people bring sticks (even of different flavors) for me to appraise. Each stick of gum can be worth over $1,000, and the jars that used to display the gum are prized collectibles as well. At a private auction several years ago, a single stick sold for more than $7,000.
Amid the rare collectibles I saw were some fake and reproduction items. The fake items -- often called "fantasy" items -- were never authorized by Coca-Cola. In fact, some of the fantasy items are quite infamous within the collector community, including a number of belt buckles with the Coca-Cola trademark; I saw a wide variety of these in California, along with a number of metal tokens that supposedly granted the bearer a free Coca-Cola. The phony tokens never earned anyone a free drink, and they don't earn a high price as a collectible, either. Some people buy fantasy items knowing they are fakes, but unfortunately many do not know the truth before they buy.
Reproduction items also can confuse buyers. In particular, a series of reproduction trays introduced in the 1970s, but featuring images from the early 1900s, still lead people to think they have a very valuable piece, when in fact they have a nice tray worth approximately $10. I saw some of these trays in California, and hated to break the news to those who thought they had a thousand-dollar item!
Because of the long history of Coca-Cola, memorabilia is often passed between the generations. That can leave questions about the history of some items. It can also create misunderstandings stemming from family folklore, such as those who believe an item is from a date that proves impossible. In California I saw a bottle of diet Coke® that someone believed was from the 1970s. Diet Coke was introduced in 1982, so it wasn't possible to have a bottle from the 70s!
However, having items passed down is how many of the Coca-Cola collectibles survived throughout the years. If you have an item that's been passed down to you and would like to know more about it, be on the lookout for an appraisal event in your area, or join the Coca-Cola Collectors Club to meet others who are interesting in memorabilia.
As with all collectibles, prices vary depending on the market, and depend on what someone is willing to pay for an item. The values I give are my own personal judgment based on recent selling prices, price guides and my experience, but prices could be less or more in an actual sale or auction.