Walk into any antiques store in the United States and you would be hard-pressed not to find a Coca-Cola memento of some sort. Bottles, trays, openers, tiny cars and trucks, calendars and signs are just a few of the pieces Coca-Cola has produced over the span of its 126-year history. While these marketing and advertising items were never intended to be collectors’ items, their presence in people’s lives has gained them sentimental as well as real dollar value the world over. And for some people, amassing Coca-Cola keepsakes has become a lifelong passion.
Take The Coca-Cola Collectors Club, for instance. It was established in 1974 as an independent nonprofit, and according to the Club’s website, its purpose is “to promote the preservation and collection of memorabilia related to the Coca-Cola Company.” With more than 40 chapters across the U.S., Europe and Australia, Coca-Cola collectors arguably make up one of the largest, most organized collectors' clubs in the world. There are regional or national club events every month, and conversations on collectibles are taking place online all the time.
As employees of the Coca-Cola Company, it’s hard not to become a bottle collector. Walking through the company’s Atlanta headquarters, you can’t help but notice the assortment of bottles neatly arranged at each person’s desk. Before long, you realize it’s easy to determine who has been at Coca-Cola the longest based on how many bottles they have. Admittedly, we collect bottles for different sentimental reasons than outside collectors. For an employee, each bottle represents a major project, event or personal achievement accomplished while at the company.
But with so many items, events and collectors, how does someone get started creating their own personal collection? We went to our VP of heritage communications and chief archivist, Phil Mooney, for help. Throughout his 35-year career with Coca-Cola, Mooney has been in charge of building the Coca-Cola Company’s archives — and he’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Coke collector items. So if you can show him something he hasn’t seen, you’re doing well. Mooney graciously sat down with us to share some collector tips.
1. Get educated
Mooney’s number-one recommendation in starting your own collection is to take the time “to get a sense of the prices for things. Talk to people who have been collecting a while.” One of Mooney’s favorite reference books is Allan Petretti’s Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide 12th edition, aka the Coke Collector Bible. In it, you might be shocked to learn a tray could range in value from $37,000 in mint condition all the way down to $1 in poor condition.
Another way to determine the current value, or real-time value for Coke memorabilia, is to log on to eBay. A quick search for “Coca-Cola” on the site recently netted 81,688 results. You can even create alerts for items you want to follow up on.
And the last most engaging way to educate yourself is to connect with other collectors. With the national and local collectors groups, there are monthly meetings you can check out. There is a major convention in Atlanta every year that includes an auction, swap meet and room hopping — where rooms are set up like a Coca-Cola flea market.
2. Choose where you want to focus
The second piece of advice from Mooney is to decide what interests you most: “You can’t collect everything, but with so many shapes, sizes and colors you can become an expert in a given category.” And no category is too small. Of the many collectors Mooney has met over the years, he says, “I know one person who just collects pencils, pens and matchbooks. Then there are folks that focus on paper — advertising books and manuals.”
“Pins and change trays can make a good starter collection,” says Mooney. “They are small, display well, and are in somewhat of depressed market right now — so you can get them for a reasonable investment.” In narrowing your focus, remember to start off slowly and take the time to find what you like. “Is it the 3-D feel of a tray, or do you like the graphic appeal of a calendar or a poster? No one will ever have everything, so you’re better off self-defining early on what you find appealing.”
If you want to concentrate on bottles, this particular area can first be narrowed down into aluminum or glass bottles and then into commemorative, antique, contour and straight-sided. There are further subcategories as well, such as the commemorative bottles created for special events like the Vancouver Olympic Games or the launch of the new Coke sign in Atlanta. A collector may decide to only pursue sports-edition bottles, bottles made for McDonald’s or Wendy’s customers, special presidential or political bottles, such as the special bottle created for Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. There are so many options that it makes sense to begin educating yourself first.
3. Budget money and space ahead of time
Money and space will inevitably dictate what you can collect. Vending machines are fun collectors' items, but after you have two or three, where do you put them? Deciding ahead of time whether you have a shelf, a small room, or a dedicated floor for your collection will help narrow your focus and, of course, determining how much you have to spend will then help you know where you can spend it.
For example, if your objective is to have 10 shelves of bottles because they look cool, then begin collecting with that in mind. Mooney has been to some houses where the walls are lined with Coke bottles, and the good news is most of those bottles new are between $5 to $10 apiece.
Our trademark contour bottles are popular collectibles and are relatively inexpensive to acquire. The bottles are made in various cities and states, so there are many to choose from. Older bottles have raised, embossed lettering, and newer ones have white writing and include patent dates.
If you want fewer, more valuable collectibles, antique bottles (made between 1900 and 1920) could be what you are looking for, but they do represent a more sizable investment. Typically, bottles from that era will be in the $300 range, so most collectors would need to be more selective within this collectors' category.
4. Buy the best that your money can buy
No matter what you end up collecting, buy items in the best condition you can find, or they won’t retain their value as well. That goes for anything from bottles and trays to vending machines and calendars.
The other caution is to be careful with your purchases in the beginning. While one of the more exciting ways to add to your collection is to bid on items at an auction, it can be easy to get in over your head. Mooney recommends that you start by observing several auctions without buying anything. This gives you the opportunity to “see how they work and see what the pace of the auction is. Figure out the different strategies people are using in bidding.” Also be aware of the tone of the auction as some set more realistic prices, while others are at the very high end of the spectrum. The smart move is to attend a few meetings and conventions, do research on eBay, and check out a few auctions before making a bid.
With these tips from Mooney, you should be well informed to begin a new hobby that has captured the imaginations of thousands of people around the world. Of course we couldn’t let our expert go without asking him to share details about his favorite bottles. He has two: The first he calls “Phil in a Bottle,” which was an unexpected surprise. Mooney had gone to China for an event to celebrate the company’s 125th birthday. When he returned to Georgia, he received a bottle created by a local Chinese artist who made a reverse painting of Mooney. It doesn’t get much more personal than that! And, notes Mooney, what makes it particularly special is that “it’s directly relevant to something I participated in.”
Mooney’s other favorite is a bottle he received just this year to celebrate his 35th anniversary at Coca-Cola. He grew up in Boston and is a huge Red Sox fan. So the company presented him with the 100th-anniversary Fenway Park bottle, which was framed with a matte signed by all the Red Sox players.
So now that we’ve shared our favorites, we want to see yours! Submit your pictures and stories here, and happy collecting!