HOW TO MAKE MONEY BUYING ANTIQUE BOTTLES
Digger Odell Publications ©2010
WHY WE BUY ANTIQUE BOTTLES
Everyone collects something, photographs, Facebook friends, money, Sports memorabilia, but not all of us are "collectors." Collecting is part of our DNA and likely evolved from our ancestors instincts to hoard food to survive harsh times. This biological imprint regularly manifests itself throughout childhood as we begin to accumulate items like rocks, coins, Barbies, toys, clothes and find that we get pleasure from these activities. The psychology of collecting has been given much thought both among lay persons and professionals. Reasons cited for our collecting mania include: a desire to "preserve the past", a desire to possess beauty, to organize and classifying our world, as a means of control, or even to "fill a void”. Exactly what it is that differentiates those of us who drop our childhood collecting habits and those of us who go on to "collector" status, is not known. You are either a "collector", or you are not.
THREE GROUPS OF COLLECTORS
There are probably as many approaches to buying old bottles as there are bottle collectors. Some bottle collectors buy bottles simply because they like them or they fit into what they are collecting. Civil War collectors often buy USA Hospital bottles which were used in the battlefield hospitals. Some people collect cure bottles and others collect colored Eastern glasshouse flasks. It is not unusual for bottle collectors to have some organic connection to the items they collect, e.g. the doctor who collects "cure" bottles. Some people collect bottles from their state, city or region. For these collectors, the decision of what to buy is less complicated on the face of it, but may present difficulties long-term as it progressively get harder and harder to add something to their collection that they do not already have. Another group of antique bottle collectors are less specific and simply buy bottles they like. Some buy old bottles regardless of price and others spend their time stalking bargains. Generalists usually have an easier time adding to their bottle collections since they are more willing to branch out. In truth most bottle collectors collect several types of items. A large percentage of bottle collectors have at one time or another been dealers as a way to dispose of and to acquire their wants. Over the years, the nature of the business has changed and as the costs associated with doing bottle shows have gone up the ability to sell on EBay has made it much less attractive to travel. Collectors / dealers are your best source for buying (or selling) bottles. A third group of collectors often style themselves "investors." One bottle collector I talked with recently mentioned that one of the first big purchases he made, required him to put his car as collateral. His thinking was that the value of the object of his desire would appreciate faster than inflation and someday provide him with a good return. You can make money from buying antique bottles, but you really need to know what you are doing.
When trying to make money on old bottles, you run the risk of unknowingly buying overpriced, repaired, cleaned, or damaged items. Make certain to examine, in bright light, all and any purchases. It is always good to know the person with whom you are dealing but that is not always possible. If your bottles get lost, stolen or damaged, the value is gone. I have had pets knock bottles off the shelf, would-be buyers break or chip items in looking at them, and even had some items taken off the table. Unlike coins, bottle can break. Bottles are not a liquid asset. Bottles can be difficult to sell and may take a long time to move. If you need money quickly, you may not be able to sell the bottles or you may have to sell them at a loss. Finally, psychologically if you’re going to hang on to that bitters bottle, it’s merely a possession -- not an investment. People generally don’t get too emotionally attached to their Treasury bills. With buying bottles, there is no buyer protection.
THE DIFFICULTIES OF ESTABLISHING A MARKET PRICE
Bottle collecting is unlike coin collecting where the number of coins produced is known. I can look up a common coin in a coin price guide and expect to be able to purchase a similar coin at about the same price for which it is listed. Furthermore, if the coin contains any appreciable amount of precious metal, I know that I cannot purchase it for below the melt value. Thus coin prices are standardized to some degree. The market value of a given item is established.
No one knows the number or variety of old bottles that are out there - and new ones are being discovered everyday. This is one reason different buyers pay different prices. Another reason is that a large proportion of Pre-1900 bottles were produced regionally and are rare outside their region or even city. A third reason is that one or two aggressive and/or well heeled collectors can have dramatic impact on prices. Sometimes it is local collectors who are willing to pay a premium for local bottles whose prices would otherwise suffer in a national market. This creates a situation where the establishment of a bottle market price for items is difficult.
KNOW THE SIZE AND LOCATION OF THE MARKET
Nothing puts a damper on prices faster than a lack of buyers. A dearth of buyers can be the result of lack of interest, a matter of over supply, a geographic problem, or a competition issue. Let’s face it, a majority of people in this country wouldn’t buy a $1000.00 bottle for $10 or even $1. You don’t believe me? I have attended more than one estate or country auction where some very good bottle have come up and unless there are other “bottle people” there, there is little interest from bidders. Another concern often voiced by bottle collectors is the aging of the hobby. Many of the big collectors started in the 1960s or 70s and are not being replaced by younger collectors as fast as they are leaving us. Most people have no interest in or would give a flying fig about old bottles. There was a time when you could sell unembossed common bottles. When Ebay first debuted, I cleaned out my garage of boxes of “junk” I could not get rid of any other way. Not so these days. Even many bottles which decades ago could have brought $10-30 won’t fetch a bid on EBay or an offer at a bottle show. There are many more bottles than bottle collectors. Sometimes the lack of buyers is a geographic problem. I remember setting up as a dealer at the Washington, PA bottle show. I took a nice array of old bottles and books and sold next to nothing. It wasn’t that the room was empty of buyers; the buyers only wanted local bottles. I was trying to sell in the wrong market. Know which bottles will sell only locally and which have national appeal.
BECOME A PICKER
Back in the 1980s, Dr. Samuel Greer was actively seeking pontil medicine bottles. It was not long before every digger and dealer was feeding his habit and the prices of many scarce and rare pontil medicines began moving up. Pickers find bottles for others. To be a successful picker, you need lots of contacts and time to track down items for serious collectors. When Greer sold his entire collection, the market was flooded with the less desirable aqua examples and prices languished for over a decade in this category. Fortunately, a few other "closet collectors", had learned to keep their wants more under wraps and continued to quietly accumulate scarce pontil medicines. But until more recently, the prices had been soft in this category. Now there seems to be strong interest in rare and scarce pontiled medicines again and recent prices reflect that interest. If you know who is buying and you can find examples, you can make some really money.
FIND NEW NICHE MARKETS
Over the past three decades, there have been numerous opportunities to "make a killing". The bottle hobby is not immune from change and evolution is certain. There was a time, when bottle collectors turned their noses up at "new" bottles. In the 1930-1960s thousands and thousand of painted label soda bottle were manufactured. When I was in high school my part-time job was working in a grocery store. One of the menial tasks was to sort the bottles that had been returned for deposit. The store had a room which was full of soda bottles, many of which sat there never to be returned to the company because the company no longer existed. Then came the "No Return No Deposit" bottles. Stores stopped collecting bottles for return and a new category of collectibles was created. It was not long before a few far sighted individuals starting buying up the older bottles by the case or even truck load. Within another five years, the market exploded. A whole new area of bottle collectibles became avant-garde. Prices leapt into the stratosphere some examples selling for over $1000.00 and many others in the hundreds of dollars. Getting in at the right time meant a fortune for some. At the St. Pete, Florida show this last January there was a table full of painted label bottles most priced from $30-$300. I can't say they were selling like hotcakes. Timing is everything; as the number of collectors declines so too will the prices.
DIG AND SELL
Don’t have the money to buy bottles you can invest your time and find them. Get a copy of my Secrets of Privy Digging, and find out how you can have fun and make money as well. While you won’t get rich, you will work hard, and learn a great deal about bottles in the process.
Most collectors got started by finding or digging an old bottle. With enough time and patience you too could be unearthing great finds.
TIPS ON BUYING BOTTLES
In the world of bottle collecting we are just getting to the point where we have a fair idea of what is common and what is rare. However, just because a bottle is common does not mean it is worthless. There are hundreds of antique bottles which are common but still sell for 3 and 4 figure amounts. Likewise, there are bottles that are extremely rare but sell for only a few dollars. The natural question to ask is what bottles can I buy that will hold their value over time or better still appreciate in value? Of course, if I knew for certain the answer to that, I’d be much richer but here are my thoughts.
BUY COMMON BOTTLES
Buy what other people are buying. If others are buying them they are saleable. Common bottles can be easily found and purchased. Common does not mean worthless. Bottles like Drake’s Plantation Bitters, Brown’s Indian Queen Bitters and many others are quite common, readily available and often sell for big bucks. Make establishing a market price work in your favor. Be a careful shopper and remember: -Look for excellent examples that are unusually crude, whittled or bubbly -Avoid dug bottles with heavy stain -Avoid bottles with cracks, dings, bruises or scratches. -Learn to identify cleaned bottles and which bottles can be easily cleaned. -Consider passing on bottles which have been poorly cleaned (polished). -Buy bottles for the right price.
BUY SCARCE BOTTLES OR RARE BOTTLES
-Buy undug or "attic" bottles
-Buy bottles with good labels, contents and boxes
-Buy scarce to rare bottles when you have a known buyer or buyers
BUY COLORED BOTTLES OR COLOR VARIANTS
-Color is always better.
- Many colored bottles including bitters, flasks, are readily available.
BUY WHAT YOU CAN SELL QUICKLY AT A PROFIT
-Pay less than the going rate at least 30% below the typical price.
-Buy good bottles that are stained and cleaned them for resale.
-Some dealers will even sell bottles below what they paid just to move them.
BUY AND HOLD?
A bottle purchased in 1975 for $1.00 would need to be worth $3.98 today to keep up with inflation. Unfortunately, many of the bottles that could be purchased for $1 in 1975 can still be purchased for that amount. So if you had put a dollar into one of these back then by now you would have lost money.
No one wants to lose money and the natural question to ask is how can I buy bottles that will hold their value over time? Better still how can I buy bottles that will appreciate in value? It is better to buy and hold or trying flipping bottles (buy them and sell them quickly for whatever profit you can realize? You can do some research like I have done below and find good opportunities for appreciation if you choose the buy and hold strategy. Likewise, your research will show which bottles would be better for flipping.
Let's look at some examples:
First, let's look at a rare colored bitters. This bottle sold back in 1990 for under $2000. Today the same bottles sells for between $14,000 and $17,000 seven to eight times the 1990 price. When comparied with the value of a dollar you can see how much this bottle has appreciated.
The same bottle but in the more common amber color looks different. In 1990 you could buy an amber fish bitters bottle foraround t$200.00 today 20 yewars later the same bottles sell for a bit under $350. When compared with the value of a dollar over than time buying and holding this bottle would have been a losing proposition.
Doing some research on prices can help clarify what you might want to buy and hold and what you might want to buy to flip immediately.
One might think that an early 1820s Mid-Western Swirl would be a good long term investment. This just has not proven to be the case as can be seen from this graph. In fact, holding on to one of these over time could amount to a significant loss when compared with the value of a dollar. these bottles are not real common but they are available. the same bottle in a better color would have been a good candidate for buy and hold.
Hostetter's Bitters bottles are one of the most common bitters bottles. they were made by the millions and shipped by the boxcar load to troop during the Civil War. The common color for a Hostetter's Bitters in the color you see in this picture. Buying and holding one would be diasterous. Buty you can find them at a wide range of prices and possibly flip for for a modest profit without much trouble.
Here's a bottle, Rohrer's Tonic which might be a good buy for either flipping or buying and holding. The value seems to have held up over time and even produced a modest return on investment. I used my price guides to make these charts. You can buy old copies off the internet and put them to good use tracking down bottles that offer potential for appreciation. In general, rare bottles and rare color variants are often the best investment for appreciation.
WHERE TO BUY ANTIQUE BOTTLES
Two important considerations on where to buy antique bottles are trust and a return policy. Many sources for old bottles will require you to buy without actually seeing the item. In such cases knowing who you are dealing is critical. If you are buying from a business you may have more recourse than buying from an individual. Use extreme care buying over the internet.
BOTTLE SHOWS are a great place to find bargains. In fact bottles shows may offer the best opportunity to buy to resell of any of the sources easily available. You can find a list of shows at the Antique Bottle and Glass Collectors site. There are shows all over the country, most of them small and poorly attended. the cost of travel and staying over night has hurt attendance. The internet has also hurt bottle shows as it is easy to try to sell bottles online. Nevertheless, finding a local show might just produce some quality items for lining your pockets.
ANTIQUE AUCTIONS - Many bottles show up at live auctions you can find many of these by checking Auction Zip
ABSENTEE BOTTLE AUCTIONS- Click on the links above to check out any of the major Bottle Auction Houses. One note of caution- It may be difficult (not impossible) to get bargains in this competitive atmosphere. But you will find the great quality and most variety of choice in this auctions.
BOTTLE WEB SITES - Many fine antique bottles can be purchased from reliable and trustworthy web sites. The follow is a partial list, but includes groups and individuals I consider trustworthy and with whom you could return an item if it was not as advertised.
Digger Odell's Antique Bottles For Sale: My site usually includes a number of moderate priced bottles in a a number of different categories. I offer a return privilege and pride myself on satisfied customers.
Jeff and Holly Noordsy are dealers Specializing in the Sale of Antique Bottles, Antique Glass and Period Decorative Arts. They usually have high quality bottles.
BottleShow.com - Welcome to BottleShow.Com, where the show NEVER ends! Often high priced but you might be able to negotiate.
Great American Bottles - Ed and Kathy Gray's fine site. Ed is a long-time expert and collector. He always has top quality items for sale.
Norman Heckler Auctioneer runs several bottle auctions each year with high end bottles and flasks
Reggie Lynch has bottles for sale in a wide variety of categories and prices.
ESTATE SALES - These can be located on sites such as Estate Sales
GARAGE SALES / FLEA MARKETS - Check your local papers, and city online sites for these events.
CRAIG'S LIST –I have found some good deals on Craig's list but the same cautions given for buying on eBay need to be observed. Best to see the items in person.
CAN YOU MAKE MONEY BUYING OLD BOTTLES?
Bottle Buyer’s Checklist:
Ö How much do I have to spend?
Ö Am I buying this cause I have to have it?
Ö Can I find any comparables?
Ö Should pay for appraisal?
Ö Is this something with broad appeal?
Ö Is it in good condition?
Ö What is the rarity?
Ö Do I have a buyer?
Ö Can I sell it if I do not have a buyer?
Yes you can make money from buying and selling old bottles if:
If you know what you are doing
If you do your research
If you buy at the right price
If you buy at the right time
If you buy the right things