By Greg Alvey
In the antique and collectors market, there are some amazing original and unique works of art which can still be purchased at very reasonable prices, and as a bonus, come with their own glass display cases! Welcome to the world of folk art in bottles and bottle whimsey collecting. Captured within glass bottles, decanters, light bulbs, and other glass containers are encapsulated one-of-a-kind works of art created by craftsmen and women from around the world.
Mining scenes, people, tools and equipment were among the first objects and scenes built in bottles. The oldest known bottle is a mining scene found in Snowshill Manor, England. It was built in 1719 by Matthias Buchinger, a remarkably talented man who was born without hands or feet. The first religious scene known is a bottle built in 1736 and identified as “H C K into the Belzdorff anno 1736.” With a deeply religious population in Europe where the first bottles come from, it is natural that a folk artist would put symbols of his faith in a bottle. Many of the bottles were ornately decorated with Jesus on the cross and various symbols of the passion such as a chalice, lantern, cock, pliers, dice, nails, flail, hammer, and spear. The classic “ship in a bottle,” that most people think about when you talk about something built inside a bottle, was actually a later development.
The first ship in a bottle we know of was built in 1784 in Italy by Gioni Biondo, who was likely a professional model builder.
The craft has continued through the decades but proliferated during the period from 1870 through the 1940s. During this time, large numbers of immigrants came to America, many bringing this craft with them. A poor economy and high unemployment were prevalent during much of this period, affording the artists the time to build bottle whimsies that they were often able to sell as a way to make ends meet. Many bottles are signed and dated, but even in the absence of this documentation, the works of many artists are immediately recognizable because of style or content. Most notable of these artists are Daniel Rose and Carl Worner, whose bottles are highly sought after and command some of the highest prices among collectors, bringing as much as $6,000.
Daniel Rose is renowned for his carefully crafted fans and animals which are usually accompanied by a religious message. Carl Worner, best known for his saloon scenes and his challenge to “Find the Missing Man” (a man somewhat hidden in a bathroom in the back of the bottle), cleverly created many different scenes in bottles including meat markets, bakeries, shoe stores, and more. He had an incredible knack and ability to fill his bottles with depictions that seem to come alive and draw the viewer into the scene inside the bottle. In addition to these artists, Adam Selick, best known for his multiple fans with crosses and birds, Jacob Steuer with his amazing and intricately carved stoppers, and the “Soldier’s Home” artist, Thomas Edwards, a Civil War veteran whose very recognizable pumpkinseed flasks with their wonderful stoppers with crosspieces are just a few of the most notable artists.
While bottles with provenance that are signed, dated, or made by known artists are solid investments, condition should be one of the most important considerations. As bottles age and are mishandled, exposed to heat, cold and direct sunlight, and as glues and other materials fail it is not uncommon for colors to fade and pieces to come loose or become broken inside the bottle. Strings break, bottles cloud, residue accumulates, paint fades, and sometimes contents fall out and are lost forever. The bottles themselves break, chip or become scratched or marred affecting their appearance. In these instances, the value can quickly diminish. Without professional restoration, which can be very expensive, a bottle will lose appeal and value for many collectors.
Antique shops, flea markets, auctions, estate sales, eBay, and other online sites are all sources for bottles. Original ships in bottles and bottle whimsies can often be found in the $50 – $300 range, with bottles of known artists or with unique and compelling content commanding prices from several hundred dollars upward to $2,000 and even more as noted above. However, the buyer needs to be wary of the large number of commercial bottles which are mass-produced and lack originality, and bottles misrepresented by the seller. All too often a seller may make a claim, speculate, repeat hearsay, or use innuendo that fool an unsuspecting buyer into believing information about a bottle that may not be true and cannot be confirmed.
Toward the last decade of the 1900s and into the mid-2000s the market for bottles whimsies, particularly the bottles of the most noted artists, was very strong and prices increased steadily. This generally continued until around 2008. With the onset of the Great Recession in late 2007 values began to decline but they are now slowly increasing again.
The number and variety of bottles available are fairly plentiful with the quality ranging from primitive and crude to those having a high degree of detail. Bottles with strong artistic appeal along with those by well-known artists are still gaining the most attention and bringing the highest prices, but lesser bottles are selling well, particularly to entry level collectors. The wide variety of themes and subjects attract collectors of folk art, nautical and maritime objects, tramp and prison art, bottles, and those looking to invest in unique and original works of art.
There are many websites with information about these bottles and resources for anyone interested in acquiring bottle whimsies. Among some of the larger and notable sites are: www.folkartinbottles.com, www.sdjones.net, www.artinbottles.com and the www.amesgallery.com.
Ships in bottles and bottle whimsies have captivated imaginations and intrigued collectors since they first appeared. We find them prominently displayed on mantles, in bookcases, and on desks as a collection or an individual specimen. They are wonderful conversation pieces that never fail to raise the question, “How did they put this in a bottle?” They have proven to be a strong investment over time and the outlook for increasing values and collectability looks very bright and growing stronger.
Greg Alvey is a builder, collector, and owner of www.folkartinbottles.com and www.artinbottles.com.