Perfume bottles are objects of desire for some collectors

February 14, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohenand Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohenand Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Since the time of St. Valentine centuries ago, perfume has been a gift of love, and the luxury and novelty of its vessel have been part of the pleasure. Perfume bottle collectors can celebrate Valentine's Day every day, passionately pursuing every sort of bottle from the tiniest antique scent flask to the largest "factice" filled with colored water sitting on perfume counters.

Like hounds on a hunt, collectors have the scent of "commercials," bottles made for perfumers and couturiers and bought filled with a fragrance. Sometimes the greatest names in French glass, like Lalique and Baccarat, and Wheaton of America, made the bottles; the shapes range from cupids to golf bags.

Collectors also are sniffing around at antiques shows, shops and garage sales for fancy glass bottles made to sell empty and then filled with a favorite brand, especially bottles made in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and '30s and exported to America in quantity. There's been a blast of interest in atomizers, particularly ones from the 1920s to '50s by DeVilbiss Co., of Toledo, Ohio. Some enthusiasts specialize in one bottle designer, form or perfume brand. Others buy whatever catches their eye.

In general, an original box can double a bottle's price. "Sealed fresh" (never-opened) bottles are particularly desirable. But, unlike vintage wine, the perfume inside doesn't get better with age.

Dealer Madeleine France, who exhibits an impressive array of over 500 perfume bottles at antiques shows from Baltimore to Chicago, has several caveats for new collectors. "Buy one good bottle rather than four mediocre ones. A good bottle will retain its value whether it be a commercial perfume, a DeVilbiss or Lalique. Be sure the condition is flawless. Never buy a bottle without a stopper." Ms. France, who can be contacted at P.O. Box 15555, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 33318, (305) 584-0009, says a commercial's label is more important than its box, but both are a bounty.

Bottle design's golden age was from about 1907 to World War II, spurred on by images of movie starlets luxuriating in their boudoirs, elegant perfumes lining their Art Deco dressing tables.

Valuable perfume bottles once stashed away unopened in dresser drawers because they were a beau's special gift are being exchanged once again. "How romantic to give a loved one a vintage perfume saved for years by someone else," suggests dealer Ken Leach, of Gallery 47, at the Manhattan Art and Antiques Center, 1050 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022, (212) 888-0165. Mr. Leach claims to have the only American shop specializing in vintage perfume bottles.

Record price

At the top of the heap is the rare Baccarat bottle created by Salvador Dali for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Called "Le Roi Soleil" (the Sun King), it's an anthropomorphic figure symbolizing the sun setting over the ocean, made of blown, molded, cut and gilded crystal with enameled swallows in flight for the eyes, nose and mouth. The bottle came in a shell-shaped metal package, its label attached with royal blue ribbons. According to Baccarat's records, 3,012 were made in 1945 and 1946. In December 1991 one sold at a Paris auction for nearly $30,000. Two collectors had fallen hopelessly in love with its pristine condition, and a bidding duel resulted. Others surfaced since then, which Mr. Leach sells for between $5,000 and $12,000, depending on condition and the presence or absence of a box.

Many of the most desirable bottles were produced for decades. In 1939 Baccarat made an opal crystal bottle for an Elizabeth Arden fragrance called "It's You" in the shape of a hand with a ringed finger holding a vase. As late as 1962, it could be ordered filled with any Arden fragrance for $75. Now the bottle sells with its original packaging for $1,000 or more.

While Mr. Leach is the commercials specialist, Ms. France concentrates in decorative Lalique bottles, "Czechs," DeVilbiss atomizers, and French art deco dresser sets.

Bohemian artists

To some collectors, hand-cut and polished Czechoslovakian perfume bottles epitomize the bottle-maker's art. The Bohemian artisans employed an enormous variety of shapes, colors and designs. Many have stoppers two and three times their height, which were hand ground to fit the bottle's neck.

Most of these bottles came with a dauber for applying the perfume, a separate piece of glass fused to the stopper and often broken. Some daubers were extra long; the rarest are figural ones in the form of modeled nudes, visible through the bottle's sides when the stopper was in place. "You can't find these bottles in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany or Belgium," Ms. France observed. "They were made for Marshall Field's, Macy's, Gimbel's and Sears Roebuck." Many were good investments: Bottles advertised in the Sears catalog 60 years ago for 39 cents might sell for $150 each today.

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