Delicate connection to past

Bottles: Collectors gather to look, buy and have glass containers appraised.

March 06, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Denise Grant carefully pulled an oblong bottle from a soft white cotton cloth and set it on the appraisal table.

Several other bottles she had shown to appraisers at the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club's Show and Sale yesterday had elicited only polite assessments. But this time, appraiser Dave Matthews' eyes twinkled. "You've got a gem there," he told her.

Grant, a nurse from Elkridge, had brought her great-grandmother's baby bottle, which had been made in Germany in the 1870s or 1880s. Its value: maybe $65.

Grant smiled. "I wasn't expecting to retire" by selling it, she said.

Truth be told, few collectors or dealers at the club's 20th annual show at the Essex campus of Community College of Baltimore County were there to get rich. Rather, they were drawn to the event by the love of things old, shiny and fragile.

Even in an age in which collectibles are swiftly auctioned over the Internet, more than 1,000 people from the East Coast descended on the campus for what has become one of the largest shows of its kind in the country. More than 300 dealers arrived from as far as California.

Bottle collecting, which began about 50 years ago, has become increasingly popular, with hundreds of Web sites and clubs throughout the country and thousands of enthusiasts.

Glass producer

The Baltimore show is popular because the city was once a major glass producer, said Steve Charing, president of the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club, a 30-year-old organization that has about 150 members from throughout the metro area.

The crowd began assembling outside the college's athletic center before dawn. Mark Newsome was first in line, arriving from Chestertown at 6 a.m. He was celebrating his 43rd birthday and hoping to find bottles from Kent or Queen Anne's counties. "Some years are good, others not so good," said Newsome, who has collected bottles for 10 years.

Many shapes, sizes

Inside, Newsome and the others found hundreds of tables laden with displays ranging from 17th-century onion-shaped English bottles to 20th-century Coca-Cola bottles. Bottles shaped like violins, fish and log cabins were on display. Some tables displayed only milk bottles, while others specialized in whiskey flasks or medicine bottles.

Many bottles once held liquids and ointments promising cures for almost every sort of ailment. One yellow tin was labeled "Revenge Lice Destroyer." A long amber bottle was labeled "Farr's for Gray Hair."

"There's a wide variety of tastes," said Charing, of Clarksville.

Prices varied as well, from 10 cents for common bottles with scratches and chips to $10,000 for a rare and beautifully engraved hand-blown Maryland decanter from the 1740s.

"A bottle's value is depending on its rarity, age and condition," Charing said.

A tiny, almost unnoticeable chip can reduce a bottle's value by hundreds of dollars.

Stumped

At an appraisal table, collectors lined up to hear what their pieces were worth.

With almost encyclopedic knowledge of bottle types, colors and design details, appraisers determined the value of most bottles within seconds.

But one stumped them: a clear rectangular bottle with a picture of a medicine show man and the words "Dr. J. A. Burgoon's System Renovator."

"I've never seen one like that before and I've been coming to this show 11 years," Matthews said.

The bottle's owner, Wayne Sidlovsky of Westminster, said he had found it near an old house in Pennsylvania and wanted to sell it. But even such a rare bottle wouldn't make him rich. The appraisers estimated its price between $40 and $60.

Even when the bottles were nearly worthless, Matthews tried to be positive.

"It's not worth much," he said to one woman. "But you've got a real pretty bottle."

Matthews began collecting 25 years ago as a teen-ager when he found an old beer bottle on the shores of Bear Creek in southeast Baltimore County.

"What I see is that it is a connection to the past," he said. "You can almost imagine someone drinking out of an old Coke bottle in the 1920s or drinking an elixir in the 1870s."

Devotee

David Beadle of Largo, Fla., has become such a devoted bottle collector that he flew to Baltimore to attend yesterday's event. An hour into the show, he had bought five violin-shaped bottles and a half-gallon Mason jar. "I'm into color," said Beadle, who has been collecting for 35 years. "There are so many beautiful colors."

But bottle collecting has its drawbacks. Like dust.

"Every once in a while," said Beadle, "you have to bite the bullet and clean them."

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