Collectors hunt for bottled treasure

Glassware enthusiasts from across the country flock to a show in Baltimore County


William Corle has a theory about people who go to antique shows and, in his words, "spend their hard-earned money for this junk that people are trying to get rid of."

"They're not wrapped very tightly. ... They're half nuts," Corle said.

But Corle, 70, woke up at 3 a.m. yesterday to drive from his Manns Choice, Pa., home to be among the first people at the 26th annual Baltimore Bottle Show and Sale, which organizers call the world's largest one-day bottle show.

The show's 300 tables at the Essex Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County were staffed by dealers who traveled from 25 states and three countries to sell bottles and other antiques, said Steve Charing, the publicity director for the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club, which put on the show.

Charing said bottle collecting is the third-largest collecting hobby in the nation - behind stamps and coins - and is mushrooming in popularity. He pointed to the 1,200 to 1,400 people that the bottle show typically attracts, with some customers coming from as far away as Hawaii.

"To leave Hawaii and come to Maryland in March, you must be a real fanatic bottle collector," Charing said.

There's no formula that determines the price of a bottle. Instead, the value is largely driven by supply and demand, Charing said. However, some basic aspects, like color and condition, can increase a bottle's price, he said.

People sometimes collect bottles in specific categories, such as medicine bottles or barbershop bottles. Some categories are more sought after, with some bottles selling for tens of thousands of dollars, Charing said.

"The values of some bottles are just skyrocketing," he said. "There's only so much that's in the ground that people we're able to retrieve or get handed down from generation to generation."

Michael Bienvenue, of Long Valley, N.J., bought a barbershop bottle that he speculated once contained hair tonic or perfume in the late 1800s. He said he was attracted by the bottle's yellowish peach color and thought that the $115 he paid was a good deal.

Bienvenue, 49, said he started collecting bottles at age 12 when his mother wanted to decorate their New Jersey farmhouse with bottles. Now he and his wife, Sharon, both enjoy the hobby.

"It's better than going boozin'," Bienvenue said.

Bill Stephens of Rising Sun was looking for bottles that would add to his collection of bitters bottles, which Charing described as bottles that contained bitter-tasting medicine and were known for their shapes, such as animals or log cabins.

Stephens, 45, said he has about 50 to 75 bottles on display at his home.

"They're pretty, and they look good with the sun shining through them on the shelf," he said.

Corle's prize buy at the show wasn't a bottle. Instead, he bought a pair of metal sugar nippers - a tool from the early 1800s that he said was used to break up clumps of sugar - for $50. Corle admitted that the sugar nippers are likely to get lost in his and his wife's collection of more than 100 antiques, including furniture, glassware and bottles.

But, Corle said, collecting antiques has been a part of his life since 1963, and he planned to stop at some antiques shops on his way back to Pennsylvania to search for items that he just couldn't go home without.

"It keeps you busy," he said. "It keeps you broke."

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