Nov/Dec 2020 edition
Issue #13 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine
Big fun in Small Collectibles!
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with cars and everything about them. Growing up, I played with Matchbox and later Hot Wheels. Everywhere our family went while traveling on the roads, they would ask me to name the make & model of cars we passed. At an early age, I knew every car there was, and could name the year it was made. Soon I began collecting every small toy car I could get my hands on. But this story isn’t about my collections of toy cars, but rather another path that I followed in the footsteps of my father, who, by the way, was also an avid car enthusiast.
During the 1950s through the 1980s, my Dad owned several liquor stores in the California Bay Area. I grew up working in those stores, first behind the scenes as a stock boy and then later as a clerk. I can remember my Dad always collecting unusual bottles, particularly large (4/5 quart) decanters. As I mentioned, I too took a liking to collecting at an early age. I found the smaller liquor bottles to be of more interest – they didn’t cost as much and they certainly didn’t take up as much space. The problem was, miniature liquor bottles could not be purchased in California back in the early 1970s. Sadly, miniature liquor bottles were only available in thirteen states. But luckily for me, one of these states was Nevada, just across the border from Lake Tahoe where my family frequented throughout my youth. Each time we went up to Lake Tahoe, we would make a trip just over the border to Stateline, NV and stop in a liquor store to obtain a few miniature bottles. So… at age 13, I started collecting miniature liquor bottles.
As time went on, the collection grew – people would bring me bottles from airlines and/or overseas trips. My mom would shop flea markets. A good friend of the family who also collected miniature liquor bottles would give me her duplicates. I would buy them at a miniature liquor bottle convention, and sometimes I would stumble upon them at garage sales. For one Christmas, my Dad made me an oak display cabinet to display my collection. I owned about 300 or so at the time, and I always kept the bottles full, under lock and key, and out of the reach of friends! I really enjoyed collecting them, but found that figurals or decanters were much more interesting and unique than the typical straight-type bottle I had been acquiring. I found these fiqurals to have lots of character and be great conversation starters, due to them coming in all shapes & sizes, covering a vast array of all subject matter, and being available in porcelain, ceramic or glass, depending on the manufacturer and contents. Miniature liquor bottles are typically never more than seven ounces, with the most common sizes being two-ounce or 50ml.
As I started accumulating decanters, I quickly realized I could easily merge my car enthusiast hobby with my interest in miniature bottle collecting. What could be better than to start collecting figurals that had an automobilia and/or transportation theme to them? As much as I’m an avid automobile enthusiast, my second passion is collecting miniature liquor bottles, which I have been doing for over 45 years. As time went on, my collection grew from hundreds to about 3,200 bottles today. Around 1,200 are figural decanters. The majority of all the bottles are full and none of the bottles are plastic. One might think this to be a large collection, but I have met other bottle collectors who have thousands more than I do, and sometimes it’s of just one type of liquor, (e.g. bourbon, scotch, cognac, armagnac, gin, tequila, etc.)
I have numerous transportation-themed figurals in the shape of cars, buses, motorcycles, ships, submarines, trains, tractors, airplanes, helicopters, and general automobilia, but only about 40 of them are truly “car” related like the ones you see on the cover and in the pictures of this article. The company I’ve found that has made the most automobilia-themed figurals over the years is Famous Firsts. Their bottles are reasonably detailed, covering automotive history and different genres over the years, and they are made of either ceramic or porcelain, depending on the automobile being made.
There are dozens of companies who have made liquor decanters in the past, a great deal of them in the 1970s and ’80s. Some of the more well-known companies within the U.S. include McCormick, Lionstone, Cyrus Noble, Ski Country (Foss Company), Famous Firsts, Wild Turkey, Ezra Brooks, and many others, but Jim Beam was by far the largest. Jim Beam subject matter covered just about anything one could think of, including hundreds of cars. Most of these same companies made miniature liquor decanters as well. But unfortunately, like so many companies, not even Jim Beam made miniature automotive-related decanters outside of the 4/5 quart size.
Miniature liquor figurals are found throughout the world. Kentucky straight whiskies (from the U.S. and Japan), scotches, brandy sauce, and wines (from the U.S., Spain and Italy) are the most common types of liquor contents to find in miniature automobilia-related decanters. And then every once in a while one finds a bottle like the red London bus that is puzzling… Who knows what its real contents are, since it has a tequila sticker on one side and a vodka sticker on the other – crazy, right?
In the early years of collecting, the internet did not exist, so obtaining bottles from other countries was a real treat. Individuals traveling abroad were limited to what they could bring back, consequently bottles from foreign countries were hard to come by. Because of this, it was more common to see bottles from: the UK (mostly whiskies, but some gins), and France and The Netherlands (French and Dutch liqueurs, respectively) and Spain (Spanish wines), as these countries were more commonly traveled to than others prior to the internet. But now with the internet it’s possible to obtain bottles from just about anywhere in the world – even rare or limited production bottles.
Most companies make only a few automobilia-themed bottles. Some examples of these can be found with the Suntory whisky car bottle from Japan, the Raintree straight bourbon whisky clown car from the U.S., the novel jerry can (gas can) from Germany, and the Aidee Novelties, front grille from England. Liquor decanters, like cars, come in all shapes and sizes, and just as with car collecting, any variation constitutes a different and unique piece in one’s collection.
In more recent years, some collectors have turned to selling bottles empty, as sites like eBay don’t allow you to sell alcohol without a liquor license, plus bottles that are empty don’t leak or evaporate and are easier and safer to transport. Transportation-themed figurals are hard to come by, but I’ve pursued them everywhere I could, and I’m always looking for miniature automobile-related decanters I don’t have. Miniature liquor bottle clubs have all but disappeared on the West Coast, but there are still some that exist and meet from time to time in the Midwest, for example (MMBC – Midwest Miniature Bottle Collectors).
Pictured on the cover of this issue (13): 1911 Marmon Wasp #32, the 1911 Indy 500 winner driven by Ray Harroun made by Famous Firsts. A statue of Henry Ford made by McCormick Distilling Co., from their “Great America Series.” A 5-gallon gasoline jerry can made by an unknown manufacturer in Germany. A Rutherford (scotch whisky) jug depicting a Mercedes-Benz from their transportation series.
Photography by Michael Furman, Michael@MichaelFurman.com or MichaelFurman.com
Miniature liquor bottle clubs and miniature liquor bottle guides are generally the best for understanding rarity, whether foreign bottles were imported or not, and the value of the decanters. If you have older bottles, miniature liquor bottle guides such as Bob Snyder’s “Bottles in Miniature,” or James Triffon’s “The Whiskey Bottle Miniature Collection” Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, and “The Miniature Bottle Collector” by Brisco Publications can be of great help when determining rarity and value. That being said, like anything else, if someone sells a miniature liquor bottle for a higher price… the market often reacts. Miniature liquor decanters can range in price from $3 to hundreds of dollars. Automotive-related bottles typically range in price from $10 to $75. Some miniature figural decanters are made in limited production (and stamped as such), but that is generally not the case with automobilia decanters.
Many of the companies who were making miniature liquor decanters 40-50 years ago are either not doing so today, or are out of business. So, newer miniature liquor decanters are now very difficult to find. Some neighborhood liquor stores carry a small variety of figural decanters; however, the best way to find more unique figurals is to fly abroad and try scouting Duty Free stores, or privately-owned liquor stores in foreign countries. There are airlines, like KLM, that still compliment their first-class customers with miniature figural bottles (Dutch buildings), but unfortunately these are not automotive-related.
My passion in looking for automobilia types of decanters will always be there, even at the age of 60. I still have that first oak liquor display cabinet my Dad made for me, and I continue to enjoy the pursuit, the find, and the bargaining to obtain new bottles I don’t have. I wish you all happy hunting with whatever you collect!
To read more great columns like this one from Miniature Auto Decanter expert Mark Pedrazzi...