This 9-inch, 1897 Coca-Cola advertising item is thought to be the first tin lithographed tray produced by the company. It sold for $95,000 (plus an 18-percent buyer’s premium) at the Schmidt Museum auction in in Elizabethtown, Ky. on Sept. 18, 2011.
This year, Coca-Cola marks the 125th anniversary of the creation of the famous beverage, first introduced as a fountain drink in Atlanta, Ga., in 1886. The popularity of the sparkling refreshment was aided by a merchandising frenzy, as thousands of mass-market advertising collectibles were produced over the years. Promotional items—such as ice chests, calendars, thermometers, serving trays and the like—served a practical purpose and were therefore not often discarded. Holiday-themed items were packed away to be used the next year. Signs were durable and made to last outdoors. So today’s collectors have a wide variety of memorabilia to choose from.
The Coca-Cola Collectors Club was established in 1974. It is an independent and non-profit organization that has almost 2,700 members worldwide and more than 40 local chapters spread across the United States and Canada. Members enjoy special merchandise offerings, monthly newsletters and networked markets for buying and selling. They can attend national and regional conventions. The club also enables people with a common interest in Coca-Cola collectibles to share their enthusiasm with local activities.
To celebrate the 125th anniversary, I interviewed Dennis Bardin, president of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club. Dennis was kind enough to answer questions after spending the week in Elizabethtown, Ky., attending a festival for the Mid-South Chapter of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club. The festival coincided with an auction of Coca-Cola items at the world-famous Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia , which houses the largest privately-owned collection of Coca-Cola items in the world. The museum is planning to auction off the collection over the next few years and 650 items hit the block over the weekend of Sept. 17-18. That auction exceeded all expectations, achieving a whopping $3.3 million dollars in sales.
Liz Holderman: Hi Dennis, thanks for visiting with me. I’m excited to learn more about the Coca-Cola Collectors Club and also about collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia. But first, tell me about your experience at the auction last week
Denis Bardin: We—my wife Donna and I—picked up a 1940s cardboard poster that was actually in the top two on our “want” list. I felt we paid a market price, so we were happy. On the other hand, many common items easily found at organized shows sold for well above market prices. Of course, the rare items brought premium dollars.
Like many collectors, Dennis and Donna Bardin decorate their home with vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia.
Holderman: Your club’s 37th Annual National Convention took place this summer in Atlanta. What were some of the events at the convention and how many people attended?
Bardin: Our annual convention spans a week and includes events such as business meeting, silent auction, regular auction, trading center, social night, luncheon and/or brunch, memorabilia show and sale (the only event open to the public at no charge) and a farewell banquet. We had 1,100 registered for the Atlanta convention.
Holderman: Did the club do anything special to celebrate Coca-Cola’s 125th Anniversary?
Bardin: Our June 2011 newsletter carried articles relative to the 125th milestone and we had special items during the convention as well.
Holderman: Where and when is next year’s convention?
Bardin: Springfield, Mo., July 3-8, 2012.
Holderman: Which of the national chapters is the largest? Which chapter is the most active?
Bardin: We have approximately 40 active chapters under the National Club. Many host annual events, as well as periodical meetings. The Atlanta Chapter most likely has the most members of all the chapters.
Holderman: How have Coca-Cola collectibles changed over the years?
Bardin: Great question. The only actual “change” to collectibles themselves would be the mass-produced, “made for the collector’s market” items, such as polar bears, ornaments, cookie jars, commemorative bottles, reproduction items, etc. These types of items can be found at most any retail outlet, yet to a vintage collector, these items don’t play a role in collecting.
Holderman: What are the most popular collectibles?
Bardin: From a vintage collector’s standpoint, I would say cardboard displays, clocks, thermometers, tin/porcelain signs, wooden display signs, machines and on and on. Again, however, these are all true, vintage items, pre-1970, that were made to advertise the Coca-Cola Company and its product.
Holderman: What are some of the rarest collectibles?
The Bardins have collected a wide variety of vintage Coca-Cola advertising.
Bardin: Early, turn-of-the-century items such as paper and cardboard signs, trays, window displays, etc. Late 1890s through 1920 or so, to me, would be the rarest items.
Holderman: Is there a particular collectible that everyone covets?
Bardin: I would have to say no, since vintage collectors all seem to have different tastes and/or a certain focus in their collection.
Holderman: Can you comment on how restoration affects collectible value?
Bardin: That’s a tricky subject, yet it depends on the piece. A rare item from the late 1890s or early 1900s that needs restoration would enhance the piece and its “advertising art” appeal to collectors. But items that are more easily found in the collectors’ world, perhaps not so much. My wife and I prefer original condition items versus repainted, restored, touched up, etc. I would add, however, that collectors who like to have items restored/repaired/touched up should take “before” and “after” pictures for future use.
Holderman: What are some of the more commonly reproduced or counterfeit items that collectors should avoid?
Bardin: ALL of them! When organized collecting took off in the 1970s, there were many such items made to take advantage of the market. From various cast iron items, to fake trays, fantasy items, to quality “copies” of items and on. Many collectors have been fooled and/or mislead. Vintage collectors need to do their homework and research to stay up on the market.
More than two-thirds of coca-Cola collectors go for the vintage items.
Holderman: Are there any rules of thumb for recognizing a reproduced or restored item?
Bardin: Some collectors’ guides over the years have devoted sections to reproduction and fantasy type items, which is a great help. That said, as mentioned before, you have to do your homework and question items that do not appear to meet vintage advertising qualities.
Holderman: Have values increased or decreased over recent years? What is the current trend in collectible values?
Bardin: Without regard to the recent Schmidt auction, I would say, overall, values of vintage items have dropped in response to the economic situations we have gone through over the last 6-8 years. That said, quality, near-mint items still bring good prices.
Holderman: How has the Internet affected values?
Bardin: Both ways, I feel. Rather than traveling to a show, auction or convention, you can now sit at home and buy collectibles. Sometimes there are deals to be had, yet there are so many items people list on Internet auction sites that do not sell because there are others listing the same items—too many to choose from. On the flip side, a collector might be willing to pay a higher-than-market price because they did not have to incur expenses to travel to a show, auction, etc.
Holderman: Do more people collect vintage Coca-Cola items or new items?
Bardin: Our club had this question on a survey two years ago and our member’s response was 67-percent vintage items, 33-percent newer items
Holderman: Tell us about your personal collection. What items are in it? Do you have a favorite?
A 1950s Vendo 23 machine, similar to the one the Bardins hold dear.
Bardin: Donna and I collect vintage items. We have many serving trays, cardboard displays, clocks, thermometers, early fountain glasses, machines, tin/porcelain signs, etc. No favorite, yet 1,000 or so second favorites! Just kidding. Yet, we have always said if we could only keep one piece, it would be our 1950s Vendo 23 machine. That is because our daughter, Leslie, and her friends grew up having this machine around and they all thought it was so neat to be able to buy a cold Coke for 6 cents! Dropping in the coins, turning the knob, grabbing that cold bottle and opening it right there was just too much fun!
Holderman: Where do you like to shop to add to your collection?
Bardin: Auctions, flea markets, Internet, collectibles shows and, of course, our club’s annual convention and local chapter events.
Holderman: Where and how do you display your collectibles? Are they in one room or all over?
Bardin: Our collection is primarily in an oversized game room with 12-foot ceilings that was actually built for that purpose, yet items can also be found in the halls, kitchen, entry way, family room, upstairs, study, patio—get the picture?!
Holderman: Your collection looks fabulous! You have a great variety and I love the way you have it displayed. What advice would you give to a first-time collector?
Bardin: Do your research. Join our club if only to talk to long time collectors, as we love to share our knowledge with others. Use collectors’ guides. Buy what you like, yet buy nice, clean items if at all possible.
Holderman: Thank you so much Dennis! This was a great way to learn more about Coca-Cola collecting.
If you are interested in joining a chapter of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club, check out its extensive website. You can also contact its president, Dennis Bardin, at email@example.com.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.
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