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Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters

by Mike Wilcox (05/11/11).

This Veterans of Foreign Wars commemorative Ezra brooks whiskey decanter, collected by the thousands, and other like it, are not worth very much, despite its “limited edition” label.

The fourth item in this series of “Unloved Antiques”  (previous editions focused on Collector Plates, antique Singer Sewing Machines and vintage Decorator Prints) and is the commemorative whiskey decanter, like the one pictured right, issued by Ezra Brooks distilleries, circa 1973. This particular one, honoring the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was just one of many veteran commemoratives issued for American Legions posts across the country.

American distilleries were always looking for ways to market their products in new customers. These decanters had their start in the 1940s, when decorative glass bottles based on traditional decanters or cocktail shakers first appeared, but the more familiar china examples we see today generally postdate the late 1950s, when the first Regal china pieces were issued by Jim Beam.

The demand for decanters took on a life of its own by the 1960s, spawning a whole series of decanters: Those honoring state and city centennials; football, tennis, golf and horse racing events; famous people and characters; service clubs; and, of course, Elvis. In fact, it’s difficult to find any event of significance that occurred in the USA since 1776 that did not have a decanter issue for. If you couldn’t find what you wanted on the shelf, the Jim Beam company—among the largest producers of commemorative decanters—even offered the option through its “Customer Specialties” program where you could order your own decanter for any event or organization you desired.

Because of the huge initial popularity of these decanters, they were mass produce in equally huge numbers to fill that demand. Most people who received them as gifts could not bring themselves to discard them when they were empty, as they were considered gifts meant for display. Besides, in many cases, they were packaged as “limited editions,” which left the impression of some future value. Occasionally, you can still find a decanter that hasn’t been opened, full of bourbon and still sealed with a liquor stamp.

Now, some 60-plus years after the earliest examples were issued, their original owners have passed on or are selling off their collections as they downsize to smaller homes or apartments. This has flooded an already-full market, leading to declining prices across the board.

In today’s market, the decanter shown above lists retail with some specialty dealers for around $24, but often sells at auction for $9.95 or less.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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15 Responses to “Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters”

  1. Melanie Loza says:

    I have a decanter that is dated 1960 and is representative of both political parties: a donkey with an elephant trunk. It is quite unusual and I am wondering if it is worth anything?

    • Hi Melanie,

      I have seen your political decanter many times, and have even sold a few of them myself. I’ve seen them go in the $10-$20 range, but that’s about it. Like I mentioned, I continue to see these at many sales I attend, but no longer purchase them for resale since the price is so low.

  2. DDW says:

    How about a decanter of Pope John Paul II? Now that he’s become a saint, would the decanter value be different?

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      With the exception of some rare Scottish malts, which are worth more than the container, I price them all as empty.
      In the case of your Reagan Inaugural decanter, it has its feet in more than one end of the collecting pool, the deep end being “Presidential collectibles”, the wading end being “General Collectibles/Decanters”. In the case of your Reagan Decanter, it gets a boost because it’s a Presidential Commemorative item of some scarcity, and has a dedicated group of collectors of Presidential Inaugural items that would be interested in it.

      I wrote an article about this a while back regarding this issue located here:

      http://www.worthpoint.com/article/appraise-item-feet-multiple-markets

  3. Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

    True enough, Mike. Just this week I received an email on my Kentucky Derby blog here on WorthPoint asking the value of a 1979 commemorative Derby decanter. The cork was broken, but it was still full of whiskey. The value? According to all recent auctions listed on WorthPoint, the range went from $31 to $108, but it was mostly in the $30 range.

    On the other hand, as a dealer I was able to buy a fully sealed commemorative Maker’s Mark bottle issued for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration (it didn’t specify which one) that I was able to resell for near $400. Other political oriented decanters such as ones for the political conventions have sold well at near $100, full or not.

    So does being full or not affects the value? In dealing with both types, I have found that being full was problematic even if the final value is somewhat higher. ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) laws specify where a full decanter can be sold and how. For example, you can’t sell it online and ship it to another state and it can’t be sold out in the open such as an antique shop even if it is labeled as collectible (although that might be different where you are). My Reagan inaugural decanter became a private sale, because of the restrictions.

    If it is full, how do you determine its value? That was the problem I had with the Reagan inaugural commemorative decanter. There were no auction records for a similar one being sold or even anything as helpful as WorthPoint several years ago. If it is an unusual commemorative beyond the mass produced ones, consider visiting the nearest ABC store, find out what the highest value of the special editions of the liquor you have is being sold for and add $50 or so.

    So, in the final analysis just enjoy the whiskey, but keep the cork and the state stamps as intact as possible. You’ll be able to sell the decanter for less, but you’ll jump through less hoops when trying to sell your collection.

    Prosit!

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

  4. norman says:

    In the 70′s I was in a liquor store in south texas, saw an Elvis decanter and didn’t buy it. what would it be worth today?

  5. Brigitte says:

    Well that must be why mine is not selling! lol

  6. Joyce Rau says:

    It seems name brand decanters are selling for more on e-bay; such as Kentucky Bourbon or Jack Daniels memorabelia. I should think these or any for that matter would be worth quite a bit more than ten dollars. I sold an Erte’ Courvoisier decanter, full about ten years ago at an antique mall for one hundred dollars. Guess I was lucky to get rid of it.

  7. I have a Jim Beam King Kong decanter that was issued to celebrate the 1976 Dino DeLarentiis film. It’s ugly as sin, but I love it! For me, the only reason I bought it was because it was King Kong, not that it was a decanter, so I think thee’s a market for some of these bottles (like the Elvis one mentioned above) to collectors. It may not be worth much value-wise, but I love having it on my shelf.

    (If you want to see my ugly King Kong decanter, here’s a link: http://coolandcollected.com/king-kong-kicking-back-with-jim-beam/ )

  8. K-Max says:

    Are there any decanters of this period that do stand out as worth more such as a 1955 double die penny or a constable wobbly tobacco tin? Are there any that are exponentially worth more than the group as whole?

  9. Mike Wilcox says:

    Hi Norman, I see Elvis selling for $35.00 at times, I guess he’s left the building ;~)

  10. Mike Wilcox says:

    K-Max,

    There always exceptions, but none stand out in my mind without doing a great deal of research. These things were made in thousands of shapes and models, each one requires a separate evaluation of the current market to determine a value.

  11. Rev.Snoopy says:

    I have an un-opened sesquintenial W.L.Weller bottle-decanter I was wondering what it’s worth.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      I’d suggest using the “Ask a Worthologist” service for an in depth answer to your question, the Sesquicentennial ones for Texas sell for about $30.00.

  12. Hi..I have a 1971 Kenuicky straight bourbon whiskey decanter fighter.Its by Ezra Brooks.It says 150 months old 4/5 quart, 90 proof.Can u tell me what it is worth?Thank you.You can email back at lindacalleros@comcast.net.

    Thank You,Sincerly,Linda Calleros

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