Holy Smokes! Salt Cellar Auction Prices are Through the Roof !

If you collect American antique bottles and glass, you know you’ll find the best of the best consigned to the Heckler Auction Co. of Woodstock Connecticut. Their most recent auction featured early bottles, glass hunting target balls, and a selection of fine blown glass “salt cellars.” When the auction ended this week, I checked the prices realized and was blown away!  Several examples brought $3000 and more!

This needed some investigation for sure. First of all, I wanted to know what the heck a salt is, cellar really, and why is it called a cellar?  Well first of all, a salt cellar is a piece of early tableware, also sometimes referred to as an open salt, a salt dish, or a salt dip. I’ve always been curious about the most common and correct term “salt cellar,” and I came to find that its etymology is derived from the French word “saliere” which means “salt box.”

I have handled fine crystal china sets which included “open salts” that are tiny little dab dishes that sat on early Victorian table settings, with one at each individual place setting. Small lead crystal individual place setting Victorian open salts are pretty, but plentiful and generally not pricey.

Small lead crystal individual place setting Victorian open salts are pretty, but plentiful and generally not pricey. This set sold for $14.95 in March 2018.

Often, fine crystal sets will include a “footed salt” or a “master salt,” which was the equivalent of a sugar bowl on a modern day table setting, placed at the center of the table for all to use and pass around as needed. These master salts command higher prices, as obviously there was only one needed per table setting, so fewer were made.

This beautiful simple salt cellar was manufactured in the mid 19th century at the Coventry Conn. Glass Works. It measures only 2 1/8″ tall, but brought over $2000.00 at a recent Heckler auction!

The master salts in the Heckler Auction catalogue were a whole different animal. There was something driving these prices up, and I mean way up. It turns out, the key ingredients for success were rarity, provenance, color, and form.  The perfect storm of these factors combined is what made these pieces so desirable.

This early salt cellar cleared $5000.00 at the same auction. This lovely piece is listed as being a “claret red wine” color and was sold with an extensive provenance.

I shudder to think of my earlier days digging old bottle dumps, or walking through flea markets without the knowledge I have today.  I can only imagine picking up one of these footed glass dishes, and seeing it as a simple custard dish and tossing it to the side.

This amazing swirled salt cellar is attributed to Mantua Ohio Glass Works. Its rarity, form, and vivid color helped its auction value soar to over $6000.

Even today, if I were to walk in to an antique show, and saw one of these beautiful early salt cellars for sale, I might “think it was good,” but I wouldn’t have the confidence to dish out $500 for a salt cellar that might be worth $4000.  I just don’t have the breadth of knowledge, even after years of collecting glass; I would need to have reference materials available (my smart phone!) before I could chance such an investment.

This fine mochaware master salt was offered at $695.00

As you can see from the examples at the Heckler auction, these hand blown glass “footed salt cellars” were usually made from one single gather of glass, were fairly heavy, and simple in form. They weren’t as delicate as fine lead crystal, or other pieces of Victorian glass or china tableware.

Part of that “perfect storm” I mentioned above includes rarity and provenance.  In terms of rarity, a collector would need to know what glass house the piece was blown in, and in fact whether salt cellars were even produced at that glass house. Most of the early desirable salt cellars are attributed to 19th Century glass houses in New England, New York state, and the Midwest.

In terms of provenance, this is a little more important with something like a super rare, glass salt cellar, because theoretically, it would be possible to reproduce something with such a simple form. An expert could look closely at the glass, look under a loop at the base and around the rim looking for wear, showing its use and age. But without expert help, you might have a lingering doubt.  If there is documented provenance for the specific piece, going back 50 or 100 years, stating who owned the salt piece, it gives more confidence to the bidder and understandably drives the price higher.

For advanced collectors of salt cellars, early American mochaware is another special field of collecting, where salt cellars are highly valued and sought after because of their rarity.

 

The elusive mochaware “salt pig” represents yet another subset of related collectibles in the endless pursuit of unique treasures of the past.

While researching salt cellars, I came across another oddity of collectibles. A “Salt Pig” would have been used to hold salt in larger quantities in the kitchen.  I’d never heard of the term, and thought it was a hoot !  The more I looked at various salt pigs I found listed, I realized that we have a huge “salt pig” at the end of our driveway here in Maine, and it essentially looks and operates the exact same way.  The only difference is these huge outdoor salt pigs are used to keep driveway sand and salt dry and out of the snow for us to use for traction in the winter!

And while I’d love to find an early New England Salt Cellar the next time I’m out scuba diving for relics here in Maine,  I hope I don’t have to go near the big “salt pig” at the end of our driveway again for many more months to come. It’s been a long winter!!


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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