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Sept. 14 fossil auction ‘revives’ fascinating prehistoric species

A large fossilized Mioplosus labracoides fish, an ammonite Kranaosphinctes with a white shell, and a purplish fossil shark tooth that measures more than five and a half inches will likely earn top lot status at Jasper52’s Fossilized Ammonites, Trilobites and More sale, which will be conducted on Wednesday, September 14 at 11 am Eastern time. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.

In addition to the ammonites and trilobites touted in the sale’s title, its 75 lots include several examples of polished ocean jasper spheres in a pleasing range of colors; a celestite geode; a specimen of florite with deep green crystals, on a matrix; a freeform orange labradorite; a pale purple amethyst crystal cluster with columns that jut out in several directions; a dogtooth calcite; and an iron pyrite cluster that takes the form of several overlapping cubes.

Fossilized fish in a limestone slab, est. $1,500-$2,000

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Hats off to Stetson, an American classic

A Stetson hat that John Wayne gave to Joe Franklin before appearing on the latter’s namesake television show in 1963 earned $9,800 in April 2016. Image courtesy of Saco River Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

A comfortable hat provides more than just warmth and protection, it can make a statement, too. No one knows that better than the legendary American hat company Stetson.

The iconic headgear evolved directly from the Gold Rush of 1848. Young men seeking to strike it rich endured frigid temperatures, snow, rain and constant flooding while trying to find a chunk of the shiny yellow metal that would make all the discomfort worth it. 

A 1942 Edward McKnight Kauffer poster shows the pop-culture ubiquity of the Stetson brand. The phrase ‘Keep it under your Stetson’ was as popular during World War II as the phrase ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ This example of the poster achieved $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Like his fellow miner Levi Strauss, John Batterson Stetson (American, 1830-1906) made his fortune by inventing a product that made miners’ lives easier. He created a water-resistant long-brimmed felt hat that provided some protection from the elements and shade from the sun. Beaver pelts yielded a strong felt that Stetson pressed with other animal felts to form into a hat with a tall crown. He introduced it in 1865 as the “Boss of the Plains.” A story associated with the hatmaker claims a miner on horseback paid $5 – about $90 in modern dollars – for the hat perched on Stetson’s own head. Having passed this unorthodox test of market appeal, Stetson founded the John B. Stetson Hat Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Within a decade the name John B Stetson became synonymous with the word ‘hat’ in every corner and culture west of the Mississippi River,” said Texas Bix Bender, author of Hats & the Cowboys Who Wear Them. 

A lot consisting of various LBJ material, led by a Stetson with a sweatband marked ‘Made by Stetson Especially For Lyndon Baines Johnson’ earned $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of A&S Antique Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Making a felt hat is a challenging process, that hasn’t changed much since the time of John Stetson, who learned the trade from his father. Finding the right animal fur or combination of animal furs for the felt is still labor intensive and costly. The Stetson company website states its felt hats contain beaver, mink, chinchilla and other animal furs. Stetson describes the amount of beaver fur used for each felt hat as the X quality: “The higher the X’s, the higher percentage of beaver fur is mixed in the hat … the exact percentages are a manufacturing secret formula that we choose not to share.”

Stetson made more than cowboy hats. A beaver top hat with its original hat box, bearing inside its brim a stamp saying it was made ‘especially for Ulysses S. Grant,’ sold for $600 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy of Rentzel’s Auction Service Inc and LiveAuctioneers

Converting fur to felt involves hot water, steam and lots of pressing into shape – a Stetson hat typically requires two days to go from raw materials to finished product. The wearer determines its final shape. For example, a center crease for the crown, a pinch on either side and a rolled brim forms the cowboy-hat style called the Carlsbad (so named because its unique creases were first created in Carlsbad, New Mexico). Once the desired shape is chosen, the Stetson is heavily steamed and “blocked,” or formed against a hat-shape wooden block, to fix and confirm it. Individual styling details may include feathers, leather straps and even precious metals or jewelry. Once purely utilitarian, the cowboy hat has transformed into an independent fashion statement.

An early Montana Peak Stetson with a marked satin liner and a wide ribbon hatband sold for $600 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of New Frontier Western Show & Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Stetson’s genius extended beyond millinery to marketing. After he formalized the production process to make hats in quantity, he launched the brand by giving the product away to small retailers and general stores in mining communities. As the new hat proved itself worthy among miners, as Stetson knew it would, demand soared.

An undated Stetson Hat Co/ window card featuring art by Edward Borein achieved $7,250 against an estimate of $250-$300 in September 2017. Image courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

It should be mentioned that Stetson lived in a world where everyone wore hats, all day, every day. Hats were, of course, useful. They kept the sun out of the wearer’s eyes before the invention of sunglasses. They served as briefcases for those who liked to tuck important documents inside them. And, of course, they warmed and protected the head. But they also signaled the wearer’s profession, and, by extension, their rank and status.

Tom Mix, the first star of silent film Westerns, wore an authentic Stetson Boss of the Plains 10-gallon cowboy hat specifically because the high crown and single crease looked great on camera.
His Stetson and his Colt SAA together realized $32,000 plus buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of Burley Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

Universal hat-wearing began a slow decline in the early 20th century, coincidentally at the same time when silent films were on the rise. By the mid-1920s, 50 million people – roughly half the country’s population – went to the movies every week. Tom Mix, the first famous cinematic cowboy, appeared on screen in a 10-gallon hat (which really only held three-quarters of a gallon). Gene Autry and Will Rogers sported cowboy hats early in the era of the talkies, aka movies with sound. John Wayne owned the role of the silver screen cowboy like no one before or since, and he virtually never stepped before the camera without the requisite headgear. The Stetson he wore in the 1948 classic Red River is almost as iconic as the film itself.

Another John Wayne-owned Stetson has a great story behind it – the lot notes that Wayne used it to pay an overdue dinner check, yelling, “Take my xxx-damned hat, it ought to be worth at least that much!” Stetson graded it XXXXX, meaning that it was one of the highest-quality felt hats the company produced. It achieved $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Ever adept in the realm of marketing, Stetson supplied cowboy hats to movie stars, and in turn, featured the hat-wearing actors in its advertisements. The company understood that if you liked the actor, you’d buy the hat. 

A Stetson hat owned by President Harry S Truman, which survived with its original Stetson case bearing an H.S.T monogram, sold for $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

President John F. Kennedy is broadly (and incorrectly) blamed for the demise of hat-wearing, a societal shift that actually began decades earlier. Over time, Stetson, like all other hat makers, was affected by changing tastes. By 1968, the company no longer made its own hats. Instead, it became a licensor, granting other companies the right to manufacture all Stetson hats under strict standards of quality. Hatco of Garland, Texas, is the current licensee for the entire Stetson catalog and employs about 200 people.

A circa-1920s Art Deco neon sign touting Stetson hats realized $3,400 against an estimate of $550-$600 in June 2016. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

It’s not easy to determine when a Stetson hat was made simply by looking at it, although most bear some clues that help to narrow down their vintage.

  • Hats from the 1920s to the late 1930s had a round gold sticker attached to the inside sweatband with the size of the hat printed on it. A ¾-inch round black size tag made of paper, with a gold outline and a number, was in use from the 1940s through the 1960s, while a square black tag with the size listed in gold was employed from the 1970s to the present day.
  • You can check for a union label, which is located in the hat band. The United Hatters Cap and Millinery Workers label was used from 1934 until 1983 when a merger changed the union label to Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. No union labels appeared on Stetsons prior to 1934.
  • Under the hat’s crown inside, you may see a colored printed liner of a cowboy giving his horse water from his cowboy hat. It’s an image known as “The Last Drop” which has been used from the 1970s to the present day. Prior to the advent of this liner, variations of a coat-of-arms design were in use as far back as the 1920s.

To better identify Stetson hats by design, era and type, you may wish to consult Jeffrey B. Snyder’s book Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Hat Company. You can also seek assistance from online groups dedicated to the history and legacy of the Stetson hat.

A Stetson hat, whether vintage or contemporary, is wearable history. Those who donned Stetsons made under the founder’s watch wore them because they needed to, but in the 21st century, you don a Stetson because you want to, and that makes all the difference. 

Presidential autographs: history created with a few strokes of a pen

A large February 1864 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, with an affixed signature, achieved $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers.

Until April 30, 1789, when George Washington said “I … solemnly swear to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States …,” virtually no other country in the world was governed by anything other than some form of a hereditary royal family. To be chosen by fellow citizens for their nation’s highest office by casting ballots was a bold experiment in government that has lasted 233 years through 46 administrations and counting.

A collection of presidential autographs from George Washington to George W. Bush earned $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Amero Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Washington pointedly shrugged off anything that resembled a royal title, opting instead for one suggested by the House of Representatives: The President of the United States. He insisted he be addressed simply as Mr. President. Having fought and defeated a king – George III – he had no desire to become one himself.

A 1960 presidential campaign pamphlet signed by John F. Kennedy realized $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $650-$840 in December 2016. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Modern-day presidents still encourage that familiarity and the sense that they are no better than other Americans; they’re just running the country for a few years before handing over the reins to the next president. Such accessibility inspires us to approach the sitting commander in chief to request an autograph.

A White House card signed by President Jimmy Carter went for $1,411, including buyer’s premium, in December 2020. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Presidential autographs appear in many forms at auction, but they can be classified into six main varieties: on a letter, on a car, on a document, in a book, on a photograph, or as a  on a card; on a cut autograph, which is a signature that has been physically and deliberately removed from one of the other five.

An 100th birthday greeting penned and signed by President Barack Obama on White House letterhead earned $3,185, including buyer’s premium, in June 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

If the autograph is part of a letter, it will either be handwritten or typewritten, a format that first appeared in 1874. If the letter is handwritten, it’s likely the autograph is authentic; if it is typewritten, it may have been signed by a secretary. Typist’s initials lettered in lowercase under the autograph can identify the true signer.

Two White House cards, one signed by President Woodrow Wilson and the other by First Lady Edith Wilson, together realized $300 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2008. Image courtesy of Signature House and LiveAuctioneers

Presidential autographs were in heavy demand from the mid-19th century onward. The White House began issuing them on heavy stock in the size of a business card, with the heading President’s House or Executive Mansion, Washington, until Theodore Roosevelt officially changed it to The White House, Washington in 1901. These card-stock autographs are usually considered authentic and make for handsome framed presentations, especially when displayed below a relevant photograph.

An autograph deliberately removed from a letter, document or book is called a cut signature. An example of the form is this President John F. Kennedy autograph, apparently removed from an official presidential appointment. It earned $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

Autographs cut from letters or documents routinely show up at auction, usually framed with a photograph of the president who rendered the signature. Cut autographs are more readily available, but their surrounding context is, of course, removed. Any cut autograph should be compared to similar authentic autographs to determine whether it is real or staff-signed.

One of the standard duties of early American presidents was signing land grants and appointments. Appointments for cabinet-level officials are still signed by the sitting president, but staffers handle the rest. Land grant signatures were delegated beginning with Andrew Jackson’s Administration in 1833. Officials who signed the documents took it upon themselves to try to replicate the president’s signature and didn’t always succeed.

A presidential appointment to the Treasurer of the United States, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, sold for $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Rafael Osona Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Writing books is a well-established sideline for presidents. Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were published authors before they took the presidential oath of office, but most presidents tackle the task after their administration ends, penning memoirs that shed light on their time as chief executive. While books autographed by a president are usually authentic, signed books don’t command the same auction prices as other signed presidential items because they are harder to frame or otherwise display.

This set of three White House photos of Presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, the first two personally inscribed and the Bush photo displaying an autopen signature, realized $225 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2014. Image courtesy of Fairfield Auction, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Photographs of presidents taken during the 19th century that bear the sitter’s signature tend to be authentic, but this is not always the case for those that post-date the mid-20th century. By that time, the White House was receiving so many requests for official photos that it was forced to replace the authentic autograph with a staff-signed, stamped or autopen signature. Any photo inscribed with a sentiment in fancy calligraphy is, sorry to say, more likely to be rendered by a machine. Perhaps surprisingly, automatic signature tools date back to the time of Thomas Jefferson.

A photograph of Theodore Roosevelt, which he signed while he was president, made $3,033, including the buyer’s premium, in March 2022. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Jefferson, our third president, routinely copied his correspondence with a device invented by Englishman John Isaac Hawkins, who dubbed it the “polygraph.” As Jefferson wrote, a second pen attached by a wooden handle to the first copied the letter, creating a duplicate for his files. The polygraph was the ancestor of the autopen, which arrived on the market in 1937. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower first used an autopen as commander of Allied Forces in World War II and continued to rely on one after he took office as the 34th president (President Harry Truman might have been the first adopter, but the evidence is not conclusive). An autopen autograph is easy to recognize as it has no peaks and valleys; the autograph remains flat because the machine doesn’t lift the pen off the page at all, as a human hand would it is one continuous dark signature, with no fades between letters. The autopen is used for letters, cards and photos to fulfill public requests and autopenned presidential signatures have little value at auction.

William Henry Harrison served only 31 days before dying in office, making his presidential signature exceptionally scarce. An example of his signature sold for $27,500, including buyer’s premium, in October 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Building a complete collection of authentic presidential autographs, from George Washington to Joe Biden, takes time and effort, but can be accomplished for far less than $100,000 if you are careful and conscientious. The most valuable presidential autograph, as well as the hardest to find, is that of President William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who served for one month before dying of pneumonia in 1841. Harrison’s presidential signature is so rare that collectors will usually settle for examples from his personal or military correspondence instead.

A card signed by President Ronald Reagan bearing the White House seal sold for $859, including buyer’s premium, in February 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Outside of Harrison, presidential signatures that perform best at auction are those of George Washington and other Founding Fathers who went on to become presidents, as well as Abraham Lincoln. Of those presidents from the mid-20th century onward, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama command better-than-average auction values.

A 1997 letter Bill Clinton wrote and signed to Frank Sinatra on White House letterhead realized $20,625, including buyer’s premium, in November 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

While it is always wise to have a presidential signature evaluated by an expert before committing to buy, it is extra important to scrutinize those purporting to be from Kennedy. He personally signed little more than official correspondence throughout his political career, even as president. Most of Kennedy’s presidential letters, photos, cards and similar ephemera were signed by staffers or an autopen. 

Unlike kings and queens, American presidents have always been regarded as one of us, answerable to “We the People.” Owning a piece of paper personally touched and lettered by them seems natural and right, as their autographs reinforce the notion that our presidents are both avatars of democracy and human beings who grappled with the most difficult job on the planet. With just a few strokes of a pen, a U.S. president can create a link to a particular moment in history for future generations to reflect upon.

Meteorites: collectibles from out of the blue

A lunar meteorite dubbed The Moon Puzzle because it consists of six pieces that fit to create a whole weighing slightly more than 12 pounds achieved $500,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Comets, eclipses and other cosmic phenomena visible to the naked eye are awe-inspiring, but meteorites are in a class of their own. The name of these extraterrestrial rocks reflects their down-to-earth nature, in that only those that reach the surface of the Earth are called meteorites; those that burn up in the atmosphere remain meteors.

A Gibeon nickel-iron meteorite, part of a fall that took place in Namibia that was discovered in 1836, sold for $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2020. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The fascination with meteorites predates written history. Up until recently, it was difficult to confirm a rock was in fact a meteorite, simply because most have unremarkable appearances that give no hint of their out-of-this-world origins. Improvements in technology have made confirmation easier, and commercial travel has made it easier for meteorite-hunters to reach far-flung locations where meteorite falls have occurred. 

A slice of an Imilac pallasite from northern Chile, featuring gemmy olivine crystals in a silver matrix, made $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2012. Image courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Some meteorites discovered during private expeditions enter museums and research collections, but many more are acquired by collectors. Due to their extreme rarity, however, most meteorites available on the open market are fragments or slices of larger masses.

This partial slice of breccia from the largest lunar meteorite, found in Morocco, earned $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Stony meteorites, age-old igneous-like silicate rock aggregations, are the most common form of meteorite. They originate from non-melted and melted asteroids in the Asteroid Belt, an area between Jupiter and Mars that experts believe to be the remains of an ancient solar system. A number of younger stony meteorites come not from asteroids, but rather from the moon. Lunar meteorites are among the most coveted and sought after. Even vanishingly tiny, unexciting-looking examples can command strong prices. Most lunar meteorites were created when asteroids pummeled the lunar surface. Others are breccias, stones made of rock fragments, glass shards or glass spherules that fused on impact. 

A Martian meteorite recovered from the Sahara Desert near Morocco realized $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The only meteorites that categorically rival lunar specimens for popularity and high bids at auction are also a type of stony meteorite from a nearby planet: Mars. Martian meteorites have unusually young crystalline structures (dating from 180 million to two billion years ago) and can contain water-bearing minerals and organic compounds that some believe might have helped give rise to life on earth. The prospect of owning a piece of another planet, however small the piece might be, inspires collectors to strain their budgets and battle ferociously to win such specimens at auction. 

The surface of this Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite was shaped by the atmosphere as it fell to Earth. Offered with Soviet limited-edition commemorative stamps, it realized $18,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Also of note are iron-nickel meteorites, which originate in the cores of melted asteroids. They are have caused earth-shattering impacts and are scarcer than stony meteorites. On the morning of February 12, 1947, a massive meteoritic fireball brighter than the sun and the largest ever known rocketed over the Sikhote Alin mountains of eastern Siberia. It was traveling at a speed of 10 to 20 miles a second and had a temperature in excess of 10,000 degrees when it hit the Earth’s surface and exploded into more than 60 tons of metallic meteorites. In addition to producing sonic booms, uprooting trees, and shattering windows over a large area, the fragments and rocks created nearly 200 separate impact craters. Because the fall was spectacular and also relatively well documented, all serious meteorite collectors seek a fine example of a Sikhote Alin.

Recovered near Seymchan in Russia in 1967, this pallasite was fashioned into a sphere to spotlight its abundant olivine crystals. It sold for $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A third type, stony-iron meteorites, contain equal amounts of silicate rocks and nickel-iron metal. They form within or upon melted asteroids. A subgroup that demands mention are pallasites cohesive masses studded with pale green peridot-like olivine silicate crystals in metal matrices. These beauties, unsurprisingly favored by collectors, have been found from Alaska to Antarctica. (It should be noted that the pallasites shown here didn’t arrive on Earth looking this pretty. Just as rough stones are pulled from mines and cut and polished into diamonds, rough meteorites with heat-scorched exteriors are cut and polished into pallasites.)

A ribbed, scalloped piece of Libyan desert glass, found in the Sahara and weighing more than four pounds, sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2010. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Still another form of meteorite came to light in 1922, when archaeologist Howard Carter unsealed the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun and discovered a mysterious glassy greenish-yellow carved gemstone on King Tut’s breastplate. A decade later, similar pieces were found across the Libyan Desert, and they are now colloquially known as Libyan desert glass. Although the origin of the stones remains uncertain, geologists think they appeared millions of years ago when a massive, blazing-hot meteorite struck, liquifying the sands and hurling debris into the upper atmosphere. The afflicted pieces returned to earth as hardened, yellowish droplets of natural glass meteorite byproducts known as tektites. Moldavite tektites, which are found across modern-day Germany and the Czech Republic, appear translucent or mossy green. Others found in southeast Asia, Australia and North America range in color from yellow-gray or gray to brown and black. 

This faceted Moldavite crystal, a tektite discovered in the Czech Republic, was auctioned for $1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

 

Whatever their source, meteorites take their names not from the people who found them but rather from a prominent feature of the area where they landed bodies of water, towns, cities, whatever makes sense. Specimens from the same place receive identifying numbers or letters. Meteorites discovered in deserts, which feature few distinguishing geographical features, are given a name that reflects the general area, followed by a designated grid number. A mineralogically and texturally unique feldspathic breccia stony meteorite found in Morocco, North West Africa, is known as NWA 5000, while an exotic, coarse-grained, ultramafic igneous one found in the Sahara Desert near Morocco carries the label NWA 1950-SNC. 

This Muonionalusta meteorite specimen, cut into a cube to show off its striking latticework, achieved $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

When Chicken Little, a character in an ageless folk tale, was struck by a tumbling acorn, she feared that the sky was falling. Had she been struck by a meteorite and carefully documented her story, she could have auctioned it for tens of thousands of dollars, easily. Humans have always thrilled to tales of rocks raining from the heavens and setting the skies ablaze. We now know so much more about the hows and the whys of meteorites, but they are no less bewitching. They unite science and romance, and they encourage us to keep scanning the skies and dreaming about worlds beyond our own.

Stock and bond certificates: the value is in the story

A 1940 war bond issued festooned with Disney’s most recognizable characters to date sold for $200 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2005. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Your net worth can comprise more than money. It can be artistic, historic, and emotional, and it can showcase famous signatures. Scripophily – the collecting of vintage stock and bond certificates for their own sake – covers all those bases. These documents no longer pay out on their face values, but they deliver other riches, some tangible, some not.

Stocks

The earliest known paper stock was issued by the East India Company in 1606, but stocks have existed in one form or another since Roman times. A stock certificate states you have invested in an enterprise and you expect a share of the profits, knowing they might never materialize. Local inns often served as loosely regulated stock exchanges.

A United States stock certificate from March 1792, issued during the week of the stock market crash that caused the country’s first financial crisis, achieved $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Things changed in 1792 when a group of New Yorkers who traded stocks under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street signed the Buttonwood Agreement, a document for governing the transactions. It laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become the New York Stock Exchange, realizing Alexander Hamilton’s idea for a regulated national stock exchange. Today, nearly 1.5 billion stocks representing about 2,800 companies are traded every day via Hamilton’s creation.

Electronic trading has rendered printed stock certificates obsolete. In 2013, the Disney company, which knows a thing or two about shifting from analog to digital, became the last major entity to issue paper stock certificates.

A Pullman’s Palace Car Company stock certificate signed by company founder George Pullman and investor Andrew Carnegie achieved $12,000 in February 2020. Image courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

America is an entrepreneurial nation, and stock certificates illustrate the story of its growth and expansion. Collectors can assemble portfolios of vintage certificates from companies that mined gold, silver or minerals; those that built railroads, automobiles and airlines; utilities, including providers of oil and gas; and companies for wireless or telephone services, to name a few. 

A North American Phonograph Company stock certificate signed by Thomas Edison sold for $8,000 in January 2020. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Before the rise of logos and branding, the stock certificate fulfilled many of the needs that corporate graphics address, giving investors the sense that the issuer was a serious, upstanding, well-run concern that would not abscond with their money. And, before the age of the automatic pen, titans of industry signed these documents themselves. Proof of having been touched by a famous, historic hand imbues these documents – which are really just fancy-looking I.O.U.s – with value strong enough to outlast the projects for which they were issued. 

A Standard Oil stock certificate signed three times by John D. Rockefeller and cosigned by Henry M. Flagler sold for $8,000 in February 2020. Image courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

“If you have a stock certificate signed by Rockefeller or Morgan, it’s worth money … It doesn’t matter how good looking it is or isn’t. That’s the first component for value. The second is the aesthetics, combined with the condition. If it’s in bad condition, it doesn’t really matter how good looking it is. If you can’t display it, it’s just not as interesting,’ Gary Rose of certificatecollector.com said in a 2008 interview with Collectors Weekly.

A stock certificate for Bugsy Siegel’s Las Vegas casino achieved $37,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2012. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Other factors affecting the desirability of a stock certificate include the type and color of the paper on which it is issued; whether it is printed or written; its date of issue; the images on the certificate, with special attention given to the vignette (aka the largest central image); the company that issued it; the type of stock it represents; who owned it; its rarity; and, of course, its historical significance. All these seemingly small details can add up to serious sums at auction.

Bonds

Bonds are typically issued by an authority such as a national government, an agency, a state or a municipality to raise funds for schools, roads, utilities and other improvements to infrastructure. But initially, bonds provided governmental bodies a tool for underwriting wars and conflicts.

A Revolutionary War-era bond issued by the state of Maryland sold for $2,200 in December 2011. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The City of Amsterdam issued the first municipal bond in 1517 to help finance its debts. England paid for its continuous wars against France with bonds beginning with William III in 1694, and other European monarchs followed his lead. The American colonies issued bonds and loan certificates to fund its revolution against George III. America’s efforts in World War II likely would have suffered without sales of savings bonds.

The holder of a bond lends money to the issuing authority for a specific amount of time, expecting only interest on the loan until the bond matures, and nothing more. Unlike those who own stocks, bondholders do not gain any form of ownership in the authority offering the bonds.

Early bond certificates came with a feature that most stock certificates lack: coupons. To receive the allotted interest payment, the bondholder tore off a coupon and redeemed it with the issuing authority. The presence or absence of coupons affects how well a bond certificate performs at auction. Collectors also care whether the coupons are still attached to the bond and how many there are, in addition to wanting to know if the bond is signed, and by who, and wanting to know the overall condition of the document. 

A bond issued by the Republic of Texas in 1840 – five years before it became a state – with all its coupons intact sold for $325 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

As with stock certificates, collectors of bonds enjoy a range of targets, from zero coupon bonds (which are redeemed whole at maturity); long term; short term; municipal; utility; money market; savings; perpetual; and even war bonds that are still being paid out.

This Spanish trading stock issued to Elizabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain by marriage to King Philip V, sold for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The practice of collecting stocks and bonds for their historic and cultural significance is relatively new, dating back to 1970 or so. Coins and stamps, two other collectibles issued with face values, have more than a century’s head start. Nonetheless, the pursuit of vintage and antique stock and bond certificates boasts a large and devoted following. Nascent collectors can look to associations such as the American Stock and Bond Collectors Association, which maintains an open group on Facebook. Also, the International Bond and Share Society (scripophilyusa.org) provides members with helpful resources and guides.

Possibly the most notorious stock certificate ever printed was issued by Playboy Enterprises. A lot containing eight such certificates, including two specimens, sold for $425 in December 2020. Image courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections and LiveAuctioneers

“Stocks [and bonds] are … interesting historically. Just about every stock in my collection, I’ve researched the company. A single stock can actually keep me busy for days. You try and research the company and see when it existed. Did they make anything important, was there anything special about them? They’re almost artifacts of history … ,’ said Rose.

A Houdini Picture Corporation stock certificate, signed by Houdini, realized $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2012. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Stock and bond certificates for companies long since shuttered and projects finished ages ago still have value – it’s just different from the numbers printed upon them. The best examples tell a rousing tale with colors, graphics and design. ‘If you have a great-looking stock certificate,’ Rose continued, ‘even if it’s inexpensive, you can frame it, put it on a wall and it makes a very good work of art.’ Try doing that with a stamp or a coin. 

CELLULOID: WHEN PLASTIC WAS FANTASTIC

A large Egyptian and Art Deco style brooch featuring red and black celluloid achieved $250 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Ripley Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The origins of celluloid, the first synthetic plastic, date to the 1850s. English chemist Alexander Parkes combined nitrocellulose (wood cellulose, aka guncotton) with the organic solvent camphor and named the results “Parkesine.” John Wesley Hyatt patented a similar substance in America in 1869, giving the useful stuff the name by which it is best known: celluloid. Hyatt viewed it as a substitute for ivory, using it to make piano keys, billiard balls and false teeth.

A circa-1920s set of celluloid billiard balls, with rack and carrying case, achieved $650 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2015. Image courtesy of Louis J. Dianni, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid soon became the generic term for all nitrocellulose-based plastics. In addition to faux-ivory, this seemingly magical material could simulate mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, amber or coral, depending on which chemicals were added to it. Moreover, celluloid could be painted, molded, carved, cast or processed into sheets, blocks and rods. Its low production cost suited it to mass-produced items such as cutlery handles, straight razors, slide rules, trade signs and table tennis balls. 

Celluloid was also used to create a mind-boggling number of decorative items. Both opaque and transparent celluloid buttons brightened many a trendy outfit. So too did celluloid hatpins, belt buckles, fur clips and dress clips, embellishing opposite sides of women’s necklines. 

But this early plastic had a startling drawback, which manifested most infamously with billiard balls. If something made from celluloid struck another piece of celluloid with enough force, it could explode. Hyatt himself noted this flash-bang effect could cause serious trouble in pool halls, writing in 1914, “We had a letter from a billiard saloon proprietor in Colorado, mentioning this fact and saying he did not care so much about it, but that instantly every man in the room pulled his gun.”

Because the recipe for celluloid relied on nitrocellulose, a combustible material, the factories that made celluloid products were prone to catching fire. After a series of such blazes, The New York Times set its focus on the potential threat to consumers, stating in an 1895 article: “No man can play billiards with any real satisfaction if he knows that the billiards-ball may at any moment explode … burying the players under table and cues. Still worse would be the fate of a possessor of celluloid teeth, who should, in a moment of forgetfulness, insert the lighted end of a cigar into his mouth. The scene that would follow would make men and angels weep…”

A Victorian celluloid vanity box sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Frasher’s Doll Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Sudden detonation was not a concern for those who bought jewelry and accessories made from celluloid, simply because those items weren’t intended to be slammed against each other, and no lady would treat her belongings so roughly. Antique pink, lime green, ivorine and mother of pearl celluloid vanity items were often displayed on Victorian ladies’ dressing tables. The plastic appeared in basics such as hand mirrors, scent bottles, balm jars, powder pots, combs, brushes and trinket boxes, as well as matching clocks, picture frames, shoe horns and clothing brushes. Women would also tuck their vanity items into satin-lined celluloid dresser top boxes decorated with ornate florals, cherubs or Victorian beauties. 

Folding fans, some barely the size of a woman’s palm, incorporated overlapping, bladelike celluloid sticks painted with lush florals or pierced with lacy patterns. Larger, more opulent creations by Duvelleroy of Paris, the fan-maker to royalty, featured celluloid sticks crowned with masses of ostrich feathers or black organza. Still others featured dainty celluloid frames spanned by slim, gold-painted wooden ribs against fine, sequined mesh grounds. 

Decorative celluloid hair combs were popular through the early 20th century. Many were graced with elaborate pierced designs, while others had rhinestone-edged florals, lotus flowers or butterflies. Chic celluloid-tipped hatpins and stickpins also gained favor.

A group of four celluloid hair combs achieved $500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2011. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid earrings ranged from demure clip-ons molded in the shapes of bows and flowers to dramatic multicolor danglers. Rings took the forms of classic, carved florals and geometric patterns as well as inmate-made prison rings. These humble pieces, which were created by carving or heat-bonding slivers scraped from celluloid pens, toothbrush handles or hand mirrors, often featured small photos mounted on their bezels. 

A trio of celluloid sparkler bangle bracelets achieved $225 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Ripley Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Vintage necklaces typically bore delicate celluloid beads in muted amber, white or ivory shades, while chokers bore showy coral, green or blue blossoms. Inexpensive charm bracelets jingled with ivorine mini-menageries. Lightweight celluloid bangles were no less fashionable; women routinely wore armfuls of slim, simple multiples. Others chose molded florals, swirling patterns or sparklers featuring row upon row of rhinestones. 

A photographic celluloid brooch with an image of Carrie Nation holding her hatchet realized $450 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2017. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Brooches fashioned from celluloid were produced in huge quantities. They often featured molded, carved florals or bouquets, while others resembled fine, costly cameos or featured photographic portraits. Though jewelry designer Lea Stein released scores of brooches, only her earliest examples were made of true celluloid. (Her later ones, as with most pieces of jewelry, used cellulose acetate, an entirely different plastic.)

A group of 12 Lea Stein celluloid bracelets achieved $500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Augusta Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid production ceased in the West after the arrival of better and cheaper plastics, but Japan, which holds the world monopoly on camphor, continued to make celluloid brooches, bracelets, bangles and beads. Intricate, delicately tinted, hand-painted floral designs bearing the label “Occupied Japan,” which denotes the era of American occupation after World War II, delight art and history buffs alike.

Collectors Still Burn For Zippo Lighters

A 14K gold Zippo lighter by Tiffany & Co. sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Click. Thunk. Simply seeing the word “Zippo” is enough to call to mind the sound a Zippo lighter makes when you open and close its sturdy hinged lid it’s that recognizable. 

The lighter rose to prominence by proving it could perform in tough conditions. A gust of wind wasn’t enough to snuff its flame, ensuring that smokers in foxholes, tents, ship decks, battlefields and other stressful settings could keep their cigarettes lit. The company touted its wares as “wind proof” and boldly promised, “It works or we fix it free.” The lighter’s reliability made it a favorite amongst smokers – predominantly men – in the 20th century. For some of them, a Zippo was the closest thing they had to jewelry, especially if they worked at factories or on shop floors where employees were barred from wearing wedding rings and wristwatches, for safety reasons. 

An 18K gold Zippo lighter by Buccellati achieved $2,750 in March 2018. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

According to official Zippo company lore, the Zippo came into being after George C. Blaisdell noticed a friend struggling to light up. The scene took place in the early 1930s at the Bradford Country Club in Blaisdell’s hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania. The friend, whose name is lost to history, was grappling with an Austrian gas lighter made from old cartridge shells. The Zippo history page states Blaisdell observed that it “… worked well, even in the wind, due to the unique chimney, but the appearance and design were utilitarian and inefficient. The lighter required the use of two hands to operate, and its thin metal surface was easily dented.”

Inspired, Blaisdell decided to redesign his friend’s lighter, giving it a sleek, rectangular polished chrome case with a hinged cover that could be flipped open with one hand. He kept the chimney design that made it “wind proof” and dubbed his creation “Zippo,” a derivation of “zipper,” a word he liked because he thought it sounded good when spoken. Blaisdell received a patent for his lighter in 1936, three years after he started selling it for $1.95 a sum that would equate to roughly $40 today.

A circa-1934 Zippo tall case lighter with a telltale soldered exposed hinge sold for $875 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Blaisdell changed the Zippo design over the next few years, reducing the case by a quarter-inch, adding diagonal lines to give the case an Art Deco look, and soldering the hinge so that the top cover connected to the inside of the case instead of its outside, where it was more vulnerable to damage. Collectors prize these early examples, which are known as “tall case” Zippos, as well as those with cases that sport the outside hinge.

Another transformative event shaped the Zippo in its fledgling years. In the mid-1930s, the Bradford-based Kendall Refining Company ordered 500 lighters emblazoned with its own corporate brand. Kendall was the first entity to commission Zippos with special livery, and many, many other companies would follow.

A USS Cole Zippo lighter with a brass finish, offered with a WWI-era Bowers trench lighter, sold for $50 in September 2013. Image courtesy of Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During World War II, Zippo suspended civilian sales and produced lighters strictly for the military. The company lacked an official government contract, but regardless, Zippo lighters became the go-to flame-generator for soldiers, sailors and Marines who received mini-packs of cigarettes along with their K-rations. They carried their Zippos from battle to battle and kept them after the war ended. 

Most Zippos that were in use during WWII had black, crackle-finish steel cases. Soldiers believed this detail muffled the noise produced by striking, which in turn helped them keep a low profile during military maneuvers. But the company insists that the case style was chosen for mundane business reasons. Like the scrimshanders of centuries ago, bored trench-bound troops transformed the black cases into canvases, scratching all manner of designs, initials and battle dates into them with any sharp object at hand. Not surprisingly, collectors place a high value on such personalized Zippos.

WWII delivered priceless and lasting benefits to the Zippo company. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young men carried its lighters during the most daunting experience of their lives, and depended on them to deliver the nicotine that calmed their nerves in literal life-or-death situations. It’s a sad commentary, but about half of all Americans were routine tobacco smokers in 1945. 

A circa-1960s Zippo Corinthian tabletop lighter rose to $175 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2015. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the 1950s, Zippo offered its custom-designed lighters in a range of formats, including a series of stand-alone tabletop versions with upscale names such as the Barcroft, Lady Bradford, Moderne, Corinthian, Handilite and the Lady Barbara. A handsome teal green circa-1960s Zippo Corinthian table top lighter sold for $175 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2015 at Clars Auction Gallery. 

Another innovation arrived in 1956 when Zippo unveiled the Slim design, which was smaller, thinner and sleekly polished, with rounded corners that fit easily into pockets and rolled up t-shirts. 

A circa-1950s Zippo lighter commissioned by Buffalo Bob Smith and given to a ‘Howdy Doody’ crew member sold for $454 in February 2021. Image courtesy of Hake’s and LiveAuctioneers

Custom-made Zippos, commissioned as gifts to celebrate anniversaries, retirements and similar milestones, or to create a bond amongst team members, alumni or coworkers, took off. A standout example is a circa-1950s brush-finish Zippo lighter given by “Buffalo” Bob Smith to members of the crew who filmed the Howdy Doody TV show. One that featured a camera and the name “Larry” sold for $454 at Hake’s in February 2021. The very idea that a Zippo cigarette lighter would be in any way associated with the country’s most popular children’s show seems unimaginable today, but that’s how widespread smoking was in the postwar years. 

A circa-1950s Zippo lighter owned by John F. Kennedy, depicting the ‘U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.,’ which was named for the president’s older brother, realized $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2018. Image courtesy of Potter & Potter and LiveAuctioneers

Even the highest of high-profile individuals are known to have carried Zippo lighters. One of the most notable was President John F. Kennedy, who took his tobacco strictly in the form of a cigar. A personally owned Kennedy Zippo, decorated with the image of the destroyer named for his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., sold in July 2018 for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Potter & Potter Auctions. JFK also commissioned Zippos, as evidenced by a chrome example commemorating his June 1963 trip to Europe. Kennedy gave the lighter, which is emblazoned with the Presidential Seal, to his longtime friend and aide Dave Powers. It was offered with its original box at a February 2013 sale at John McInnis Auctioneers, where it made $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium.

A chrome Zippo lighter that President Kennedy commissioned for a June 1963 European trip and gave to longtime aide Dave Powers achieved $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2013. Image courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Another Zippo commission came from John Wayne, who had lighters made as gifts for crew members on the 1968 film The Green Berets. Each lighter featured the movie’s name and a likeness of the military hat on the front, and a whimsical inscription on the back that read, in part, STOLEN FROM JOHN WAYNE. An example from the estate of one of Wayne’s friends, Chuck Iverson, sold in July 2012 for $900 plus the buyer’s premium at Profiles in History.

The cultural reach of the Zippo inevitably caught the attention of top luxury goods retailers. Tiffany & Co., created a 14K gold rendition with a vertically ribbed design, subsequently offered at Fortuna Auction in November 2017, where it realized $950 plus the buyer’s premium. An 18K gold Zippo by Buccellati, graced with brushed crosshatched engraving, achieved $2,750 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Alex Cooper.

A circa-1968 Zippo lighter commissioned by John Wayne for the crew of ‘The Green Berets,’ with the name of the film on the front and the words ‘STOLEN FROM JOHN WAYNE’ on the back, sold for $900 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2012. Image courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

Spotting a genuine Zippo is relatively straightforward. Just turn it upside down. Those made between 1933 and 1955 feature an unadorned block letter logo stamped on the bottom of the case. A fancy-script logo design prevailed from 1955 until the late 1970s, when it was changed to the version seen today.

Every Zippo lighter made since 1955 also has a date code that specifies when it was made (those produced before 1955 are identified by their stamped logo design). The Zippo company is still going strong, and a page on its official website, www.zippo.com, helps collectors decipher the codes shown on their products, both vintage and new. Also standing ready to assist are Zippo collector clubs, many of which are active on social media. The Zippo/Case Museum, a 15,000-square-foot facility in Bradford, Pennsylvania, that also houses a repair clinic and a store, is normally open seven days a week.

As much more has become known about the connection between smoking and serious illnesses, the number of active smokers has dwindled dramatically. Now, only around 16% of the American population are smokers. But the habit of acquiring vintage Zippo lighters has continued, joining the many other collectibles categories that are associated with taboos of a less-enlightened era.

Whiskey: Building a spirited collection

Two bottles of whiskey from the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Kentucky, dating to circa 1912, sold for $23,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For centuries, bourbon, rye, corn, wheat and other grains have provided the basis of aqua vitae (Latin for “water of life”). Once distilled, the liquid becomes ethanol with a high alcoholic content – or, as its connoisseurs know it, whiskey.

European monks in Scotland and Ireland perfected the distillation process around the 15th century, with the aim of creating medicine. Their yield was bitter and hardly diluted – almost pure. The precise addition of water, along with stringent governmental regulations, transformed whiskey into the smoother, more enjoyable spirit countless tipplers enjoy and bid on at auction.

Whiskey or Whisky?

Both spellings are valid and provide clues about the origins of a beverage. Whiskey with an “e” appears on bottles produced in the United States and Ireland; whisky without the “e” prevails at distilleries everywhere else in the world. Regardless of how it is spelled, the term is an anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce, meaning “water,” a reference to one of the drink’s key ingredients. (We’ll use “whiskey” in this article.)

A pair of 12-year-old single malt whiskeys by Suntory, a leading Japanese distillery, sold for $900 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Tenmoku Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Whiskey requires three ingredients: yeast, grain and water. How much of each the distiller includes determines the type of whiskey that will result from the combination.

Whiskey Basics

The range of possible iterations from those three simple ingredients translates to a broad and tantalizing array of choices for whiskey collectors.

If a whiskey is defined as a single malt, it has one of two additional classifications: “single” means the contents came from one distillery, not from one grain; while “malt” refers to barley that has been fermented to produce the yeast used to create the beverage. A blended whiskey combines the products of two or more distilleries. Grain whiskey involves a mixture of corn, barley, wheat or rye, sometimes in specific amounts for each. Single cask or single barrel whiskeys are spirits sourced not only from one distillery, but also from a specific cask or barrel at that distillery.

A full vintage Kinsey blended whiskey from the 1970s with an intact label and tax stamp realized $70 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Image courtesy of Emanon Auctions and Estate Sales and LiveAuctioneers

Bourbon, rye whiskey, moonshine and Tennessee whiskey are distilled only in the United States. Scotch whiskey exclusively refers to whiskey made in Scotland. Those from Ireland, Canada, Japan and elsewhere are distilled under their country’s specific rules. 

Whiskeys are aged in wooden casks that are sometimes charred (for a distinctive flavor) and sometimes not. Once the spirit is bottled, aging stops. This quality has helped grow whiskey’s popularity with collectors. Wine can spoil as bottles slumber in a cellar, but whiskey will not. 

The Ways and Whys of Whiskey-Making

After the final distillation, all whiskey is clear and tasteless. Its color and flavor comes from the wooden barrels in which it is aged, such as oak (the most common choice), maple, hickory or ash. Color, complexity, and taste arise from the maturing spirit’s interactions with the wood of the barrel, which is why whiskey-makers seek barrels that are charred or have already gained seasoning from previous sessions of aging wine, madeira, port or other spirits.

The type of water from which a whiskey is distilled also affects its flavor. Natural sources of water have different minerals in different concentrations. Skilled distillers take advantage of this to craft standout whiskeys.

In the world of whiskey, place names matter, too. Bourbon is made solely in the United States under strict guidelines. To qualify as bourbon, the spirit must be distilled with no less than 51% corn; casked in new, charred oak barrels for no fewer than two years, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (which means the final product is 40 percent alcohol). 

A group of three bottles of Scotch whiskey, two by Buchanan’s and one by Ballantine’s, sold for $46 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Ireland and Scotland both take pride in their national histories as whiskey-producers, and their spirits feature notable differences. Scotch whiskey tends to employ malted barley, while Irish whiskey recipes favor barley seeds, which gives the Irish spirit a distinct taste.

With all these preferences, characteristics and stipulations in play, collectors can assume no two whiskeys are distilled exactly alike, even if they come from the same country or region.

What Do Whiskey Collectors Look For?

During the U.S. period of Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, alcoholic beverages were banned except for whiskey. Distillers did not change how they worked, but they were forced to treat their goods as medicine. Americans who wanted whiskey had to obtain a prescription from a doctor and purchase it at a pharmacy. 

Prohibition-era spirits, especially whiskey, are highly sought after by collectors. In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned a 1926 McCallan Valerio Adami for $1.9 million, which was a world record for whiskey at auction. A pre-Prohibition lot of 25 pints of Hermitage 9-year-old whiskey, found behind a wall in 2018, sold for $24,500, or about $1,000 a bottle. 

But collecting whiskey doesn’t require deep pockets. A 2019 vox.com article titled “The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained,” quotes Andy Simpson, co-founder of RareWhiskey101, as saying collections often start from one simple premise. According to Simpson, some common collecting themes are pursuing a bottle from every possible distillery, obtaining every bottle from a single, beloved distillery; or collecting birth-year vintages. Says Simpson, “ … the list is almost endless.”

A circa-1880s bottle of Cassidy & Co Monasterevan whiskey, one of two known, sold for €23,000 ($26,970) in July 2019. Image courtesy of Victor Mee Auctions and Liveauctioneers

Prices for elite whiskeys have risen high enough to draw the attention of forgers. To avoid expensive disappointments, collectors should consult experts and stay in touch with online communities of fellow collectors. Those sources will teach initiates key details, such as what period-correct labels and bottles look like, and, more importantly, how to know where a particular whiskey has been, and for how long.

Above all else, one should never lose sight of the fact that whiskey-collecting is about pleasure, not hoarding. Some experts advise savor your hard-won prizes neat or on ice, with friends, or with one special person; or in quiet contemplation, perhaps beside a fire. After all, as Rudyard Kipling said, “Whiskey is not a drink; whiskey is a philosophy of life.” Just be sure that, no matter how you choose to enjoy the fruits of your collection, you do so responsibly. Cheers!

Rally ‘Round These American Flags

A 30-star American Flag with a charming scattered-star pattern sold for $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium at Cowan’s in June 2019. 
Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many national flags are older than the flag of the United States, but no national flag has changed as often. From 1777, with the adoption of the 13-star design, to 1960, when it assumed the current 50-star pattern, the American Flag has officially changed no fewer than 27 times during the past 245 years.

The American Flag’s appearance is familiar, but unfixed. A new star is added to its canton the word for the blue field in the upper left for any new state on the following July 4th after its admittance to the Union. With Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico pursuing statehood, the look of the American flag could change at some point.

A flag that exists in more than two dozen iterations, interpreted by countless creators during more than two centuries, provides rich pickings for collectors. Naturally, some American Flags are more sought-after than others. Below are some of the most coveted styles and forms.

An early 19th century 13-star US flag made as a small boat flag for the US Navy sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The 13-Star Flag

Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That was the entire Congressional Resolution of June 14, 1777 that officially adopted the national flag of the new United States of America. There was no meaning attached to the colors, the shape of the stars, or whether the stripes were horizontal or vertical. The flag was only intended to identify the new country aboard Navy vessels when entering foreign ports.

Additional resolutions were adopted later specifying that new states beyond the first 13 would be recognized on the flag with their own stars. This ensured the American flag would routinely change as the country expanded westward.

The 13-star flag remained official until the admission of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795, yet there is no credible 13-star American Flag that has survived the 18th century.

American Flags found at auction that feature 13 stars were used primarily by the US Navy on smaller launch boats from the 1850s to 1916, when the national flag was substituted instead.

The Star Pattern

Until the advent of the commercial sewing machine around 1850 (which could only sew in a straight line), all American Flags were stitched by hand, and they were not routinely displayed at home. These facts makes any American Flag of this period the most coveted at auction.

American Flags made after 1850 but before the circa 1890 advent of the zig-zag sewing machine (which could sew stars in place) are the second most desired at auction. Flags manufactured after 1900 are less scarce.

It is important to note that the appearance of the American Flag was not regulated until 1912, when a canton with a 48-star box-like pattern was deemed the official flag design for government and military use. Prior to 1912, manufacturers and individuals created any star pattern they wanted, and some of them were exceptionally innovative and eye-catching. Unsurprisingly, the most unusual and creative star patterns have proven the most collectible at auction.

Once codified, the 48-star American Flag relied on all-wool bunting until World War II, when cotton was substituted to conserve the wool for uniforms. Wool flags, then, are generally about a third more valuable than cotton ones.

The 49-star American Flag, adopted when Alaska earned admission to the Union in 1959, was official for only one year, as Hawaii gained entrance in 1960. For this reason, it is the most collectible American Flag in any size or format. The 50-star American Flag is the longest-lived variation on the design, and is the most common.

Collectors who want to build an unusual collection seek American Flags with an unofficial number of stars, such as 14, 16 to 19, 22, 39 to 42, or 47, especially in hand-sewn wool bunting, as most examples are particularly scarce.

Civil War Flags

The three national flags of the Confederate States of America and the two national flags of the United States of this period one featuring 34 stars, and one 35 stars are extremely collectible and routinely auctioned with high reserves.

Apart from the national flags, individual regimental flags from both North and South were hand-sewn with great care. Any that appear to have been made in haste or seem unusually battle-worn are typically outed as fake.

An Apollo 10 American flag that flew to the lunar surface sold for $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2014. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Flags Flown in Space

Humans have flown in space only since Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union successfully completed one orbit around Earth in 1961. Since then, about 560 individuals have experienced true weightlessness in space, not counting the 242 visitors to the International Space Station (the structure is positioned in low Earth orbit, which sticklers don’t count as space travel).

Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first to carry an American Flag in space during his Mercury Freedom 7 capsule voyage in 1961, roughly three weeks after Gagarin’s flight. Since then, American astronauts have been allowed to pack a few personal belongings in a PPK (personal preference kit) that usually includes small American flags to distribute as souvenirs once they return home. Each of these space-flown flags routinely garner great interest at auction.

But flags flown to the moon are easily the most prized. The 18 astronauts chosen for the six Apollo missions collectively brought several hundred small American flags on their extraterrestrial journeys, leaving few for would-be owners to fight over.

Documentation proves this shredded 48-star wool American Flag flew over the US Capitol on April 6, 1917 – the day that war was declared against Germany. It sold at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2020 for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Historic or Special Event Flags

A tradition among those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts calls for those on patrol to tuck small American Flags inside their uniforms. Once home, the flags are normally given to staff, family members, or institutions. Only occasionally have they sold at auction. Such flags fit the definition of “special event” flags, which can draw the interest of collectors.

An American Flag that flew over the White House or U.S. Capitol during historic or meaningful occasions tend to keep their value. Examples of events that can pique the interest of flag collectors are those flown during inaugurations; when a deceased president or legendary person lies in state; or when an act of war is declared.

Flags flown from a prominent location during a high-profile event such as the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the like can attract serious bidding at auction. Those that hovered over a gathering on a notable day of remembrance, such as a 9/11 anniversary, might be sought-after as well.

Still others that command attention are those bearing the signature of a president or someone of similar prominence; early campaign flags; folk art flags; flags sewn by prisoners of war; and those with a celebrity connection or a backstory that distinguishes its provenance.

More than a Collectible

Any American Flag that bears the official number of stars is never decommissioned even if it is rendered obsolete by an updated design. Whether it floated over a battlefield or traveled to the surface of the moon or never left the flagpole in the front yard, an American flag represents a compelling story of freedom, liberty, and national identity that makes it more than just a collectible.

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Montblanc pens have the write stuff

A Montblanc Meisterstuck chevron fountain pen sold for $7,040 in March 2021 at J. Garrett Auctioneers.

Why would anyone spend $250, or $500, or $1,000, or more on a fountain pen when a plain but efficient BiC will do the job for a small fraction of the price? The answer, of course, is that pricey pens are more than mere tools. Those who spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a pen see it as a fashion accessory that ranks right up there with their Patek Philippe wristwatch and Bentley sunglasses. In those two categories, customers have a long list of name brands to choose from, but in the world of fine writing instruments, one dominates: Montblanc. The case of each Montblanc pen is crested with the image of a six-pointed snowcap with rounded edges, an homage to the highest mountain in the Alps: Mont Blanc.

Montblanc International is a German maker of luxury goods, based in Hamburg. In addition to pens, the company also sells fine watches, jewelry, fragrances, leather goods, and eyewear. It was founded in 1906 by two businessmen: Alfred Nehemias, a banker, and August Eberstein, an engineer. They produced simple, functional pens, but went on to sell the business to three businessmen who had grander ideas.

Their first model of pen, introduced in 1909, was called the Rouge et Noir. It was followed by the pen that would later give the company its name: Montblanc. In 1924, the company unveiled its first true luxury fountain pen, the Meisterstuck, which translates as “the Masterpiece.” The Meisterstuck is still the top-of-the-line offering among Montblanc pens, with prices soaring to around $1,500 and higher. The low end starts with Montblanc’s ballpoint pens, which are priced around $250.

A Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen with an 18K gold nib sold for $564 in Feb 2021 at MiddleManBrokers, Inc.

Montblanc continued to offer modestly priced pens until 1977, when the company was acquired by Alfred Dunhill Ltd. It focused Montblanc exclusively on the top of the writing instrument market and branched out into lines of goods other than pens (which are listed above). Today Montblanc is part of the Richemont group, which is owned by the Rupert family of South Africa. Its sister companies include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chloe, and Baume et Mercier.

A circa-1995 Montblanc Meisterstuck limited-edition “The Prince Regent” Patron of Arts fountain pen sold for $2,662 in April 2013 at Kodner Galleries, Inc.

“I think there’s a certain status associated with Montblanc pens, similar to how designer watches are regarded. However, I don’t think it is entirely ‘snob appeal,’ as I believe that people are willing to pay more for quality items,” said Madeline Roberts, a cataloger for Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals, with locations in Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee.

She added, “Montblanc is well established as a high-end brand that uses luxury materials, such as precious resin, vermeil, and 18K gold in their pens and nibs. I think in this age of cheaply made goods that break after a few uses, people appreciate well-made items that can last a lifetime.”

A Montblanc Meisterstuck Ramses lapis vermiel rollerball pen sold for $1,188 in November 2020 at Miami Art Dealers.

Roberts said Case Antiques has enjoyed success with Montblanc pens over the years because they’re fortunate enough to have had limited-edition pens from two well-known Montblanc lines: Patron of Arts, and Writers Edition. “These are highly decorative and unique pens that celebrate certain historic figures who are known for their contributions to the arts and literature,” she said. “The fact that they’re associated with recognizable historical figures only adds to their collectibility. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s detective novels would likely be interested in owning a pen that was inspired by her writings.”

A 1997 Montblanc Peter the Great Patron of Art fountain pen sold for $1,664 in July 2020 at Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals.

The Montblanc pens Roberts describes were manufactured in the 1990s and are not as readily available through retail stores anymore, at least not for the prices one might expect to pay at auction. For example, the Patron of Arts Prince Regent 4810 fountain pen retails for more than $4,000, whereas Case sold one for $1,320. “Granted, it was gently used,” Roberts said.

A Montblanc Lorenzo de Medici limited-edition fountain pen sold for $4,224 in November 2018 at Revere Auctions.

The market for Montblanc pens past and present remains robust. A Patron of Arts Peter the Great Montblanc pen in new condition sold for £900, or about $1,200, in 2014, a then-record for the model. “In July 2020, we sold the same pen in gently used condition for $1,560, including the buyer’s premium,” Roberts said. “This leads me to believe that Montblanc pens, especially those from the special limited-editions series, are and will continue to trend up, even if they are in used condition.”

As with any expensive fashion accessory, fakes pose a problem. Certain clues can help collectors detect genuine Montblanc pens. Meisterstück models created after 1990 have a serial number located on the ring at the top of the clip. Usually inscribed under the clip are the words “Made in Germany” and often “Pix.” Montblanc pens with black barrels might be made of what’s known as “precious resin,” and will reveal a reddish hue under strong lighting. If the pen does not have these attributes, then it could be a fake.