some may dismiss them as flash trash or bric-a-brac, but in the eyes of collectors they are prized antiques. Ann Davies reports on whisky's objets d'art
Next time you find yourself wandering round a boot or rummage sale, keep your eyes open for anything to do with whisky. The distillers’ determination to brand their name on anything that would take it, has resulted in a bonanza for the antiques industry. Even the most insignificant bauble can be worth a surprising amount of money.These days a 1960s’ key ring featuring Buchanan’s black and white terriers could now go for up to £10 pounds, a large advertising figure from the late 19th century, featuring the striding Johnnie Walker could go for over £2,000 at auction. And don’t overlook an unlikely battered tin tray – it could be worth £20. The market for whisky collectables is big and growing every bigger. “People will collect almost anything whisky-related,” reports David Huxtable, who has been dealing in advertising memorabilia for the last seven years at Alfie’s Antique Market, in London’s Camden.“Some collect things connected with a whisky they enjoy drinking. Some collect a whisky connected with the place their family comes from. I deal regularly with four generations of one American family who all collect memorabilia from the same Simmonds distillery in Reading that has now closed. They have even built their own bars at home.”Part of the joy of possessing whisky memorabilia comes from the fact that it has such a broad embrace – ashtrays, menus, drinks mats, engraved match boxes and even golf balls and tees.David’s base on Alfie’s top floor is an Aladdin’s cave for anyone with even a passing nostalgic interest in tins, packaging, posters and advertising. Treasures cram the shelves and trigger half-buried memories. Much is drinks related, with whisky the most popular and beer second.The BBR auction house at Elsecar Heritage Centre in Barnsley, Yorkshire, holds up to 14 sales a year of which at least half feature whisky branded items, jugs appear regularly and a grandfather clock is not unknown.BBR’s Alan Blakeman, a collector for 30 years, has seen the market grow and change. “Whisky memorabilia can be divided into several categories,” he says. He collects whisky jugs and is currently writing a book about them. There are jugs or flagons, water jugs, advertising models, general advertising material and finally the good old catch-all ‘miscellaneous’.Whisky jugs or flagons make up a category all of their own. A shrewd advertising move on the part of the distillers, they represent a quick and easy way of putting the name of their product before the eyes of the potential buyers. “The most valuable of these jugs come from the golden era of the late 1800s,” declares Alan. “Think of them as the Victorian forerunners of the specially packaged whiskies lined up on the shelves of airport duty free shops around the world. It’s the sort of packaging you wouldn’t get in normal shops, at the sort of prices you probably wouldn’t normally pay either.“Look at the artwork on these jugs and you can see how they tapped into the nostalgia of those who had left Britain to seek their fortunes overseas.” The exiles yearned for home and images of the old country that romanticised their memories. The distillers happily obliged.“Now the tide has turned,” says Alan. “Because of the weak Australian dollar, these jugs are coming home to the UK to be snapped up by British collectors.” You can find some Victorian and Edwardian examples for as little as £40, but many go into three figures, although rarely four.Where there’s whisky, there’s usually water too. Water jugs are much in evidence, especially those designed to sit on bars and pub tables which represent the most rapidly expanding
sales area.You don’t have to be a millionaire to start a water jug collection. Those with an eye on their bank balance should start with jugs from the 1950s onwards which cost less than £15. However if the collecting bug hooks you, you could end up spending thousands – late Victorian jugs cost between £1400 and £1600.Most of the major potteries, such as Wade, produced them in the late 19th century and more recently there have been plastic versions, so prices vary. Whatever end of the market you go for, look for clear artwork. As with other whisky collectibles, the most popular pieces are those with recognisable designs like Buchanan’s black and white dogs and the Johnnie Walker striding man.If you spend hundreds of pounds, then advertising models, or back bar figures to give them their correct title, are another option. One of the biggest collection’s ever, containing about 80 pieces, was sold at BBR last year for almost £10,000.These figures come in all sizes, some are shaped to sit on bars, others to stand on floors. The materials vary too – wood, plaster,
rubber. The well-known images sell the best. A Johnnie Walker or black and white model can go for up to £500. The larger shop displays are rarer and cost more, but you can pick up White Horse models for around £30 if you look hard enough. One item that brings a gleam to collectors’ eyes is the highly elusive rubber-type model of the black and white terriers. What is so special about the figure they seek? Well the little doggies’ eyes light up. But if you do come upon one, don’t wipe off the dirt. You may prefer it that way, but in the antiques world nothing will reduce its value more quickly than a spring clean.Advertising signs and posters are another popular field of play for collectors, but the items are not always what they seem.“Watch out for laser copies and tea stains supposed to make things look old,” warns Alan. “Be suspicious of old sheets of newspaper on the back of a poster, some sellers stick them on deliberately.”So who is willing to shell out hundreds of pounds on, say, an old tin tray featuring the Cutty Sark clipper?“The vast majority, 95 per cent, are men,” says David Huxtable. “Men of a certain age, you might say. That’s because they are the sort that drink whisky. Women tend to go for the terrier dogs.”But whatever your age, gender or inclination, there are a few common rules worth noting.Choose an area to specialise in. That way you build up expertise and contacts. Make sure that whatever you collect you actually like, otherwise there is little point. Go for quality, not quantity.David suggests trays and jugs as a good starting point. There are good pieces around at affordable prices. Tin trays from the 1950s and ‘60s fetch up to £15, enamel ones £120. Water jugs from the same era cost less than £12. Victorian jugs leap to £200 and more.“Most people starting out want to fill their shelves with cheaper items,” adds Alan Blakeman. “Only later they realise they will have to reduce to improve. Be selective, go for the rare, unusual, attractive items that are in good condition. Don’t overspend.”For most collectors the real buzz comes from searching for the bargains at auctions, sales, on the internet or in the pages of magazines.“You can still find bargains at car boot sales,” confirms David Huxtable. Indeed he still rues the day when he went to such a sale and found someone selling a collection of 350 water jugs. The whole lot was going for £450, but the owner had promised first refusal to someone else.David’s tip is to head for the Duty Free next time you going abroad and pick up some of the whisky sold in limited edition gift tins. “They don’t produce many of them, so they are bound to have a rarity value,” he advises. But if you want to drink the whisky buy two. “They are more valuable unopened,” he says.
Subscribe to Our Magazine
Published in print 8 times each year, Whisky Magazine is the perfect drinking companion for all who enjoy the water of life.
Subscribe to Whisky Magazine