Published: June 7, 2016
Review and Onsite Photos by W.A. Demers;
Additional Photos Courtesy of Morphy Auctions
DENVER, PENN. — Since its inception in 1886, Coca-Cola has been notable for its advertising slogans, and they were all on parade at Morphy Auctions on May 21–22 as the firm conducted Part 1 of the Robert Newman collection of antique advertising. Totaling $1.42 million, comfortably above expectations, the two-day sale dispersed nearly 1,300 lots, the cream of the crop of collector Bob Newman’s colorful acquisitions that began when he was 12 years old.
Why such a reverence for the Coca-Cola brand? “The graphics and colors were exciting to me,” Newman told Antiques and The Arts Weekly at preview the day before the sale. “They always used the best artists.”
While there were certainly great examples of advertising and ephemera from other brands and categories other than soft drinks offered in this sale, the bulk of it was devoted to the American love affair with all things Coca-Cola — from billboards to belt buckles, from coolers to club medallions, bookmarks to bottle lamps — the universe of Coke advertising is vast and collectors came in person, online and by phone to slake their thirst for Newman’s investment-quality trove.
Morphy’s specialist for the sale, Gary Metz, himself an erstwhile collector and auctioneer of antique advertising, noted in the sale’s catalog that he met Bob Newman in 1988, just as Metz was launching his own full-time antiques sales career that led to establishing an auction business in Roanoke, Va. It was at the Pop Poppenheimer collection auction in Memphis, Tenn., and he recalled, “As I was one of only a few collectors and dealers selling in the hotel rooms after auction hours, it gave me a great opportunity to meet and get to know Bob. I was excited to meet a true and avid collector and buyer who had great passion for these artifacts of the past.”
Not only did Newman have a passion for collecting, he also had discipline and focused his hunt on the rarest items and those in the best possible condition. “Clean,” “pristine” and “beautiful” were among the adjectives used repeatedly in lot descriptions and it was not just hyperbole. Metz noted that Newman requested that number grades be assigned to his items in the catalog’s descriptions so that participants could bid with confidence.
“It was testament that condition tops everything else at resale,” said Metz, noting that Sunday’s session was also strong with non-Coke items, such as Dr Pepper, Pepsi, 7-Up and other brands performing well. A 1940s-50s Vernor’s Ginger Ale embossed tin sign probably elicited Midwestern nostalgia on its way to taking more than $4,000 against an $1,800 high estimate. Even tobacco advertising rose to the challenge, with a rare Professor Morse curved all porcelain sign, circa 1905-15, extolling “The Best at Any Price 10-cent Cigar” smoking its $2,250–$4,500 estimate to attain $12,200.
The sale was led by an original oil painting featuring radio stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy checking out a cooler full of Coca-Cola from 1949. This artwork was used in numerous company advertisements and also prominently featured on the back cover of an issue of National Geographic in 1950, attributed to Haddon Sundblum. The artwork opened at $18,000 and shot to a final price of $53,680. It fell to the bidding number wielded by Ted Ryan and Justine Fletcher, who were in the gallery representing the famous Atlanta-headquartered company’s archive department.
“‘Sold! To buyer 19…’” Fletcher recounted in her blog on the Coca-Cola website. “Those were the best words I heard when I attended an auction of Coca-Cola memorabilia. I traveled to the Morphy Auction house with Coca-Cola archivist Ted Ryan for one particular item — a piece of original art featuring Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy.
“Ted and I walked the floor the morning of the auction, double-checking what we wanted to acquire for the Coke archives. We were able to win bids on other pieces of art, plus a clock, some white buttons, cardboard signs and posters. It was stiff competition as other Coca-Cola collectors were in attendance and bidding against us. This is serious business and not for the lighthearted; I was careful to keep my hands down and never nod towards the auctioneer!”
Fletcher, a self-described “Coca-Cola art hunter,” added that the piece will be added to the firm’s collection of collection of original art, which presently numbers more than 2,000 pieces.
At preview, collector Bob Newman told Antiques and the Arts Weekly, “In 1951, when this was used on the back page of National Geographic, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy was the number one radio program in America. Hard to believe a guy with a dummy — when you couldn’t even see it — was the number one radio show for 15 years.”
Another piece of original artwork that served as the basis for a large horizontal Coke poster from the 1930s, “A happy thought — refresh yourself,” was used in 1927 magazine ads. The unsigned work, although clearly done by an accomplished artist, was bid to $50,020 against a $25/35,000 estimate.
And a 1930s-era sterling silver Coca-Cola display bottle made especially for a company executive who supervised the construction of the ocean liner-inspired Coca-Cola bottling plant in Los Angeles was a one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen piece. It left the gallery at $35,380.
Perennially popular, a 1935 Coca-Cola porcelain triangle sign designed to hang from a bracket went out at $21,960 to a private collector who left an absentee bid. Described in the catalog as “strong as you will ever find,” it featured a dark green border with a bold and graphic “Drink Coca-Cola” and the iconic bottle centered between “Ice” and “Cold.”
Dan Morphy, president of Morphy Auctions, said, “We were thrilled to present this first of two auctions featuring the Robert Newman collection of extraordinary antique beverage and tobacco advertising, 45 years in the making. Bob is known for his fantastic eye and his ability to find examples in ‘investment-quality’ condition.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
An additional 700-plus items from Newman’s collection were offered at Morphy’s on June 5. For information, www.morphyauctions.com or 717-335-3435.
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