Published: December 28, 2021
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy American Bottle Auctions
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Part 1 of the Mel Hammer bottle collection – gathered over a 50-year span by a man who dedicated much of his adult life to the acquisition and study of antique glass – was the focus of an online auction that ran December 10-19 by American Bottle Auctions.
The sale presented 137 lots featuring Hammer’s favorites, which included schnapps and gin bottles, bitters bottles and inkwells, many boasting 9.5 grades. “We did a total of $190,000 and we had 200 bidders who bid 1,330 times,” said Jeff Wichmann of American Bottle Auctions after the sale.
“Mel was a true collector of bottles,” said Wichmann about Hammer, who died this past Thanksgiving Day. “I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked, but I did see him when he made the drive down from his home in Redding to our shop in 2019. He’d purchased one of the nicer bottles in Auction #69. No surprise, it was a square, red amber whittled Turner Brothers bottle, as nice as we’d seen.”
The top lot in the sale went to a rare Dr Renz’s Herb Bitters, 1868-81, that brought in $24,150, well past the most ever paid for a Renz’s Bitters. With an applied tapered top, a light lime green and standing 9¾ inches tall, the bottle was graded 9.5. “When most people think of the Renz’s Bitters, they aren’t thinking of this bottle,” stated the catalog. “It’s believed this product started around 1867; however, that was distributed with a paper label only. Renz talked Charles Langley into taking on the brand as his sole agent. That was something that Langley could not only afford but would turn out to be a smart move. While it took a while to become successful, winning a silver medal at the 1869 California State Fair, Renz saw bigger things and sold his painting business to pursue a wholesale liquor dealership in San Francisco. This bottle, of which we believe there are only four with this unique style tapered top, was undoubtedly the first embossed bottle made for this bitters. Of the known examples that exist, they are all in a green hue and exhibit crudity consistent with the era. We don’t know where Mel picked this one up, he did not get heavy into some of the more early San Francisco bitters but still had his fair share. A light lime green, we don’t believe one of these has ever come up for auction and it might be a while before another does.”
After the sale, Wichmann said Hammer’s bitters did the best of the group, “but we were amazed at some of the prices of the squares and inkwells. For instance, out of the 60 or so early squares, including gins, schnapps and sarsaparilla, 15 did $1,000 or more, with one gin – a green Wister’s Clubhouse Gin, bringing $10,925.” The gin bottle, having an applied top with the earlier sticky ball type pontil, is popular with collectors, as examples come in a multitude of colors. In addition, they are typically very crude, with lots of character. This one was no exception.
A Dr Wonser’s USA Indian Root Bitters bottle with an applied top, medium amber in color and showing lots of uneven glass and whittle sold for $17,550. The amber and aqua Wonsers are among the most sought-after and coveted Western bitters out there.
Fetching $6,900 in the bitters category was a Catawba Wine Bitters with embossed grapes, which is a collectors’ favorite. This choice example featured medium green color with embossed grapes, an applied top and graphite pontil. This one was sold by American Bottle Auctions in Part 1 of the Grapentine collection.
A purple barrel teakettle inkwell purported to be given out during the Harrison presidential campaign sold for $5,060. “The inkwells did well throughout,” said Wichmann, “with the umbrella inkwells selling for an average $500 and two purple examples selling for $3,450 each.”
Other notables in the bitters category were a yellowish Indian Queen bringing $1,955, an amber Lacour’s Bitters with small flake off lip selling for $2,530 and a purple Greeley’s Bitters that topped out at $4,600, while an aqua colored Pocahontas Bitters with a tiny flake off the lip brought in $4,255.
In the whiskey category, the Mel Hammer auction sold a Pride of Kentucky Whiskey that Hammer found near his house in Redding for $9,200. An example of an applied top whiskey, this was made in the mid to late 70s, which for whiskey collectors is the premier age for western fifths. The fact that Hammer found this bottle near his home, made it an even greater addition to his collection and one that gave him extreme satisfaction.
“Typically, the bitters stole the show, but there were some very respectful bids in all categories,” concluded Wichmann.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. Next sale will be late February or early March. “We try and space them so they can reload their bank accounts,” quipped Wichmann. For information, www.americanbottle.com or 800-806-7722.
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