Monday, April 30, 2012

Looking for Perfection

The ongoing commentary about the condition of a western whiskey bottle that was offered at auction recently - awakened thoughts about how western collectors grade the condition of bottles and how picky they have become.  

The auction houses all grade their offerings on different platforms. Western collectors usually grade bottles by the three “C’s”. Color, condition and crudity. Then there are the folks that grade bottles as if they were coins. Phrases like “absolutely mint” “bold strike” and “PERFECT” are thrown about like loaded dice.

Let’s start right off with defining “mint”. Mint condition is an expression used in the description of pre-owned goods. Originally, the phrase comes from the way collectors describe the condition of coins. Mint is the place where the coin was manufactured. Mint condition is the condition a coin is in as it leaves the mint. Over time, the term "mint" began to be used to describe many different items (including bottles) having excellent, like-new quality.

For a bottle to be mint it must be in the same condition as when it left the factory. Agreed? If you agree with the term mint condition then stress cracks, annealing checks and other in making flaws are acceptable distractions to a bottle, it came from the factory that way didn’t it? . Are you still with me on this or are you collecting “perfect” bottles?

Perfection is a philosophical concept and not necessarily a condition of a piece of glass. If you want a “perfect” bottle then just maybe you will need to improve on what the factory manufactured. There are lots of people in the bottle community that can take your bottle from mint to perfect and most all of them charge for it. Cleaning, polishing, removing chips, gluing on tops…you get the drift.

As a collector matures and becomes more sophisticated he starts to appreciate the character of a collectible piece. Whether it is the unique handmade appearance, apparent in-making flaws or just an honest wear pattern, the not so perfect has become perfect in his or her eyes.

 If you’re using a 30 power loop looking for flaws in western glass you certainly are going to find them. Early western glass is full of in-making flaws. Potstones, cooling checks, stress cracks and a host of other imperfections plague early western glass.

If you are looking for western whiskies without issues my advice is to start collecting turn of the century tool tops. There are plenty of rare and desirable “perfect” western tool top whiskies to put on your shelf.


  1. Great commentary Rick,much truth here.

  2. Right on the money, Rick. A "mint" bottle is only a bonus to me, but not a requirement when it comes to Western glass. If I were to limit myself to "perfect"...I would probably be the proud owner of nothing.

  3. Rick,,, so true and well stated ! I'm glad you brought the topic to discussion. It's been on my mind for awhile too the past several yrs.

  4. This is a very pertinent topic at this time in our hobby. It seems there is a class of collectors who are obsessed with absolute perfection and are more investors than true collectors. I realize that it is their money and they have a right to spend it as they choose, but bottles are not diamonds or other precious stones. With a diamond, a natural flaw, or inclusion though 100% natural, will kill the value.
    Bottles are hand made objects created at a time of crude techniques and methods of manufacture by 12 year old kids working in a dangerous environment. To me, the natural inmaking stone, check, or flash is perfectly acceptable...of course finding a mega crude and rare bitters with no "flaws" is a bonus, and they are out there...just not enough to build a well diversified collection. I know if you want to build a collection of early SF beers for example, you will have to contend with not only inmaking flaws, but serious post manufacture defects or you will have a collection of maybe one or two bottles.
    In one way, I truly appreciate the "investor" collector who wants allows me to actually acquire a piece for a reasonable price because they were not interested. So "thank you"!

  5. Good write up, Rick.

    I agree with your definition of mint and a lot of your points. However, its entirely different when there are post manufacturing issues, a.k.a. damage, agree?

    On a separate note, some manufacturing flaws should be disclosed by any seller, such as annealing checks
    and potstones with radiating legs. These manufacturing issues can spread in warmer or colder tempatures due to the compromised integrity of the glass. For a seller to pretend these things have no bearing on a bottle is either ignorant or dishonest. I have personally seen a number of bottles where such issues have spread or even cracked the bottle severly, as well as talked to close friends who have literally had a bottle pop and be reduced to shards.

    Not convinced? Why is it that bottles with checks (even from manufacturing) sell for about half the value of an identical example that doesn't? Severe manufacturing defects can significantly detract from the desireability of a bottle. For example, look how low the small letter Dr. Renz's sold for in the recent auction due to very minor distractions.

    I know some guys buy bottles more as an investment and there's nothing wrong with that when they're buying bottles in the four, five, or six digit range....that's serious money to put into a piece of glass. As for me, I've lost money on 5 of the last 6 heavies I've had to sell. Tough to take the hit, but I truly enjoy the early glass. Additionally, folks my age would be foolish to think they will ever be able to recoup the value they put into bottles 20+ years from now. Luckily the young guys I know are very into the glass itself and quite indifferent to the investment aspect.

    1. Of course I agree with you on post manufacturing damage. And yes, damage should always be disclosed by the seller if he (or she) is aware of it.
      Early western glass, like Dale points out, is full of inmaking flaws.
      Sometimes its almost impossible to tell inmaking from post manufacturing issues.

      I started collecting bottles as a digger and was not super critical of the condition of the bottles I dug. Later as I became more of a collector (and started to pay for bottles) condition became a big issue. Who wants to pay good money for a damaged bottle.

      There is a big difference between collecting a nice respectable example of a bottle and trying to obtain (what other collectors consider)the top or finest example of a particular bottle. I never could get caught up in the "my example is better than yours" game that seems to be the trend in collecting today. And I sure as heck can't afford to compete with the resources some of our top bottle collectors bring to the hobby.

  6. I totally agree, Rick!

    I dug my very first bottles as a young kid and just about all of them had wear, pings, dings, and scratches. I'm hardly picky at all when it comes to damaged bottles that I've dug, but I'll be the first to admit I'm picky when looking to purchase a higher-end bottle at a firm market price. When paying for a bottle I always try to find the nicest available example, especially if the bottle is fairly prevalent. But if it's a pontiled soda, desirable bitters, rare med, or a colored western whiskey the damage becomes less adn less of a concern. Otherwise it's similar to what IXL pointed out -- you'll be hard pressed to put much of anything on the shelf.

    I'd still rather have a bottle with minor manufacturing flaws than a bottle that's been "played with" or over-cleaned to the point where the whittle and strike have been smoothed out....You know those bottles that practically slip right out of your hands with the smooth and greasy feel?

    A lot of the western flasks and fifths have scratches and ground wear, especially if they came out of mining towns and lumber camps where the soil was a bit abrasive. The most meaningful bottles are the ones you dig yourself, or next best, getting them from close friends who can tell you where and when something was dug.

  7. I guess there's nothing wrong with "Looking for Perfection," but "Expecting Perfection" will only lead to disappointment and a very lonely collection of bottles, right?

  8. I'm sure than someone just didn't figure this out, I've been sayin' it for years. The assigning of the numerical system to bottle condition also doesn't fly with me. Like coin grading, if they get to AG-8, or MS 60, and the like, I'll REALLY get worried. Another thing that bugs me to no end are "collectors" who feel the need to place the bottle under intense magnification. They are in the wrong hobby, period. Examining a bottle in the sun, or better light than most shows provide, is fine and expected. Returning a piece because of some minute flaw found at 140% magnification is ridiculous.

  9. I think the buyer, not the seller should be able to decide whether or not they want to spend hundreds if not thousands on a bottle with a chip, crack, or a flash etc. There was a time when I did not focus on minor issues when buying a bottle, but then I soon learned (the expensive way) as I began to sell a few "condition" was critical to everyone I sold to.

    Bottom line, be honest about what your selling and stand behind it.


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