Long ago, when I sold at flea markets, I knew several people who sold just bottles, mainly beer bottles and a few poison and scent bottles they may have stumbled upon on beer bottle buying expeditions.
Every one of those people made a great living and every weekend I would see glass beer and wine bottles and the stone types used for ginger beer fetch £50 and £60 each and sometimes £100 or more.
That was more than 30 years ago, so I expected some growth in prices since then, but nothing quite like the staggering prices achieved today for drinks bottles on eBay. Such as:
- An 18th century English sealed mallet wine bottle went for £1116.00
- Two green glass wine bottles, one dated 1761, went for £420.62
- An old Irish Whiskey jug stoneware bottle for Emmett’s Whiskey made £362.00
- A 19th century saltglaze stoneware stout bottle from Milton Dorset fetched £317.11
- A rare amber Wadsworth 6oz Codd bottle fetched £561.00
- A cobalt blue Newcastle pictorial mineral water bottle fetched £288.00
- A vintage stone stout bottle fetched £271.69
While researching those prices on eBay, I learned something else I hadn’t realised earlier: there’s more to bottles than just holding drink.
In fact, alcohol represents a minority of bottles fetching hundreds and thousands of pounds; many more higher-priced bottles once held perfume, or medicine, engine oil, baby milk, snuff or horse medicine, food and vitamins, and even poison.
As well as original contents, certain themes and subjects are evident among bottles fetching the highest prices on eBay, such as who made the bottle and what it was made from, who previously owned the bottle and what advertisements and images were depicted on bottles, and more besides.
So you really could focus exclusively on selling bottles on eBay and still offer hundreds of very different products to buyers of numerous diverse interests.
So it makes sense to learn about bottles to help you spot better types selling inexpensively at boot sales, flea markets, auctions.
- A bottle might be collectable in its own right and there are many people who collect anything bottle shaped, regardless of purpose or size, age or rarity.
- For some buyers the bottle is a side issue, not the reason they want the item, and their interest might lie in past famous owners or well-known designers, characters depicted on the bottle, the label or bottle cap, and so on. So bottles depicting sports, for example, with golf ball or bullet-shaped stoppers will attract interest from several collector types, namely of bottles in general and sports depicted on those bottles.
- Yet other collectors care nothing about bottles or their purpose, or who made them; they’re more interested in an alternative use of the bottle or what became of the bottle after use. On eBay you’ll find some wonderfully artistic and unique creations made from bottles and fetching fabulous prices. Such as a John Deacon’s perfume bottle that doubles as a paperweight and fetched £41.75 on eBay a short while back.
- The truth is few people know all there is to know about bottles and even bottle experts overlook bargains locally that subsequently fetch high prices on eBay. So bottles represent a great arbitrage opportunity for you: buy inexpensively from a poor or misspelled listing on eBay and relist again free from errors and with fabulous pictures and a much higher auction starting price.
About selling antique poison bottles on eBay
Chemist bottles are very collectable, especially any that once contained poison, which really can go for hundreds or thousands of pounds. By nature, they’re not pretty, just unusual, and appeal to people who collect bottles in general or apothecary bottles in particular.
Something that stands out like a sore thumb on eBay when searching for ‘poison bottle’ is the fact that few specimens go unsold on eBay, except for any that are over-priced or carry a hefty reserve.
Take a look at high-price poison bottles sold on eBay and check out similar specimens selling at flea markets, where you’ll often find one or two dealers at these offline events selling nothing but bottles.
Other things to know about poison bottles
- Colour is important to some collectors, especially cobalt (blue), amber (golden brown) and dark green. Lots of poison bottles feature on eBay and poorly described items get lost in the crowd: that is why, instead of describing your bottles as blue / orange / green, you label them as cobalt blue / amber orange / bottle green instead.
- Avoid setting a reserve price on high quality bottles. Look at the mass of sold bottles over others that failed to sell and you’ll see good items always sell and at high prices. Reserves are largely unnecessary: they add to your listing fees, as well as deterring bidders who, seeing two similar items – one with reserve, one without – will typically bid on the latter.
- Notice how some listings indicate where bottles were found, such as on tips or from retired chemists and apothecaries. Telling where stock comes from adds authenticity – provenance – and helps reduce concern over a proliferation of fake poison bottles entering the market today. Check bottles very carefully: look for signs of age, scratches, dents and rough edges where bottles may have been placed on stone floors or against brick walls for long periods of time. A perfect bottle is rarely an old one.
- Some bottles have labels indicating maker or supplying chemist, which also benefits the authenticating process. Check the names for authenticity, ask local historians, search online, study local trade directories from decades ago. Look in history books, check old postcards, and search for chemists existing in towns and villages whose names mentioned on your bottles.
- Among the rarest poison bottles are those featuring the skull and crossbones or just a skull, which were popular from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. Images like that were used because few people could read in those days, so the wording ‘poison’ on a bottle might go unchecked and lead to numerous accidental deaths at the time, unlike the image of a skull and crossbones on the bottle which most people associate with death. Other methods designed to distinguish poison from reliable medicines for people who could not read included colouring (most poison bottles were cobalt blue, amber, green), or shaped like a coffin or skull.
Now go look for bottles to add to your eBay inventory. Sometime soon, I’ll reveal other popular types of collectable bottle, including scent and medicine bottles.