Biscuit tins: the original gift with purchase

This Rolls-Royce biscuit tin, 12 inches long, was made for William Crawford & Sons bakery. Byron Fink collection. Auction estimate: $2,500-$3,500. Photo courtesy of Bertoia’s and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Antique biscuit tins come in seemingly endless varieties and forms, ranging from books and vases to planes and buses. First things first, though – let’s clarify the meaning of “biscuit.” In the United States, a biscuit is soft and doughy like a dinner roll, while in the United Kingdom, a biscuit is what Americans would call a “cookie.”

The British biscuit tin market owes much to the Licensed Grocer’s Act in 1861, which cleared the way for producers of grocery goods to control the packaging of their products for sale to the consumer. Bakeries ditched their plain packaging and, as a marketing strategy, began selling biscuits in pretty tins shaped into clever and whimsical designs and colorfully lithographed for eye appeal.

A ‘Pride of London’ airplane tin for W. Crawford & Sons, circa 1920, is finished in gold with a pair of Union Jacks on the top wing. Byron Fink collection. Auction estimate: $1,200-$1,800. Photo courtesy of Bertoia’s and LiveAuctioneers

Within a few years, elaborate designs were being commissioned by Huntley & Palmers, one of Britain’s largest bakers. Not surprisingly the tins were so attractive they far outlasted the biscuits they were designed to keep and often took pride of place in homes. They still do and as it is becoming harder to find good examples today, the rarest and best examples bring strong prices. Some interior decorators used them for staging houses, displaying book-shaped tins on shelves instead of using actual books.

While biscuit tins may have originated in Great Britain, they were also made and collected in France, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and even the United States. One former antiques dealer with whom we spoke said she found one of her best tins at an outdoor flea market in rural England. It was a Russian-made tin, inscribed in Cyrillic, and depicted Father Christmas driving a delivery truck. She hasn’t seen another one like it since.

Among prized Christmas tins was this Good King Wenceslas songbook issued by Huntley & Palmers. Each of the visible pages is hinged and could be opened to access biscuits. Byron Fink collection. Auction estimate: $800-$1,200. Photo courtesy of Bertoia’s and LiveAuctioneers

Among the most desirable tin forms for collectors are figural vehicles, particularly those with advertising a specific bakery. Some hobbyists collect tins based on their form, while others are completists and like all biscuit tins, whether they replicate an object or not. Holiday themes (especially Christmas or Halloween) and tins with characters like Punch and Judy are highly coveted.

Condition is always of utmost importance. Most collectors seek to acquire only top-grade tins except in the case of a rare form, where the possibility of upgrading would be slim.

Former dealer Stuart Cropper in England began his personal collection of biscuit tins years ago. Like most fans, he was attracted to their graphics and design as well as their colors and beautiful lithography. “Tins we collected were biscuit tins in the shapes of vehicles, trucks, buses and cars. Vehicles are definitely the most valuable and are at the top end of the biscuit tin collecting,” he said, noting that his vehicle collection was sold at Bertoia’s Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey, in 1998.

A Reading Biscuits ‘Speedboat’ tin was made for Huntley & Palmers in a pink and white color scheme. Byron Fink collection. Auction estimate: $2,000-$3,000. Photo courtesy of Bertoia’s and LiveAuctioneers

Avid collector Byron Fink, who lives outside Philadelphia, was introduced to biscuit tins via the now-defunct Atlantique City antiques show that ran for more than 20 years in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was at this show around 1990 that he spied what he thought was a surly and strange-looking ceramic bird standing 9 inches tall. Having amassed a large collection of ceramics and glass, he picked it up for a closer look, only to discover it was made of tin. The dealer told him the tin’s name was “Bluebird” and that it had been produced in 1911. Pulling the head off, Fink saw the label, which read, “McVitie & Price Biscuit Manufacturers to HM The King.” Right then and there, his fascination with British biscuit tins began.

“They were attractive and charming,” he said. “I wasn’t doing it without regard to price, since I was a working lad, so I didn’t have deep pool of resource money.” Over the years, befriending dealers and auctioneers, learning more about tins, and constantly upgrading, he amassed a fine collection of desirable tins.

Visitors to his home always experienced the “wow” factor, but the most interesting thing about his collection was that pieces were not displayed as they might have been if they were in a museum. Fink incorporated them into his apartment’s decor. He lived among his collection – tins on the walls, in his living room, kitchen and bedroom.

This William Crawford and Sons tin takes the form of an organ grinder’s wagon with a monkey who holds his hat out for tips. Byron Fink collection. Auction estimate: $600-$900. Photo courtesy of Bertoia’s and LiveAuctioneers

Nearly 30 years later, the first session of several auctions of his collection, numbering around 400 pieces, will be presented at Bertoia’s midway through its Nov. 9-11 toys auction, with about 18 tins on offer in the first sale. Fink admits to having mixed feelings about saying goodbye to these tins but is glad other people might have some of the joy they’ve given him every day for so many years.

Most of Fink’s tins are figural vehicles, and standouts in the first Bertoia auction containing his tins include a boxed ocean liner Berengaria tin issued by W. Crawford & Sons, a fantastic Rolls-Royce sedan (shown at top of page), a snow sled marketed by Jacobs & Co., and a double-decker London bus from Carr & Co.

The snow sled biscuit tin marketed by Jacobs & Co., depicts a sled laden with supplies, including biscuit crates and other containers of preserved foods, plus blankets and snowshoes. Auction estimate: $800-$1,200. Photo courtesy of Bertoia’s and LiveAuctioneers

“In all my collecting, I was attracted to the aesthetics of each piece,” said Fink, a retired magazine art director. “The artistry and vividness of the colors was what attracted me.”