NEW YORK – Soda advertising is big business and has been since Coca-Cola and Pepsi began butting heads in marketing campaigns, leading to the famous “cola wars” that spanned the late 1970s and the early ’80s. Both companies slapped their advertising on many items to market their products but Coke is arguably the victor in the cola wars, at least in terms of soda collectibles.
Coca-Cola advertising traditionally has been family-friendly, depicting attractive yet modestly dressed women, smiling Santa Clauses or adorable polar bears. Coca-Cola advertising runs the gamut from thermometers, turn-of-the-century celluloid bookmarks, trade cards, calendars, menus, lunch boxes and rulers to serving trays, coolers, tin and porcelain signs, syrup dispensers and even large items such as soda fountains and bars.
Gary Metz, consignment assessment and procurement specialist at Dan Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania, said Coca-Cola created many beautiful and timeless examples of artistic advertising from the turn of the century up to 1920, thanks to its staff of talented in-house artists and named artists, which the company commissioned, The popularity of these items endures today. Collectors seek out choice examples spanning a wide range of collecting interests of objects. “They are looking for age and rarity, whether it be a cardboard or paper poster or an early tin sign, a porcelain piece, even some early menus and trade cards,” he said. “There are certain periods that some collectors gravitate toward and some collectors gravitate more to paper and cardboard. Others prefer tin and porcelain or even small objects and items, which Coca-Cola produced in plethora.”
Morphy’s has sold many Coca-Cola items over the years and set an auction record with the only known 1900 Coca-Cola calendar that depicted model and actress Hilda Clark and was in near mint-plus condition. Clark was the first woman to appear in Coca-Cola advertising on a tray in 1895 and she was the face of Coca-Cola’s advertising until 1903. The calendar attained $210,000, including the buyer’s premium in August 2014.
Coca-Cola archivist Phil Mooney wrote on the company’s website that prices vary greatly, depending on quality and rarity. “Paper items, such as calendars or some cardboard cutouts, may be worth more because there are fewer on the market,” he said, adding that mass-produced items like the famous contour bottles are worth little because there are so many.
Bob Brown, owner of Red Baron Antiques in Roswell, Georgia, said a July 2019 auction in conjunction with the Coca-Cola Collectors Club’s national convention in Atlanta, where the Coca-Cola company is headquartered, was strong. “It was phenomenal. Everything that was rare went for huge money,” he said. Even items that were rough did well, such as Coca-Cola radios. The sale featured two red radios measuring about 18 by 12 by 10 inches. “They went for $7,000, which is crazy money for a radio that doesn’t work. Anything that was rare went for really big money.”
Traditionally what has sold well for Brown are the Coca-Cola bars that were originally in some soda fountains, which dispensed Coca-Cola. where there was a large cooler maybe 8 or 9 feet long, having a Formica top, and painted up bright red — “Coca-Cola red.” “The back was a cooler but on top was a dispenser for soda fountain Coca-Cola and those have always been really popular,” Brown said. “Those have always been great sellers and the world just seems to like Coca-Cola collectibles.”
The top price for a fountain bar was achieved in March 2012 when Richard Opfer Auctioneering dispersed the collection of the Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia, which closed its doors. The Coca-Cola soda fountain made by Liquid Carbonic for the Columbian Exposition of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair sold for $4.3 million.
Original artwork that Coca-Cola used for its illustrations is another high-value item, such as a rare 1930s oil painting of a woman looking up at the Coca-Cola sign with the words: “A happy thought – refresh yourself” on the painting. The 52-by-26-inch painting, which was used in magazine advertising in 1927, sold at Morphy’s for $41,000 in May 2016.
“Those do carry a premium in terms of price and desirability,” Metz said. “Those are always sought after and if it’s a named artist, it just adds to the cachet.”
The World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta has many items used in advertising or associated with Coca-Cola on display, including more than a dozen original paintings featuring Coca‑Cola by named artists, as well as several items by famed designer Raymond Loewy, who helped modernize Coca-Cola designs from its cooler to the soda fountain to its delivery trucks.
Coca-Cola signs, whether tin, porcelain or neon, are a perennial favorite. “The earlier the better, the older the better,” Brown says. “As time went on into the war years, they made more and more and more mass-produced ones, and there is a lot of them around. The chances of them going up very much in value is pretty slim so you want to buy the real old ones.”
Collectors will want to beware of items that are often reproduced, Brown says. Early wooden Coca-Cola crates are a good buy since wood as a raw material has increased in price making it cost-prohibitive to use in manufacturing today so these crates won’t be easily reproduced.
Whatever your budget or collecting taste, Coca-Cola collectors have plenty to choose from so they can “catch the wave.”