Petroliana: big, bold and colorful

This rare thermometer for Red Hat Motor Oil brought $11,500 at Rich Penn Auctions in August 2016. Photo courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Eye-catching and colorful, oil and gas goods had to be big and bold to make an impact. From gas globes and pumps to signs, road maps and oil cans, petroliana (products related to the oil and gas industry, especially advertising) was made to attract customers and drive sales for their products.

When cars were still new to the road, gas stations could be hard to find, especially at night. Gas stations began posting bright colorful signage to serve as a beacon to drivers. Today, these vintage signs, usually made of porcelain-coated steel—often double-sided so as to be seen coming and going—are highly collectible.

“Most of today’s petroliana collectors seem to be in search of great looking porcelain signs. The earlier ones (pre World War II) with great graphics are the ones that are commanding top dollar. The better the condition and the more striking the graphics, the more money,” said Rich Penn of Rich Penn Auctions in Waterloo, Iowa.

A Perfect Circle Piston Rings embossed sign realized $7,000 at Rich Penn Auctions in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among signs, the earlier brands and companies like Standard Oil, Texaco and Mobiloil always command high interest, he said. Texaco is popular with many collectors as its stations were found across the country, while West Coast stations are harder to find. Items associated with regional oil company brands, now defunct, like Skelly, Gilmore and Wilshire are also sought.

“Some of the brands with great graphics, like Husky, Kelly Tires, Musgo or Beacon all might approach that title of ‘Holy Grail.’ The graphics are what ignite the magic.” Penn said.

Bold graphics define the appeal of Musgo signs with bright colors and a portrait of a Native American. Mohawk Gasoline paddle signs also featured Native Americans portraits. One of the best prices at auction for a sign was a double-sided Musgo Gasoline sign that made $230,000 at Mecum Auctions in October 2016.

This Musgo Gasoline double-sided sign with a 47¾ -inch diameter took $230,000 at Mecun Auctions in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Red Hat is another brand with striking graphics; its round motor oil and gasoline signs are centered with a large red hat embellished with a blue ribbon having white stars. Neon signs also find buyers such as the Republic Gasoline and Motor Oils neon sign that brought $6,500 at RM Auctions in June 2018.

It’s not just gasoline or oil signs that collectors chase. A porcelain sign for Kelly Tires attained $75,000 at Manifest Auctions in February 2015, and Rich Penn Auctions sold a curved porcelain sign for Wyeth Tires in August 2016 for $15,000.

This round porcelain sign for Kelly Tires with the ‘Lotta Miles’ advertising woman attained $75,000 at Manifest Auctions in February 2015. Photo courtesy of Manifest Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Gasoline pumps are also quite desirable for collectors who have space for them. The gas pump has evolved over the years, and in the early days many pumps stood around 10 feet tall with colorful globes on top.

The Mobil showcase gas pump (below) is highly desirable and retains its hard-to-find original milk glass topper. The built-in showcase drove the sale of other Mobil products.

This Mobilgas Tokheim 36 Adc showcase gas pump with its original milk glass topper fetched $64,000 at Mecum Auctions in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“The designers of gas pumps soon added an aesthetic appeal to attract consumers to gas stations,” according to commentary on the website of the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, Calif. “Through the 1920s, the colors and ornate designs of gasoline pumps stretched around the globe. Everywhere, bright colored pumps full of gasoline were at every station.”

The lit glass globes that topped the pumps were designed to be attractive and now make fine additions to petroliana collections. A Refiners Gasoline gas pump globe having two lenses earned $55,000 at Mecum Auctions in January 2016.

While advertising signs and gas pumps tend to bring the biggest prices, the petroliana category is diverse and even smalls are highly sought after. Oil cans are popular and boast striking graphics. In October 2016, Mecum Auctions sold a one-quart can of Skunk Oil motor oil depicting a smirking skunk with vertical wavy “odor” lines around his tail for $6,500 and a Marathon Oil Well triangular-shaped can depicting an oil derrick for $7,500.

An Arno air meter with light, professionally restored (detail image) went for $8,000 at Rich Penn Auctions in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Asked what collectors should look for when buying petroliana, Penn said condition is probably the singularly most important consideration. “Best condition is always best condition but there are other factors too,” he said. “The market is facing a lot of challenges today. One is reproduction pieces. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of fairly good reproduction signs in the market today—especially porcelain signs. They are well-produced and you really need to know what you’re looking at before you hand over the money. Some of these signs have fooled some of the best among us.”

“If it’s an important purchase, there are ways to authenticate signs. Contact one of the experts. A well-known figure in gas and oil collecting, Dan Matthews, has started a new company just for that service. It’s called The Authentication Company,” Penn said.

New collectors are often told to buy the best they can afford no matter what they genre of antiques they collect. For petroliana especially, condition plays a role. “Condition will always be a major issue when it’s time to sell. You never have to apologize for the best. How many times have we all heard, ‘Man, this is a great piece, but …’?  Save your money for the pieces that don’t have any ‘buts.’”