LONDON – So, you took advice from this column last week and have splashed out on a case of vintage wine to oil the wheels of Christmas lunch and subsequent festive fun. Next you’ll need a reliable corkscrew. After all, only supermarket plonk that has screw tops and no, the Swiss Army penknife Santa left in your stocking last year will not suffice.
The slight issue is that even though corkscrews have been around for 300 years or so no one has invented the perfect answer to removing a stubborn cork, but many have tried, particularly the ingenious Victorians. And that means a wealth of opportunity for today’s collectors.
Who invented the device is not known for certain but, naturally enough, they were an imbiber’s essential requirement once it was realized early in the 17th century that cork was perfect for sealing bottles. Come the 1800s and, like that army penknife with corkscrew attachment, no gentleman’s wardrobe or traveling case was complete without one. Or lady’s, come to that. Hers were tiny folding examples, often in silver, for removing the corks from her bottles of scent.
The age of inventiveness dawned in 1795 when, of all people, a London clergyman, the Rev. Samuel Henshall, took out a patent on a new, improved model and persuaded the Birmingham firm of Matthew Boulton to put it into production. Boulton’s factory was already well established and had been exporting corkscrews among a myriad of other things for 30 years.
A plethora of new patents followed: in 1802, Edward Thomason of Birmingham with a double-action mechanism incorporating a suggestively termed “hermaphrodite screw;” in 1838, Thomas Lund of London who added steel springs to his corkscrew with which to hold the bottle and in 1855, the same inventor came up with mechanisms called the London Rack and Lund’s Lever.
Another Birmingham firm James Heeley backed a winner with a device called the Tangent Lever, the patent for which was registered by Edwin Wolverston in 1873. Production continued unabated until the 1920s, at which time it retailed at three shillings and fourpence.
A few years ago, such corkscrews could be picked up relatively cheaply. Today, with an upsurge in interest among collectors, they command prices in the hundreds and sometimes thousands for real rarities.
These include such wonders as the Holborn Lever, patented in 1885 and now very scarce and Murray and Stalker’s 1894 patent two-lever corkscrew, only two of which are known to exist. In all, more than 350 designs were patented during the 19th century.
Manufacturing firms whose names often appear on their products include Weiss of London, Evans, Looker, Retton, Mapplebeck and Lowe, Lowcock and Samuel Cotterill and although British corkscrews ruled, there are plenty to search out from other countries, notably America and Germany. They also come somewhat cheaper.
From the U.S. in the early 1870s came an inexpensive wire device invented by William Rockwell Clough, while from Germany throughout the 19th century came amusing and sometimes ribald examples such as one to be carried in the pocket in the form of a lady’s shapely legs clad in lace-up boots, and blue and white striped enamel stockings.
It’s also worth looking out for corkscrews with bone or ivory handles and those fitted with a brush, intended for cleaning off the neck of bottles before uncorking. Any one of them would make a smashing gift for a father to use on the Christmas day bottle of cheer. You never know, he might become a helixophile, which is what corkscrew collectors call themselves.
The record price for a corkscrew sold by auction was shattered once and then again in the space of two days last month when two versions of a device invented by Charles Osborne saw prices spiral.
The first appeared on the eBay in France, which sold for the euro equivalent of £17,727 ($27,689). By markings on the frame which read “By Her Majesty’s Royal Letters” and “Soho Patent” (that’s Soho in Birmingham) it was believed to have been made by Matthew Boulton.
Similar markings appear on the corkscrews he made form the Rev. Henshall.
Next day in an unconnected sale at Colchester auctioneers Reeman Dansie, a second example appeared, lacking any patent markings but engraved “Made from the Iron Shoe that was taken from a pillar that was 656 Years in the Foundation of Old London Bridge”, together with the name J. Ovenston, 72 Gt Tichfield St., London.
Ovenston was apparently a cabinetmaker and upholsterer who sold relics made from oak and iron taken from the bridge when it was dismantled in 1831. The corkscrew was being sold by a descendant.
Collectors went crazy for it. Despite being faulty – the ratchet mechanism was not working – numerous bidders in the room competed with four telephones and countless Internet bidders, taking the price skywards.
To applause, it was knocked down to a European collector in the room for £40,000 ($62,480). With the auctioneer’s 20 per cent commission added, that’s a selling price of £48,000 ($74, 976) surely a figure that will take some beating.
Corkscrew manufacturer Charles Osborne lived at 11 Upper Temple St. in Birmingham and filed his patent in 1839. Sadly he drew no benefit from it. He died of consumption – pulmonary tuberculosis – just six months later, at just 28 years of age.
Until last month, it was believed only a single example of this particular pattern existed. The eBay example was not fitted with the ratchet mechanism but shared the bowed springs of the others, the tension from which causes the cork to be drawn out of the bottle.
The previous record for a corkscrew, prior to the two last month, was $35,000 (£22,335) in a specialist on-line auction. Don’t be downhearted though. If all you need is a tool to reach your favorite tipple, we saw one priced at £8.50 in an antiques fair last weekend.
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