What you see: A penguin cocktail shaker designed by Emil Schuelke for the Napier Co. in 1936. Rago Arts and Auction estimates it at $2,500 to $3,500.
The expert: Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright.
Who was Emil Schuelke? There really isn’t much known about him aside from the fact that he was American, he was born in 1901, and died in 1986. This penguin cocktail shaker is probably what he’s best known for.
Do we know how the penguin cocktail shaker came to be? We do have some information. What’s wonderful about this particular design is we have a patent for it. We also know it was launched at Hammacher Schlemmer for the 1936 Christmas season.
What was Emil Schuelke’s involvement with the penguin cocktail shaker? Did he render a prototype? He’s always been credited as its designer. We don’t know of the existence of a prototype.
Was the penguin cocktail shaker an instant hit with the public? That’s hard to say, but it was one of Napier’s most successful cocktail shaker designs during this time period. It was discontinued in 1941. [The Napier Co. largely ceased to exist after it was sold in 1999.]
Do we have any idea how many penguin cocktail shakers Napier made? Unfortunately, we do not.
Was the penguin cocktail shaker a stand-alone piece, or did it come with matching cups and a serving tray? The patent in 1936 was only for a shaker. Stand-alone cocktail shaker designs weren’t uncommon in the 1930s and there was precedent for them in Napier’s designs.
What makes the penguin cocktail shaker such a powerful example of commercial design? It has a wonderfully whimsical and playful shape, and it’s streamlined and modern and ultimately a functional piece of design.
I’m impressed by how neatly Emil Schuelke translated the shape of a penguin, which is an exquisitely streamlined bird in the water but comical on land, into a cocktail shaker. The beak becomes the spout, and then there’s the feet… the only departure is the handle. The functional part of it is what makes it cool. It’s a wonderful zoomorphic figure, a nuanced animalistic design, but in the end, it needed a handle. It doesn’t all play into the design paradigm.
This example is silver-plated. Did Napier make other variations on the form? There are examples in gilt silver plate. The one at the Dallas Museum of Art has that – the beak and wings are gilt silver. And there was an example done for the 1939 World’s Fair that’s in the Royal Collection.
What is the penguin cocktail shaker like in person? I haven’t held this one, but I’ve had a model for a number of years. It’s very sleek and modern, and it has a nice weight in the hand. Because it’s a plated silver object, it’s a bit heavier than other cocktail shakers. It’s a functional work of design, meant to be used.
What’s your favorite detail of the penguin cocktail shaker? When you see it in person, it’s very sleek and modern, but you see the whimsy in the feet. It’s a functional element that makes sure the cocktail shaker stands upright, and it’s a little bit playful.
What condition is the penguin cocktail shaker in? It has a little light wear from use, from twisting it to take the top off to put in liquor and ice. Otherwise, it’s in very good condition.
Do contemporary collectors of vintage cocktail shakers treat them as sculpture, or do they generally intend to put them to work? There are people who view them as sculpture, but as we come back into an era when we appreciate cocktails, collectors view vintage cocktail shakers as objects to be used.
How often do penguin cocktail shakers come to auction? I see about one a year. It was something produced in larger numbers. It was not a one-off piece, and you have an end in 1941.
Did Napier ever reissue the penguin cocktail shaker? Other people have issued homages or replicas, but not Napier.
Are fakes a problem? Vintage penguin cocktail shakers are usually marked and stamped, and you see age to the plated silver. Something created recently doesn’t look like this, and it feels different in the hand.
What’s the world auction record for a penguin cocktail shaker? That’s hard to answer. One of the top prices achieved was in the United Kingdom. An example sold for £5,250 (roughly $7,000) at Christie’s in 2013.
Does the penguin cocktail shaker hold its value well? Prices have remained strong. The Cooper Hewitt has a wonderful example and uses it in some of its marketing material because it’s a 1930s icon.
It seems as if the penguin cocktail shaker has become emblematic of the cocktail shakers of the period. Why do you think that is? It has a wonderful whimsy to it. It’s hard to forget a penguin serving a beverage. And major institutions have examples of it – you see it more frequently when you go to museums.
How to bid: The penguin cocktail shaker is lot 717 in Object & Home Day 2, an auction taking place at Rago Arts and Auction on Nov. 20, 2020. Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.