Robin Butler on Twitter

April 2011

As promised in my last newsletter, I am reporting on the first high-quality antiques fair of the season. There are hundreds of so-called antiques fairs, but few which really do justice to the expression. The British Antique Dealers’ Association is the premier dealers’ organisation, and they hold their own show for members in Chelsea - a stone’s throw from Peter Jones on the Kings Road. The mood is almost reverence and respectability, but is tinged with sufficient gilt and glitter to make it an enjoyable experience. Although the fair is in a marquee, the dress is smart on both sides of the counters, and it is clear that this is a place where cheques are written with multiple zeros. However not everything is heavily priced.

I opted to go on the second day so I could meet a Canadian customer who was arriving in London the day after the fair started. Very often a second day can be dull, but there was an excellent attendance, even if red dots to signify sales appeared to be thin on the furniture. Nevertheless, the standard seems as high as ever, and certainly deals were being transacted. I found a couple of bargains with which I am delighted, but I was not tempted by a special tray designed to take 6-bottles from the cellar to the dining room. It was a good deal more than twice the price of one I sold 6 months ago.

An area of wine-related antiques - wine labels - has long held a fascination for a devoted group of collectors. Until 1861, it was not lawful to sell wine by the bottle, because bottles varied in size, being hand blown. (Actually mould-blown wine bottles were first made in 1821, but the law can move very slowly.) Wine was bought by the barrel or gallon, or some other unit of measurement, then bottled for the customer by the vintner. As a result, bottles did not have paper labels, but once at their destination, were put in compartments, called ’bins’ in cellars, and the bins were marked with pottery (usually) bin labels. Such labels bore the legends ‘claret’, ‘port’, ‘sherry’, or whatever else was in the bottles, but were rarely specific giving chateaux or vintages. When the bottles were taken to the dining room, and the wines decanted, the decanters, too, needed labels to indicate the contents. Decanter labels are usually called ‘wine labels’ in the antiques world, and the Wine Label Circle has been active since 1952. The Circle has asked me to give my ‘take’ on their subject next month.

Most wine labels are silver, although mother-of-pearl, tigers’ claws, enamel and other media are seen. The earliest were made in the 1730s, soon after the binning of wine became the norm, and like all areas of the decorative arts, a progression of designs followed. The grandest were made in the early 19th century and were gilded, but there were many ways in which they were made - cut from sheet silver, die-stamped, or cast - that is pouring molten metal into a mould, and when cold, being chiselled to a sharp finish; these are the highest quality wine labels.

Collectors of wine labels specialise in different areas. Some give preference to rare wine names, while others collect the products of rare provincial assay offices. Some collectors want the products of certain makers, while others only collect early Sheffield plated examples. It must be remembered that in the 18th century, not all tradesmen were literate so spelling mistakes, particularly of foreign wine-growing areas are sometimes seen, and these are eagerly sought.

Where sets of labels survive, they can reveal the taste of the original owner as well as the then-current fashions for different wines. Of special interest is the preponderance of wines from Portugal and Portugese-controlled areas (Madeira for instance), and the relative paucity of French names. This is because the Methuen Treaty of 1703 gave tax advantages for Portuguese wine being imported at the expense of the French. Wine labels for Burgundy are much rarer than Claret because the wines of Bordeaux were more easily shipped than those of land-locked Burgundy. Another observation is that Scottish wine labels feature relatively more French wines than English wine labels - presumably because of the ‘Auld Alliance’. Sherry was always popular, and I am delighted to read it is regaining the ground it has lost over recent decades. As it is 6.30 in the evening as I write this, I may pour myself a glass!

While I occasionally have a mis-spelling, a label from a provincial maker, or some other form of rarity, my preference lies with labels of high quality and in fine condition - and not all labels are. You may like to see what we have just now.

Return to newsletters list