Robin Butler on Twitter



October 2010

In my chosen niche market of antique wine accessories, there are a few concepts which amuse or bemuse me in equal measure. For example why should a finely crafted early 18th century decanter be worth, say £800, while a roughly-made utilitarian bottle of the same age sell at auction for five times that amount; it certainly is not the difference in their intrinsic values. To put your mind at rest, the difference in prices (and I distinguish price from value), is because there is a not-so-small band of bottle collectors chasing a quickly diminishing supply of early bottles, and early wine bottles in particular are the apogee of bottle collecting. An intact bottle was excavated from the roots of a tree in Cornwall last year, and its 300 year-long burial had degraded its surface quite considerably. It no longer had a glossy surface, but one which was irregularly pitted and iridescent; it fetched £24,000 and is illustrated above. Somehow, I find this both laughable and perplexing at the same time, and it probably explains why bottles very seldom feature on my website.

Rarity plays a part in determining the prices of antiques, and that is understandable to a degree, but any category which has been the subject of collection by a group or groups of enthusiasts, always has prices which reflect its value in the eyes of those collectors. In the world of antique wine accessories, silver bottle tickets (wine labels) are collected, and the Wine Label Circle has been a driving force behind the market for them for nearly 60 years. Corkscrews are another subject of avid collection, but I see a degree of illogicality in what is esteemed by collectors. I see the postage stamp mentality, which I have to confess has eluded my comprehension since I was about 10 years old. I find it difficult to value rarity for rarity’s sake alone, just as I have always maintained that age, of itself, bestows no merit on anything - or anybody - for that matter. If you feel strongly about the sentiments I have expressed, please do e-mail me.

At the moment I have a few pieces which are rare, and while I appreciate the delight of finding something I have seldom, if ever, seen before, those pieces have to have something else which commends them to my sense of value, whether it is fine craftsmanship, a tactile quality, a quaint rustic charm, or the inventiveness in the mind of its creator. On this occasion I will just mention two of them - one very new, and the other about 260 years old.

I have just bought a decanter which is definitely not antique, indeed it is brand new. The image will tell you much, but to have it in hand is a joy, because not only is it very tactile, but also it is startlingly beautiful. It was made by Bob Crooks an eminent glass maker, and is signed by him.www.butlersantiques.com/item/9978-new-coloured-decanter-by

My other star item is a very rare wine siphon of about 1750. www.butlersantiques.com/item/9886-very-rare-english-silver There are perhaps fewer than ten antique English wine siphons known, and this one was made by Thomas Hyde, whose father was a London vintner. He is best known for his wine labels which is not surprising as he was apprenticed to John Harvey, one of the earliest specialist wine label makers. Siphons were the first aid to transferring wine from the bottle to the decanter, a function soon taken over by wine funnels.

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I have written that dry or ‘brut’ Champagne was an invention which occurred in the middle of the 19th century, when Perrier-Jouët sent a large parcel of their champagne to Britain. Until that point in 1848, all champagne was sweet for the Russian and Parisian markets, but by accident this particular parcel was unsweetened. To everyone’s surprise, it was a great success among the English. The importer was Adolphe Boursot, whose family originated in Dijon but who had lived in London since 1827. It was the start of the huge success story of champagne as we know it today. By the turn of the 19th /20th century, Boursot’s were selling 70% of Perrier-Jouët’s 1,000,000 bottle annual production!

It just happens that for the past 3 or 4 years Carol and I have been visiting the small town of Ardres, about 15 minutes easy drive south from Calais where we have bought wine from Adolphe’s great-great grandson, Guy. I had no idea that Guy (who appears utterly English!) had such an illustrious ancestor - we just went there for good wine at a very reasonable price, and his ‘house’ champagne is wondrous! And he still sells Perrier-Jouët for much less than it costs in the UK! To see what he has to offer, go to www.boursot.co.uk. We find an occasional visit well worthwhile, and there are some fine restaurants in the area, too.

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Finally, my publisher has decided that in the run up to Christmas, he will promote my book "Great British Wine Accessories 1550 - 1900" with a massive price reduction from £65 to £45. Any reader who bought a copy at the full price may be feeling a little short-changed, so to redress this, I will be happy to offer a discount of £20 from the next item you purchase from me. You, as readers of my newsletter, have notice of this reduction before the rest of the world, so please feel free to take advantage of it while stocks last.

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