Since the early Seventies, corkscrews have become collectibles in their own right, and a forthcoming auction at Christie's South Kensington features the 300-strong Herbert Miles Collection of Corkscrews, which promises to include some real corkers.
Some of the most expensive items at Christie's are actually corkscrews that never really worked very well. In April of 1996, an 1842 Robert Jones II corkscrew set the record for a model with a registered design when it fetched pounds 10,800 at auction. "It was an extremely rare piece, because it was not a successful model," explained Christie's specialist Dennis Cox. "There were only a few made, and the story goes that they simply stopped selling them."
So what is it, other than rarity and incompetent design, that sets a corkscrew apart from the rest? One of Dennis Cox's personal favourites is a 19th century "straight pull" corkscrew, that he describes as a "modest functional piece". The handle is bone and the shank - the section between handle and "worm" - is baluster. The corkscrew's estimated selling price is around pounds 180, but the auction itself, Cox maintains, will not be exclusively expensive, and aims to attract a wider crowd than just the big spenders.
The Christie's auction has a range of corkscrews that they expect to sell from pounds 80 up to pounds 5,000. There is a German celluloid coloured folding Lady's Legs pocket corkscrew, manufactured in 1894 by Steinfeld and Reiler, which should fetch between pounds 200 and pounds 300. The Lunds 1838 patent bottle grip corkscrew is the real prize of the collection, and could sell for between pounds 4,000 and pounds 5,000.
Until quite recently, corkscrew sales were the poor relations tacked on to the end of wine auctions. In May 1994, Christie's auctioned the Gianni Giachin Collection, and three years later the Dr Bernard Watney Collection broke the world record with an 18th century pocket silver corkscrew that sold for pounds 18,400. The two Christie's auctions, on 22 September, have a special significance: they are timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary meeting of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts (ICCA), in London this month.
The ICCA was formed in 1974 by Dr Bernard Watney and Homer Babbidge, a college dean. Membership has grown to 50 and it has members from Britain, the US, and all over Europe. They include among their brethren Brother Timothy, a Christian priest who has been head of a Napa Valley winery in California for 54 years.
Joseph Paradi, a Canadian ICCA member, rates the forthcoming Christie's auction as "in the top three or four" of corkscrew auctions. Paradi's own favourites are influenced by his profession: he is a lecturer in engineering at the University of Toronto
He explains to me the workings of one particular English corkscrew that operates like an old village well. "The corkscrew straddles the neck of the bottle and a rope on a crank pulls out the cork." All fascinating stuff, but where lies the real attraction in corkscrews?
Antique corkscrews, Paradi explains, come from "five major countries: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. If you look at the corkscrew; you can deduce from it something of the flavour of the country. The Italian corkscrew is often brass and ornate, while the English are very complex and mechanical. The German corkscrews are precise, and often use bearings, and the French have all kinds of weird things." And what of the American corkscrew? "Well, they really work, and they were made in their millions."
The ICCA is comprised of lawyers, doctors and accountants, as well as architects and locksmiths. The members are not just building collections but also, like Herbert Miles, safeguarding the future of these curious antiques. They pool their collective experience in dating and placing non-patented pieces and occasionally put the corkscrew to good use in its original purpose.
Consider the Wolverson's 1877 registered Holborn Champagne screw, estimated at pounds 150-pounds 200 at the Christie's auction. The device was designed as a champagne tap, which kept the sparkle in the bottle while drawing off individual glasses of champagne to be used as a health restorative. Champagne as medication? Now that really does sound like a good ruse.
The Herbert Miles Collection of Corkscrews is at 10.30am on 22 September, and will be followed by a separate corkscrew auction at 2pm. The auctions will be held at Christie's South KensingtonReuse content