Christie's discover pulling power of the pounds 2,000 corkscrew

Sarah Jane Checkland on an auction to set corks popping
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MAN'S greatest invention was not the wheel but the humble corkscrew, judging from a Christie's sale dedicated to the device to be held on 30 April.

Some 600 examples show just what ingenuity the fruit of the vine can inspire - especially when the challenge is in getting at the contents of a given wine bottle.

Mechanisms in the auction range from the "double action" and "straight pull" to the "bell cap" and "barrel". There is even an exotic gadget called the "steel eyebrow" presumably on account of its saturnine shape. Quoted prices are from pounds 150 to pounds 2,000.

At the centre of the auction is a collection of 200 examples belonging to the British collector Richard Dennis, who first became fascinated by the corkscrew in the late 1960s, acquiring examples cheaply from junk shops and antiques markets.

In 1974 he became a founder member of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts, which spends many happy hours comparing both notes and trophies, usually while partaking of a particularly delicious vintage just opened.

Not to be confused with collectors of wine labels (whose passion Mr Dennis compares to stamp collecting), corkscrew aficionados include doctors and engineers, not to mention a Californian monk called Brother Timothy.

One American member, Herb Allen, has the distinction of having invented today's Teflon corkscrew, which cuts into cork like butter. Unfortunately, Mr Dennis says, this initiative did not extend to protecting his patent, and despite the efforts of his lawyers the invention has been pirated around the world.

The need for the corkscrew first arose with the emergence of the wine trade in the 17th century and the development of bottling. Whereas the Mediterranean wine-producing countries had no need to transport their product, continuing to drink it straight from the barrel, their fellow drinkers in northern Europe had ample incentive to experiment.

In the 1630s some bright spark noticed the similarity between the gunbarrel and the bottle neck, and started to use the "worm" or screw-shape used to extract bullets for extracting corks. Soon, Messrs Holtzapfel and Co of Charing Cross Road, London, were doing a roaring trade in both types of worms.

During the 18th century a range of exquisitely fashioned corkscrews appeared, often in silver and usually for gentlemen travellers. Mr Dennis's collection includes an example complete with a nutmeg grater. Another is hidden inside a barrel-shaped container (pounds 800 to pounds 2,000).

But the heyday for the corkscrew was during the Industrial Revolution in England. Nearly 350 British patents were registered between 1795 and 1908, often with grand namessuch as Salutaris, Senator or Excelsior.

First off the drawing-board was the "piratical screwmaker" designed by the Rev Samuel Henshall of Spitalfields in London. Writing to famous Birmingham metalsmith Matthew Bol- ton in 1795, the eccentric vicar describes his invention as "a new Mode of applying the Screw, and a Mode which every Person who sees it will be surprised that he himself did not find out".

It entailed a circular cap at the base of the worm which "by preventing the Screw from penetrating further, instantly effects the turning round of the Cork". It would, Henshall claimed, be capable of extracting "the hardest, tightest or most decayed Cork" and would supersede all rivals "in a short time".

Bolton declined Henshall's offer of partnership in his venture, but he did manufacture this highly successful product. The sale includes an example complete with the Latin inscription Stando Promoves, or "By Standing Firm one makes advancement" (pounds 500-pounds 700).

The sale also includes a range of corkscrews that are picturesque but impractical. These include Charles Hull's 1866 patent whose handle resembles that of a village pump (pounds 1,000). "My belief is that a lot of these things were given as wedding presents and never used," says Mr Dennis.

In the 20th century, the corkscrew developed on humorous lines. An American example is a caricature of the prohibitionist Senator Volstead, his hat being a receptacle for liquor while his coat-tails conceal a corkscrew (pounds 100-pounds 150). Another resembles a bright-red devil.

When the Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts was founded it had fewer than 10 members. Today there are 50, and Mr Dennis says many rival groups exist worldwide, catering for some 5,000 collectors.

Least sought after in his consignment for auction, he thinks, will be the German early 20th- century examples in the form of stripey circus legs - for the simple reason that there are so many on the market. Most desirablecould be a steel tinderbox-cum-corkscrew inscribed "Benj-n Barlows Packer Manchester 1743", partly because of its dual purpose, partly its uniqueness.

Handling it lovingly for the last time, Mr Dennis says: "He was an ordinary guy who would pack up your Chippendale chair and send it to London."

But this addict's days of corkscrew collecting are over, as he now has a new passion. Having joined the Benevolent Confraternity of Disectologists he is now in hot pursuit of a barely explored field: antique jigsaws.