Purchase Story

Rare Bitters from the Ken Fee Collection

American Bottle Auctions, Sacramento, California

Photos courtesy American Bottle Auctions

Color, condition, rarity, mystery, history, and a hefty price. A Cassin’s Grape Brandy Bitters bottle had it all during an absentee auction held by American Bottle Auctions, Sacramento, California, that ended on December 8, 2019. The bottle sold for $155,100 (including buyer’s premium) in the first of two sessions of the Ken Fee collection of western bitters bottles.

“Cassin,s - Grape Brandy - Bitters,” applied top, light to medium teal-blue turquoise, 1867-68, light to medium crudity, wavy glass, no grade given but described as mint, $155,100.

“Cassin,s - Grape Brandy - Bitters,” applied top, light to medium teal-blue turquoise, 1867-68, light to medium crudity, wavy glass, no grade given but described as mint, $155,100.

“Cassin’s is considered the number-one western bottle made,” said Jeff Wichmann, owner of American Bottle Auctions. “Because of that, they are highly sought after.”

Designed to resemble a cello, the bottles were made between October 1867 and July 1868 by San Francisco Glass Works, according to Early Glassworks of California (2010) by Warren B. Friedrich. Two variants are known. The first had thin corners that were prone to break, a problem that was lessened with the second version. Some bottles, including the example sold in December, used a comma instead of an apostrophe in the embossed lettering, making it “Cassin,s Grape Brandy Bitters.”

Two brothers, Francis and Patrick Cassin of San Francisco, produced the medicinal drink, gaining accolades along the way. During the 1867 California State Fair, F. P. Cassin of San Francisco was commended for “best Grape Brandy Bitters.”

In general, bitters were promoted as patent medicines that cured all types of ailments. The drink, flavored with botanical matter, typically had a high alcohol content. Bitters were more quackery than cure, but the glass containers used for the products have become a longstanding favorite on the bottle market. The scarcity of Cassin’s bitters is understood by collectors of western bottles. “There aren’t many of either variant known without some kind of damage,” said Wichmann. “I’m told there are six mint examples of either variant, including this one. That number can be wrong. We just know that many of the examples we see aren’t mint.”

The Cassin’s bottle from the Fee collection was an exception to the rule. “We can safely say that this is one of the best-condition examples known. Although we know it was dug, it appears attic mint. It has just about nothing in the way of wear or scratches or imperfections of any kind,” Wichmann added.

Color was also of note. The Cassin’s bottle was in a blue that few people had seen before the auction. More than 50 years after Fee acquired the piece not many people could verify it existed.

The history of the bottle added to its intrigue. It was dug in Eureka, California, in the late 1960s, and then it sold to a person who offered it at more than one bottle show before it was purchased by Fee for $1000, which was paid in $100 installments, according to Wichmann. Although the price was a considerable sum for the bottle half a century ago, Fee wasn’t a major player among bottle collectors. A boilermaker from Salt Lake City, he was relatively unknown within the hobby, buying bottles—including some choice examples—for about 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s.

“German Balsam Bitters / W.M. Watson & Co. / Sole Agents for U.S.,” milk glass, 1880s, applied top, grade 9.5, $1356. According to the auction catalog, W.M. Watson & Co. sold out to the Winedale Company, which retained the brand name but changed to a bottle without embossing. Milk glass is typically not associated with western glassmakers. “Regardless, it has only been found out here and is generally regarded as a western bottle,” the catalog noted.

“German Balsam Bitters / W.M. Watson & Co. / Sole Agents for U.S.,” milk glass, 1880s, applied top, grade 9.5, $1356. According to the auction catalog, W.M. Watson & Co. sold out to the Winedale Company, which retained the brand name but changed to a bottle without embossing. Milk glass is typically not associated with western glassmakers. “Regardless, it has only been found out here and is generally regarded as a western bottle,” the catalog noted.

“At the time he was just kind of a loner,” said Wichmann. “He had figured out what he liked, and he put that together.”

When Fee eventually turned his attention to stamp collecting, he boxed his bottles and stored them in an attic. The collection remained untouched for more than 30 years until after Fee’s death in November 2018.

When heirs retrieved the collection, they had little idea what they were handling. “The family had heard the Cassin’s was a big deal,” said Wichmann. “They didn’t know anything about any of the other bottles.”

Wichmann was contacted for advice. “They frankly didn’t know a Coke bottle from a Cassin’s bitters,” he said. He was hired to sell everything, about 250 pieces, with the Cassin’s being the cornerstone of the collection.

The $155,100 paid for the bottle was by far the highest price of the sale, but five other bitters also made some noise. Dating from the mid-1860s to the early 1870s, each brought a five-figure price. A Dr. Boerhaave’s Stomach Bitters in light to medium green realized $30,800; a Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters in aqua, $25,300; an OK Bitters in blue aqua, $23,100; and two examples of Lacour’s Bitters Sarsapariphere, one in light amber, the other in green, brought $14,850 and $14,300, respectively.

“Dr. Boerhaave’s / Stomach Bitters,” light to medium green, San Francisco, 1868-69, applied tapered top, grade 9, $30,800. Dr. Boerhaave was a well-known Dutch chemist whose name was used to sell this product, which came in bottles of various colors. The partnership formed to market Dr. Boerhaave’s Stomach Bitters dissolved within a year and a half.

“Dr. Boerhaave’s / Stomach Bitters,” light to medium green, San Francisco, 1868-69, applied tapered top, grade 9, $30,800. Dr. Boerhaave was a well-known Dutch chemist whose name was used to sell this product, which came in bottles of various colors. The partnership formed to market Dr. Boerhaave’s Stomach Bitters dissolved within a year and a half.

Fee’s collection also contained a number of less expensive bottles, including bitters that used paper labels. “Most of the labeled bitters we sold were from the 1880s on,” said Wichmann. “You’re not going to really find a lot of early western bottles with labels. There are some. The ones we sold did pretty well.” A variety of examples from across the United States brought less than $1000, and some were under $100.

Interest in material from the Fee collection was indicative of the steady demand for good bottles. “The hobby seems strong,” said Wichmann. The auction of the second half of the collection ended February 23.

For more information, phone 1-800-806-7722 or visit (www.americanbottle.com).

“OK / Bitters,” blue aqua, 1869-71, applied band, overall whittle, grade 9.5, $23,100. The catalog noted, “This is only the second example we have handled or ever seen.”

“OK / Bitters,” blue aqua, 1869-71, applied band, overall whittle, grade 9.5, $23,100. The catalog noted, “This is only the second example we have handled or ever seen.”

“Dr. Henley’s / Wild Grape Root / Bitters,” medium yellow-green, 1868-93, applied band, highly whittled, no grade given, flat chip on right front of base, $4746.

“Dr. Henley’s / Wild Grape Root / Bitters,” medium yellow-green, 1868-93, applied band, highly whittled, no grade given, flat chip on right front of base, $4746.

“Bryant’s - Stomach - Bitters,” olive green, 1857-63, six-sided, lady’s leg with applied top and sticky ball pontil, lots of bubbles and crudity, grade 8.5-plus, $5198. This bottle was considered rare when purchased by Ken Fee, but that was before the discovery of 18 intact Bryant’s Stomach Bitters bottles in the shipwreck of the Sea Lark in the Atlantic Ocean, off Brazil. The clipper was bound for San Francisco when it was captured and burned by the C.S.S. Alabama in May 1863. According to the auction house, Bryant’s bottles were made in the East specifically to be shipped to the West. The catalog noted, “It seems western collectors have adopted the Bryant’s as their own.”

“Bryant’s - Stomach - Bitters,” olive green, 1857-63, six-sided, lady’s leg with applied top and sticky ball pontil, lots of bubbles and crudity, grade 8.5-plus, $5198. This bottle was considered rare when purchased by Ken Fee, but that was before the discovery of 18 intact Bryant’s Stomach Bitters bottles in the shipwreck of the Sea Lark in the Atlantic Ocean, off Brazil. The clipper was bound for San Francisco when it was captured and burned by the C.S.S. Alabama in May 1863. According to the auction house, Bryant’s bottles were made in the East specifically to be shipped to the West. The catalog noted, “It seems western collectors have adopted the Bryant’s as their own.”

Left: “Cundurango” bitters, medium amber, Sacramento, California, 1872-80, embossed name on two sides and having an indented side panel and applied top, unusual drippy lip, described in the catalog as “as crude and beautiful as any we have seen,” grade 9, $2640. Right: same bottle design in medium green, nice overall crudity with a spot or two of light stain, grade 9, $4068.

Left: “Cundurango” bitters, medium amber, Sacramento, California, 1872-80, embossed name on two sides and having an indented side panel and applied top, unusual drippy lip, described in the catalog as “as crude and beautiful as any we have seen,” grade 9, $2640. Right: same bottle design in medium green, nice overall crudity with a spot or two of light stain, grade 9, $4068.

“Pepsin Bitters - Golden Gate Medicine Co.,” orange amber, 1905, tooled top, grade 9.3, $7700. A variant of this bottle abbreviates the word “medicine.” Both examples are considered rare. The auction catalog noted, “This is only the second we’ve seen.”

“Pepsin Bitters - Golden Gate Medicine Co.,” orange amber, 1905, tooled top, grade 9.3, $7700. A variant of this bottle abbreviates the word “medicine.” Both examples are considered rare. The auction catalog noted, “This is only the second we’ve seen.”

“N.B. Jacobs & Co - Rosenbaums /  Bitters - San Francisco,” red amber, 1864-68, applied tapered top, exposed potstone on the front lower edge, no grade given, $2147. The first of three variants, it was made starting in 1864 at either Pacific Glass Works or San Francisco Glass Works. In all, these bottles were made for only four years. This example was found in Marysville, California, in April 1971.

“N.B. Jacobs & Co - Rosenbaums /  Bitters - San Francisco,” red amber, 1864-68, applied tapered top, exposed potstone on the front lower edge, no grade given, $2147. The first of three variants, it was made starting in 1864 at either Pacific Glass Works or San Francisco Glass Works. In all, these bottles were made for only four years. This example was found in Marysville, California, in April 1971.

“Dr. Henley’s / Wild Grape Root / IXL / Bitters,” paper label, 1868-93, applied band, extremely whittled, grade 9.5, rear label about 80% but mostly legible, $4400. “Although we have seen other labeled IXL bottles, this one is by far the earliest,” the catalog noted.

“Dr. Henley’s / Wild Grape Root / IXL / Bitters,” paper label, 1868-93, applied band, extremely whittled, grade 9.5, rear label about 80% but mostly legible, $4400. “Although we have seen other labeled IXL bottles, this one is by far the earliest,” the catalog noted.

“Catawba Wine - Bitters,” green, 1860-66, embossed grapes, applied drippy top, graphite pontil, lots of whittle and overall crudity, grade 9, three annealing marks or checks to the top, $7150.

“Catawba Wine - Bitters,” green, 1860-66, embossed grapes, applied drippy top, graphite pontil, lots of whittle and overall crudity, grade 9, three annealing marks or checks to the top, $7150.

“Turner Brothers / New York / Buffalo N.Y. / San Francisco. Cal.,” four-line variant, red amber, 1858-64, double roll collar, graphite pontil, heavily whittled, grade 8, small flake off lip, $4746.

“Turner Brothers / New York / Buffalo N.Y. / San Francisco. Cal.,” four-line variant, red amber, 1858-64, double roll collar, graphite pontil, heavily whittled, grade 8, small flake off lip, $4746.

“Dr. Renz’s / Herb Bitters,” variant three with large lettering and curved Rs, light green, 1868-81, grade 9, $3390.

“Dr. Renz’s / Herb Bitters,” variant three with large lettering and curved Rs, light green, 1868-81, grade 9, $3390.

“Dr Wonser’s / U.S.A. / Indian Root / Bitters,” aqua, 1871-73, applied double roll collar with kick-up in base, plenty of whittle, unusually strong strike, grade 9.8, $25,300. This bottle is considered one of the premier western bitters; this example has an unusual slug, measuring about ½

“Dr Wonser’s / U.S.A. / Indian Root / Bitters,” aqua, 1871-73, applied double roll collar with kick-up in base, plenty of whittle, unusually strong strike, grade 9.8, $25,300. This bottle is considered one of the premier western bitters; this example has an unusual slug, measuring about ½" x 2", on the side shoulder. “We’ve never seen this anomaly on another Wonser’s,” the catalog noted.

“J. Day / & Co.” soda water, aqua, 1880s, blob top, light crudity, grade 9.3, slight interior haze, $1243. The bottle is said to be one of only two Utah bottles known to have been blown in San Francisco.

“J. Day / & Co.” soda water, aqua, 1880s, blob top, light crudity, grade 9.3, slight interior haze, $1243. The bottle is said to be one of only two Utah bottles known to have been blown in San Francisco.

Left: “Lacour’s Bitters - Sarsapariphere,” variant one, green, 1867-68, applied top, having what was cataloged as “a slight distraction in the top,” grade 9, $14,300. Right: the same bottle in light amber, the applied top somewhat crooked, heavily whittled, grade 9, described in the catalog as “about as nice an amber example as we’ve seen,” $14,850. The auction house added, “Although these bottles are not considered rare in amber, they should be considered very rare in any other color. It seems these bitters have grown in popularity over the last number of years. Their unusual shape and variance in color makes them a highly regarded early western bitters.” Meant to resemble a lighthouse, the Lacour’s Bitters Sarsapariphere bottle is often considered one of only two figural bitters made in the West.

Left: “Lacour’s Bitters - Sarsapariphere,” variant one, green, 1867-68, applied top, having what was cataloged as “a slight distraction in the top,” grade 9, $14,300. Right: the same bottle in light amber, the applied top somewhat crooked, heavily whittled, grade 9, described in the catalog as “about as nice an amber example as we’ve seen,” $14,850. The auction house added, “Although these bottles are not considered rare in amber, they should be considered very rare in any other color. It seems these bitters have grown in popularity over the last number of years. Their unusual shape and variance in color makes them a highly regarded early western bitters.” Meant to resemble a lighthouse, the Lacour’s Bitters Sarsapariphere bottle is often considered one of only two figural bitters made in the West.

“Pawnee Long Life / Bitters,” amber, one pint three ounces, tooled top, 8

“Pawnee Long Life / Bitters,” amber, one pint three ounces, tooled top, 8" high, grade 9.3, $2200.

“H. Klas’s Oregon Peach Bitters,” aqua, Aumsville, Oregon, 1890s, tooled top, grade 9.3, $3390.

“H. Klas’s Oregon Peach Bitters,” aqua, Aumsville, Oregon, 1890s, tooled top, grade 9.3, $3390.

“Dr. J. Hostetter’s / Stomach Bitters,” amber, applied tapered top, good whittle and bubbles, grade 8.5, $2034.

“Dr. J. Hostetter’s / Stomach Bitters,” amber, applied tapered top, good whittle and bubbles, grade 8.5, $2034.

“Clayton & Russell’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters,” paper label depicting a naked man subduing a mythical creature, original contents, no grade given, minor tears and losses to the label, $180.80. The label notes that the contents were 37% alcohol.

“Clayton & Russell’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters,” paper label depicting a naked man subduing a mythical creature, original contents, no grade given, minor tears and losses to the label, $180.80. The label notes that the contents were 37% alcohol.

“Hop Celery & Chamomile Bitters,” M.E. Doe & Co., Philipsburg and Granite, Montana, paper label, light yellow bottle near perfect, original contents, no grade given, $1540.

“Hop Celery & Chamomile Bitters,” M.E. Doe & Co., Philipsburg and Granite, Montana, paper label, light yellow bottle near perfect, original contents, no grade given, $1540.

“Orhsen Blut ‘Ox Blood’ Bitters,” Ox Blood Bitters Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, paper label, clear bottle in perfect condition, partial contents, one-fifth gallon, no grade given, label with some light staining, $67.80.

“Orhsen Blut ‘Ox Blood’ Bitters,” Ox Blood Bitters Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, paper label, clear bottle in perfect condition, partial contents, one-fifth gallon, no grade given, label with some light staining, $67.80.

“Kettle Bitters,” paper label showing a copper still over a campfire, the medium amber bottle embossed “A.K. Lewis & Co. / Covington KY,” 1880s, applied band, 11

“Kettle Bitters,” paper label showing a copper still over a campfire, the medium amber bottle embossed “A.K. Lewis & Co. / Covington KY,” 1880s, applied band, 11" high, unlisted, no grade given, in-the-making flaw at base, label worn and with losses, $480.25. “We had never heard of this bottle until seeing this one,” the catalog noted.

“Pawnee Long Life Bitters,” paper label, the bottle embossed “Pawnee Bitters / Pawnee / Indiana Medicine Co. / S.F.,” foil over lip, original contents, 8½

“Pawnee Long Life Bitters,” paper label, the bottle embossed “Pawnee Bitters / Pawnee / Indiana Medicine Co. / S.F.,” foil over lip, original contents, 8½" high, no grade given but the bottle is described as perfect, tears and losses to label, $605. The catalog noted that there must not be many with the original label.

 


Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest

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