Passion collecting: the rise of antique corkscrews at auction

Words by
Simon De Burton
Photography by
Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017

20th March 2017

The corkscrew has had many twists and turns in its development over the centuries. Now, vintage examples can be as sought after as rare vintages

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A French Fernand François Ultra Rapide single lever corkscrew, sold for £3,525 at auction

A French Fernand François Ultra Rapide single lever corkscrew, sold for £3,525 at auction

Bar a few hiccups, the right wines have proved to be excellent investments of late. Yet a lesser-known spin-off from this current oenological fascination concerns the humble corkscrew. This simple yet ingenious device, it seems, isn’t quite so humble after all.

The corkscrew is believed to date from Roman times and its numerous variations since then have made it an unlikely object of desire and fascination the world over. There is even an organisation for collectors, the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts (known as the ICCA), whose members travel the globe in search of rarities.

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No one has comprehensively traced the twists and turns of corkscrew development, but there is evidence of the use of corks in wine containers in the odes of Roman poet Horace, so there must surely have been some method for swiftly opening the amphorae during the heat of a Bacchanalian feast.

And as soon as glass bottles arrived in England in the 1600s, inventors began thinking up instruments to ease the removal of corks. A 17th-century example, preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, has a decorative handle and a screw protected by an openwork shield. Most 18th-century corkscrews were made from steel or brass with fitted covers so they could be carried in a pocket without ripping the lining.

The type of corkscrew with a cover, which can be slipped through a ring at the top of the stem to double-up as a handle, dates from the 1700s. Yet it was not until 1795 that the Reverend Samuel Henshall, a Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, registered the first corkscrew patent. He cleverly incorporated a disc at the top of the corkscrew to compress the top of the cork and to limit the travel of the screw. This clever addition opened the floodgates to a deluge of other bright ideas. Of course, we know that the simplest, T-shaped corkscrew with a wooden handle usually does the trick with even the most stubborn of corks.

The inquisitive thinkers of the 19th century, however, decided they would come up with something better and set about designing wine-opening tools of ever more bizarre construction.

There were devices with additional superstructures to provide extra leverage. Some had accessories for cutting the foil off bottles or for brushing off bits of sealing wax. Miniature versions were made for the removal of tiny corks from medicine bottles. Some even incorporated nutmeg graters in order to add flavour to the punchbowl.

By the end of the 19th century, there were nearly 350 British patents for corkscrews, almost as many again in America and other designs registered by French, German and Scandinavian makers. The Germans and the French particularly saw the saucy potential of the corkscrew and created novelty designs in which the levers resembled women’s legs.

It was not until the early 1970s, thanks to the efforts of ceramics expert Richard Dennis, that the true collectability of the corkscrew became apparent. Until then, the device had been a poor relation in the collecting world. When Dennis began buying examples to sell at his London shop, he noticed that they were being snapped up within days. In 1996, he sold his 600-strong collection for more than £107,000 and then focused his obsessive mind on dissectology (jigsaw collecting).

A year later, the world of corkscrews was turned on its head when a record £18,400 was paid at Christie’s for an 18th-century English silver pocket corkscrew from the collection of Dr Bernard Watney, author of the seminal tome Corkscrews for Collectors. Engraved with the inscription “From the Queen, Jan 1910”, this prince of corkscrews is thought to have been a gift from Queen Alexandra. This record was equalled in 1998 when an 1842 example by Robert Jones was sold from the collection of Herbert Miles, firmly establishing the corkscrew as a work of art in its own right.

Christie’s has since abandoned its twice-yearly corkscrew sales, although they occasionally occur, usually as part of its regular interior sales. Bonhams also offers them at its annual Gentleman’s Library auctions. There are, however, a surprising number of specialist dealers in the field, including the Northamptonshire-based Corkscrew Centre, Corkscrews Online in Berkshire and noted expert Robin Butler, author of Great British Wine Accessories 1550-1900.

“Many regular wine drinkers who use modern corkscrews have probably never considered buying a vintage one — but not only can they be very attractive, they usually work perfectly well, too,” says Butler. “Unfortunately, the upper echelons of corkscrew collecting have become something of a closed circle, with a few wealthy enthusiasts snapping up the really valuable pieces as soon as they come on sale — I know of one particular collector in the US who has amassed 24,000 corkscrews, some of which are worth tens of thousands of pounds.

the-icca.net; corkscrewcentre.com; corkscrewsonline.com; butlersantiques.com