|By Jim Rutledge
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — The Schmidt Coca- Cola museum, the former home of the largest, privately owned collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in the world, has reached the end of a era. The museum was a source of pride for a fourth-generation family and gave countless hours of pleasure to more than a million visitors.
A planned March auction to sell the remaining Coca-Cola collectibles that once numbered 80,000 items fizzled towards the end, as collectors, dealers and the Coca-Cola Co. stepped in and silently picked up the remaining rare and valuable collectibles – walking away with many one-of-a kind Coca-Cola treasures.
“At the end, there was not a sell off,” said Larry Schmidt, the son of the parents who collected Coke memorabilia for more than 40 years and stored and displayed their collection in the former Coca-Cola bottling plant owned by the Schmidts.
There were many interested buyers who wished to remain anonymous. A March 2012 auction netted $7 million. A previous two-day auction in September 2011 brought in $3.3 million. News of the auctions launched a collectors’ stampede to the museum to grab, at whatever the price, some of the rarest of Coca-Cola collectibles. Many of the items date to the beginning of the world-famous soft drink in 1886.
Schmidt, who with his brother Luke, formerly worked in their family’s bottling plant, took over as president of the museum in 2005, moving into a new 32,000 square foot building. The family was proud to showcase memorabilia that collectors only dreamed of owning. Now, nearly 10 years later, the building is being leased for commercial operations under the management of Schmidt’s new role, as landlord.
Schmidt, himself, made the difficult decision with his family to close the museum a few years ago. He retains a single collectible, a 1901 Coca-Cola bottle, a bottle that was among the first to roll out of his grandfather’s bottling plant. The bottle is 7 3/4 inches tall, a brown glass model with brown, raised lettering in the legendary Coca-Cola script.
His grandfather’s plant was one of the first Coca-Cola plants in the country. The plant opened in Louisville, Ky. Years later, the plant migrated 50 miles to Elizabethtown. There are 12 Coke bottling plants in Kentucky and more than a few thousand plants across the country.
The family retains a one-of-a-kind, custom-made conference room with a glass table top that displays thousands of bottle crowns in mint condition from the 1920s and 1930s. “It was never part of the collection. It’s not Coke related,” Schmidt said.
“There is only one Coke bottle cap. It’s quite unique as there does not appear to be any duplicates,” he said, adding, it was made by his grandfather’s brother.
There was no inventory of the remaining memorabilia items that were sold during the final months. “Much of it comprised of letters, photographs, etc.,” Schmidt said. “Due to the number of paper items, (including hundreds of pages of Coca-Cola newsprint ads) … it would be impossible or (take) an extraordinary amount time to inventory those items. The (Coca-Cola) company had an interest in a number of the remaining items and were successful finding a way to purchase them. I can (also) tell you a number of collectors were responsible for buying the bulk of the remaining collection.”
A representative of Coca-Cola declined to discuss what the company purchased, or even if they made purchases. “As a general rule, we do not discuss auctions,” said Amanda Rosseter, Senior Manager, Corporate Media Relations for the Global Public Affairs and Communications Department at the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta.
The Coca-Cola Co., however, bought a total of 170 collectibles from the two previous auctions with at least 20 of the rare pieces now on display at the Coca-Cola Headquarters Museum in Atlanta. Former Coca-Cola archivist Phil Mooney, who retired after 30 years as the chief guardian of the Coke archives, said at last year’s auction, “We bought everything from a beautiful 1901 poster with vivid colors to a 1950s bright yellow (toy) delivery truck complete with all the bottles and cases.”
From last year’s auction, one item that set the collectible market on fire was a high bid of $4.5 million for the marble and alabaster, 21 foot long Coca-Cola soda fountain built for the1893 Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago. The fountain was designed and constructed by the Liquid Carbonic Co. seven years after the soft drink first hit the market.
Schmidt said at the auction he was hoping the sale would generate $1 million for the fountain after it had been estimated at $120,000.
And unusual Coke item that received little notice, except in the last auction, was the 9 foot tall, 5 foot wide sculpture and museum building ornament that adorned the side wall of the museum. Commissioned by the family as the museum was opening, the sculpture was a large-scale hand, gripping a Coca-Cola bottle.
The sculpture was designed and painted by the museum’s last archivist, Roy Minagawa. The popular image is now gone, sold to a bidder for $18,000.
Proceeds from the auctions and all the sales, Schmidt said, have been set aside for a family trust that has been established to help various charities. The family will accept proposals from legitimate non-profit charity seeking financial grants.