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An Unquenchable Thirst for Collectors

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Boxing champ Evander Holyfield got one, and so did TV talk show host Rosie O’Donnell. Former President Carter got one, and so did Fred L. Lewis of Anniston, Ala.

For those who collect commemorative Coke bottles, the Lewis bottle is the one to find. Just a few were produced to mark his 1983 retirement from Coca-Cola in Alabama, so they fetch up to $7,000.

“I gave up a long time ago trying to put values on the bottles,” said Richard Mix of Marietta, who has traveled the world in search of commemorative bottles and claims the largest collection at 2,000. “There’s a mystique factor--some bottles for whatever reason become the bottle to have.”

The practice of issuing commemorative bottles dates back more than five decades. Coca-Cola has generally allowed its local bottlers leeway in creating the special bottles, and there have been bootleg versions and even counterfeits.

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Philip F. Mooney, manager of the archives department for Coca-Cola Co., said the company tries to make sure the bottles are for charitable causes, Coke customers, Coke employees or a significant event.

It’s not known just how many different ones there are--well over 2,000 is the consensus--and for some issues, there’s uncertainty about how many bottles were made.

One thing is known.

“Nobody has all of them. It’s impossible to get ‘em all,” Mooney said.

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The Coke archives, deep in the bowels of the company headquarters and filled with other memorabilia such as a cardboard cutout of actress Jean Harlow with a come-hither look for a Coke, holds a hundreds-strong sampling of commemorative bottles--but not all of them.

“It’s an interesting hobby and it’s a growing hobby,” said Tim Taylor of Rockmart, a collector with 600 to 700 bottles. Taylor worked with Coke officials to help arrange creation of a bottle for the W.E. Johnson Sweet Potato Curing and Storage House, near Roopville in west Georgia.

The potato house, built in 1940, had a special method of warming sweet potatoes to cure them quickly. Sales of the bottle will help pay for restoration of the local landmark.

At $15 each, the 960 bottles sold out within 35 minutes on Feb. 21. “It was a madhouse,” Taylor said. The lucky buyers already have received offers of more than $100 per bottle.

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The potato house joins such events as the Cordele (Ga.) Watermelon Festival and the Circleville (Ohio) Pumpkin Show on commemorative bottles. Other bottles honor such foreign places as Algeria and Macau. There bottles for champion teams, from the Dallas Cowboys to the East Marietta All-Stars; for big businesses such as McDonald’s and IBM; and for not-so-big businesses such as Everett’s Supermarket of Goshen, Ind.

For some collectors, such local-interest bottles are of no interest. Some specialize in foreign bottles, some in sports-related bottles, some in bottles for corporations, some in special “in-house” Coke bottles honoring company employees or anniversaries, some in different sizes or shapes or colors of bottles.

Mix, 33, who worked in sales and consulting and now owns his own business providing portable outhouses for construction sites, got started in college when his father gave him a 1984 Super Bowl commemorative bottle. He has combined his hobby with his love for travel, visiting more than 30 countries, from Australia to Thailand to Venezuela, to obtain commemoratives.

“The hunt is the fun,” Mix said.

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Mix is working on a new edition of his guide to Coke commemoratives, started in 1990. The 8,000 to 10,000 collectors have traditionally relied on networking and relationships with Coke employees to stay advised of new bottles, but Mix said the Internet has added interest.

On one of several Web sites devoted to Coke collectibles, Steve Sands of Massachusetts has a virtual museum of his collection and comments: “Some people say I’m obsessed. I just love my hobby.”

Among the hardest to obtain are bottles issued by the company to retiring employees or for other special Coke occasions.

And so, Mix said, the bottle for Fred Lewis’ retirement is one of the most valuable. It’s believed that only 17 were made.

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Lewis’ widow, Virginia, said their three sons each have four of the bottles and others were given to friends Lewis worked with during his 43 years at Coke. She’s amazed at the value of the bottle for Lewis, who died shortly after his retirement in 1983, and said he would be too.

“He’d turn over in his grave,” she said, laughing.


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