As Thomas Walker was about to repave one of the parking lots at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, he was probably hoping he might get lucky--strike it rich by finding a rare glass bottle.
In his case, that would mean uncovering a historical commemorative flask, but he knows that would be an improbable find, especially in Orange County.
But Walker, 34, is always on the lookout for pieces for the collection of colorful commemorative flasks he keeps in a lighted cabinet in his home in Norwalk.
And "every once in a while, I stumble across one in my travels," he said. "Most of them are probably hidden inside some New England houses or else buried in outhouse holes somewhere in the Midwest.
"Collecting these bottles is a serious hobby," says Walker, whose Long Beach company does most of the asphalt paving for campuses in the Irvine Unified School District.
Some Serious Money
It's one that involves some serious money, at any rate. Walker, who ranks himself among the top 25 collectors in the country, estimates that his 90-piece collection is worth about $100,000 and points out that a particularly rare flask can fetch as much as $80,000.
The bottles were made between 1815 and 1880 and contained whiskey, wine or water. They were done for a variety of people, including presidential candidates such as Zachary Taylor, whose campaign handed them out for the 1848 race.
He began collecting pharmaceutical bottles as a lad, but he didn't start the flask collection until 12 years ago. "I really got involved in it after I bought my first one," he said.
Hardly anyone has seen his collection, though, or even knows that he has it.
"It's risky taking them anywhere," Walker said. In fact, it is rare for him to show his collection, although he will take a few pieces to the shows sponsored by the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors. (The federation has a show each year at the Anaheim Convention Center.)
The few books with information for bottle researchers say that there are about 20,000 commemorative flasks in circulation. Most are in private collections, although some museums do have flasks that they exhibit.
Seldom Available to Buy
"About the only time you find them for sale is when a collector dies," Walker said, noting that the last major sale was an auction of a 999-piece collection in 1983 in Connecticut. It drew 300 collectors; Walker bought one bottle.
His prized commemorative bottle is a yellow and green one called an "Eagle Sunburst." Walker said there are 10 in existence but his is the only one in those colors.
"Color has to do with everything," he said. "An aqua bottle can bring $600, but one in cobalt blue can bring $45,000." Walker declined to place a value on his "Eagle Sunburst."
The rainbows of colors on the old flasks will never be re-created, he said. "Early glassmaking is a lost art, and nobody can reproduce it these days," he said. "They just can't hit the mark."