The Auction Insider

The art of the Old West is widely appreciated.

One of the Old West’s most functional and enjoyed forms appears as the iconic Beer Tray and associated ephemera such as posters and chargers. In California, beer trays are particularly popular and that’s why I was very excited to spot a great collection stored inside a barrel in the attic of garage in Oroville.

The owner was liquidating his mother’s estate and was, like lots of people, reluctant to part with items that had been important to her. Fortunately, he put his trust in Witherell’s – we have a particular interest in Old West collectibles – and we used our expertise to benefit him.

Decorative Beer Art has Popular Appeal

With hundreds of items consigned to us, it was the trays that brought a great deal of interest from collectors who are drawn to the colorful history of the West.

Although this advertising device for beer companies around the turn of the 19th century was widely popular, it’s California trays that are known as the most beautiful and desirable. They depict the romanticism and intrigue of the Wild West – beautiful maidens in flowing skirts, charging buffalo, daring cowboys and their stallions. The California trays, particularly those from San Francisco and Sacramento, are also expertly made with very high quality graphics and rich colors. Some of the nation’s biggest collectors of antique advertising live in California and we were confident the pieces would quickly sell in our online auction.

Condition controls Value

A few of the trays were in terrific condition, a requirement for top collectors. In fact, condition easily makes the difference between a tray that nets $10,000 and one selling for $50. But, herein lies another beauty of collecting beer trays – they are within reach of most people who enjoy Old West artifacts. In addition, beer trays are a “cross-over” collectible, meaning people who like other Western items such as bottles, cowboy ephemera and Gold Rush antiques also collect the trays.

The practice of beer companies advertising their brands on functional items like trays began in about 1895 and lasted until 1918 with the Prohibition Era. Since then, many reproductions have appeared on the market – some obviously made well after the originals and others, unfortunately, misrepresented by sellers as genuine. Beer trays can be found in many places from garage sales and flea markets to estate sales. And buyers need to beware.

I advise buyers to always carry a magnifying lens and carefully examine the art work in good light. Authentic Old West advertising has no ‘pixels’- the tiny printed dots we see in later printing processes. The Lithographs of the 19th century were done with a print process that created continuous color. The key features to look for (after the print method authenticity) are availability, condition and desirability of the subject matter.

I’ll write more about how to determine authenticity of your Fab Finds in future blogs. For now, Happy Hunting!
Brian Witherell