Corkscrew collections – by Jeremy Astfalck

Collectibles By Lisa Witepski describes collections as “a group of objects or works to be seen, studied or kept together.” That rather sterile definition gives no hint at the passion collectors feel for their prized goodies, or the unadulterated joy when they find a potential newcomer for the group. Take Graham Webster, general manager of Pearl Valley, for example. Most people have one or two corkscrews lying around the house; Webster has more than 300, a collection he’s amassed over 20 years. “It all started when I took on a job as a golf pro at the Stellenbosch Club. As a lover of wine, living in the heart of the winelands, I thought corkscrews would make for a fun collection,” Webster recalls. He was further inspired by a picture glimpsed in a décor magazine, which depicted a wall filled with hundreds of different types of corkscrews. The collection started with a purchase in an antiques shop on Cape Town’s Church Street – a moment Webster remembers with some regret. “I had found two corkscrews; one for R20, and another shaped like a pair of ladies’ legs in stockings, for R60.” Webster went for the cheaper option – and rues his decision to this day. “The German corkscrew has become highly sought after and today sells for thousands of rands.” Webster puts his poor judgment down to the fact that he knew very little about corkscrews at the time – something that’s changed as his collection has grown to encompass a number of books on the subject and, of course, many different types of corkscrews. “I’ve made it a custom to explore antique shops, charity stores and second hand outlets wherever I am in the world, because you never know. You just may find a gem in a rather obscure place.” For Webster, the treasure hunt is part of the fun – he loves the idea of stumbling across something that may just be of value, and paying next to nothing for it. “My nephew loves rummaging through garage sales, and I’ve found a number of interesting items at such events,” he confides. One of those interesting finds includes a fine example of a Lund Lever, an old model dating back to the 1800s. The corkscrew comprises two parts: first, the worm (the actual screw mechanism) is inserted into the cork; next, a pair of pliers is hooked through the worm hole and squeezed together – and out pops the cork. The Lever is the most valuable piece in Webster’s collection. “I found another really interesting piece in a charity shop in Knysna. What makes this one fascinating is the fact that it’s difficult to recognise as a corkscrew at first; it’s shaped like a wooden barrel, topped with a replica of Friar Tuck’s head. It was when I noticed the head was loose, concealing the worm, that I realised it would be perfect for my collection.” Webster’s favourite piece is one designed to look markedly different from a run of the mill corkscrew. Shaped like a bear, the worm is covered by a rod, so that at first it looks anything but functional. Then there’s the metal whiskey bottle, the size of a box of matches, which has a screw top lid that twists off to reveal the hidden corkscrew. Another interesting corkscrew was a gift from a travel company: as small as a credit card and just 3mm in width, the piece’s cover slides off to reveal a corkscrew, knife and other tools – all fully functional. Webster admits that most of his purchases have been bought with the goal of collecting as many different types of corkscrew as possible, rather than with an eye to investment. That said, he has become more discerning with time. “When I first started collecting, I’d buy anything that looked a bit unusual. Now I’m more interested in detail, pieces that are a little bit more distinguished than the average. And the fact that they appreciate in value – well, that’s just a plus. I’ve never spent more than R600 on a single piece.” Any tips for would-be collectors? “Don’t miss out on any really good pieces – especially when you’re starting out,” Webster chuckles wistfully, thinking no doubt of the ladies’ legs he will forever run after!

Franschhoek treasure trove: Jeremy Astfalck, owner of The Old Corkscrew, is most familiar with Webster’s long lamented corkscrew – after all, it is one of the most sought after items in his Franschhoek shop. A silversmith by training, Astfalck established The Old Corkscrew in 1994. “We started with just six corkscrews; today, we have more than 600, making the collection the largest in Africa,” Astfalck says. He explains that The Old Corkscrew’s collection represents roughly 25% of all known corkscrew designs, many of which were produced only for a limited period. The ‘gay nineties’ legs to which Webster referred is one such model, making it rare and therefore highly valuable. “In fact, there are three versions of this particular design,” Astfalck informs. “The first is covered by stockings; the second wears half a stocking and the third is completely bare.” It doesn’t take an imaginative mind to conjure up all sorts of innuendo suggested by the diminishing stockings, and that, says Astfalck, is half the corkscrew’s quirky appeal. “We always say that if a gentlemen had his eye on a lady, he could reveal his intentions by taking her on a picnic. He’d open the first bottle of wine with the stockinged legs; the second bottle with the half-clad legs, and by the third….well, by that stage, she should have been able to guess at his goal!” Astfalck reports that the corkscrew was designed by a German manufacturer in the 1890s. “The Germans loved to shock the stuffy Victorians, as this corkscrew plainly shows.” While prices depend on the condition of the corkscrew and whether it bears the maker’s mark, prices generally range from R4,500 for the stockinged legs to R18 000 for the naked ones. “As the least attractive model, the bare-legged corkscrews weren’t very popular. That makes them extremely valuable today, because they’re very rare.” Rarity also plays a role in fixing the price of their stockinged counterparts: the more unusual the colour of the stockings, the more you can expect to pay. The most pricey item currently in stock at The Old Corkscrew is an example of the first patented corkscrew, which dates back to 1795. The Henshall button corkscrew, named for Reverend Samuel Henshall, the clergyman who patented it, the corkscrew comprises a concave disc mounted on a shank, which compresses and turns the cork when the worm is fully inserted. This makes for an easy uncorking, as the bond between the cork and bottle is swiftly broken. The corkscrew, which is inscribed with the Latin motto “Obstando Promoves Soho Pantent” (by standing firm one makes advancement), retails for R45 000. Other popular models include the Tangent Lever, a two part corkscrew consisting of a T-bar which is pulled out with a pair of pliers, and “any Boer war paraphernalia”, including pen knife combinations stamped with the names of famous Boer generals. Interestingly, Astfalck’s most frequently requested items include corkscrews handed out as promotions by local bottlestores. “These carry with them a sense of nostalgia. They usually carry the bottlestore’s phone number, and they’re a little piece of history.” So, who collects corkscrews? An astonishing variety of people, Astfalck replies. The items in his shop range from R100 to tens of thousands of rands – and there’s a buyer for each, from serious collectors to kids looking for the perfect Father’s Day present. “Individual collectors often visit our store. They’ll usually spend between R300 and R700 on a piece,” Astfalck says. Then there are those who take their hobbies to new heights, such as the leader of the French Corkscrew Collectors Association, whose collections includes 2 000 different models. Astfalck recalls that he serendipitously stumbled across The Old Corkscrew whilst holidaying in Franschhoek. After calling for the tour guide to take a hiatus while he explored the shop, the collector purchased three items, the cheapest of which was R18 000. Astfalck says that he is visited regularly by restaurant owners who require different types of corkscrews to work with different types of corks. Other frequent purchasers include corporates such as wine farms, whose finds at The Old Corkscrew make fitting adornments for the walls of their tasting rooms. “These make a great talking point for tourists, and make an interesting display tracing the development of wine, corks and corkscrews,” Astfalck says, adding that many of the shop’s customers hail from the United States and Australia. All told, Astfalck sells between 400 and 500 corkscrews each year. “We’ve found that, while most antiques appeal to a specific type of person – for example, most collectors of wine labels are men and caddy spoons are more popular amongst women – corkscrews appeal to almost everyone; probably because they’re practical as well as interesting.”

Best buys: Keen to start your own collection? Begin by educating yourself on the topic – there are a number of books about corkscrews available, and the Internet is always a valuable resources. Next, build a relationship with a knowledgeable, trustworthy dealer who will be able to help you find special items and guide you in the right direction. “Always buy corkscrews made from the very best materials,” Astfalck advises. “These will always retain their value, and will most likely prove themselves a sound investment as they will stand the test of time.” Manufacturers such as Robert Jones, Farrow & Jackson and Edward Thomason have built an unshakeable reputation for quality goods, while models like The Surprise, The Record, The Perpetual and The London Rack are perennially popular. “We have a Surprise in store that dates back from 1880. When it first came into our hands, it was worth around R280. Today, it goes for R1200,” Astfalck says. Look out for pieces bearing the maker’s mark; they’re extremely rare, and therefore highly prized. The condition of your corkscrew is, naturally, important, maintains Paul Mrkusic of Bancroft Studio. Although you should obviously aim to buy pieces which are in as good nick as possible, a little wear and tear is to be expected, and a corkscrew which is devoid of rust or the occasional crack in wooden and ivory handles is most likely to be a fake. That said, the condition of the worm is non-negotiable. It should have at least four or five twists; any less, and it’s possible that it has been broken. “Check that the worm goes straight down without driving to the side, or you will not be able to use the corkscrew,” Mrkusic advises – and, for the same reason, make sure the worm is securely joined to the handle. Most importantly, as with any other collectible, don’t buy merely because you think your friends will be impressed. Your collection should be a reflection of your passion, whether it’s quirky, unusual or simply beautiful.

Madden Cole