by Gary Kirsner
The first important collections of steins seem to have been started in the middle 1800s by museums vying for examples of fine Renaissance art. Private collectors became an important force in stein collecting in the late 1800s, and some astonishingly high prices were paid in those days for the best examples of Renaissance steins.
Of course, stein collections of a sort existed long before steins were being collected as antiques. In kitchens and in taverns and inns, narrow shelves along the upper parts of the walls, so-called plate rails, held collections of steins. In homes, the number of steins was a measure of hospitality; in taverns it was a measure of prosperity, signifying the number of regular customers. To increase this measure, and probably for aesthetic reasons as well, there were often more steins displayed than were really necessary. Such decorative tastes were brought to the United States by the early English settlers, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the many waves of European immigrants.
Great numbers of German stoneware steins were brought to Canada and the Northeastern United States in the 1700s. Important stoneware shipments were also made in the late 1800s and led some U.S. manufacturers of that time to begin their own production of stoneware and porcelain steins. Beginning in the late 1800s, Mettlach and other German factories actively advertised their steins in the U.S. Significant quantities of steins also began flowing into the United States in the 1940s. These came back with soldiers, tourists and, as of the late 1950s, with antique importers. With all of the political and economic turmoil in Europe, the quantities of steins which have made their way to the U.S. have become an important fraction of the world supply.
In both Europe and the U.S., the more desirable steins, once scattered throughout the countryside, have continued to become more concentrated in collections. Increasingly, the places to find good steins include a small number of U.S. and German dealers, auctions, and fellow collectors upgrading or disposing of their collections.
If the intent of a collector is to buy a stein only occasionally and with little consideration for the type or characteristics of the stein, then shopping at antique shops and antique shows could yield the desired results. However, if a specific objective is important, such as acquiring a nicely planned collection, it will be advantageous to develop contacts with knowledgeable and trustworthy dealers and collectors.
In varying degrees, most collectors combine the enjoyment and the investment aspects of stein collecting. First, consider the investment angle. During the 1960s and early 1970s, steins proved to be a very good investment both in comparison to other antiques and to other investment alternatives. Their performance in the middle and late 1970s and 1980s, was not as strong, with some other antiques increasing in value more rapidly. Through the 1990s, most stein prices remained steady or increased moderately, indicating steins to be strong, if unspectacular, performers.
It is difficult to predict a future price trend with precision, but based upon past performance, it is likely that steins will be a fairly good investment on a long-term basis. A general and rapid appreciation in prices over any short period of time is unlikely, but there will always be a few spectacular performers. Those steins that seem to a collector to be priced disproportionately low, are also likely to be good investments.
Also with respect to the future, the steady performance of most steins over recent years seems to indicate a very solid price base. It is the collectors who have created the demand for and prices of steins, not the investors. The absence of investment capital artificially forcing up the price of steins, beyond the price collectors would be willing to pay, has kept stein prices firm even as other investment opportunities changed drastically.
As for the enjoyment of collecting steins, consider the possibilities. Since steins come in many sizes and types, and cover a wide range of prices, different approaches to collecting are possible. Collections always contain certain elements of similarity and certain elements of diversity. Most frequently, the materials are similar and the decorations vary.
Most collectors enjoy putting together sets or pairs, particularly of the scarcer or more aesthetically pleasing items. The artistic arrangement of a collection can also greatly enhance its appeal to the collector, and the use of plaques, bowls, and other items, together with steins, provides an additional dimension that ought to be considered.
A collection should contain what the individual collector likes, and not what seems to be rare, in vogue, or expensive. If you like a stein, there will always be a proper place for it to be displayed in your collection.
If you have done your research before buying a stein, checking publications such as The Beer Stein Book and prices paid at auctions for the same or similar pieces, you should be receiving a fair value for your money. Of course, this assumes that any defects that might exist have been detected and the price properly discounted.
Recognizing repaired defects has gotten to be increasingly difficult. In the last few years the techniques, materials, and experience developed by a few repairmen have resulted in some excellent repairs being performed on some steins. Many steins have been sold by dealers, and by collectors, with repairs or damages that were not indicated to the buyer. Some sellers do not know of the repairs, or do not feel obligated to point out repairs or damages to prospective buyers.
Learning to detect repairs and damage, and to distinguish them from factory flaws, takes time and requires the advice and coaching of experienced collectors or dealers. In the meantime, you will have to rely on the reputation of the individual dealer or collector from whom you make your purchase.
Do not assume that an advertisement of steins for sale, even one carried in a respectable publication such as an antiques periodical, can be relied upon for accuracy. While many dealers and collectors are honest, a lack of knowledge by some, and a tendency for the dishonest dealers to gravitate toward advertising, has left knowledgeable buyers with a cautious suspicion toward advertisements. Many advertisers do deliver what is promised, but be certain you can return the stein if you are not satisfied, and do not expect the publication to be of any help should a problem arise.
Auctions are a uniquely different way to buy. If you have a very good idea what you are doing, and you have time and patience, you might do very well. If you are not well informed or are not patient, beware! Simple rules to remember for auction buyers are:
1) some auctioneers know very little or nothing about steins and even less about repairs;
2) auctions that sell as is (no description or condition) naturally tend to attract merchandise with defects that sellers would rather not describe;
3) at many auctions, some items will not be sold until their prices reach a level above the price that the consignor (owner) is willing to accept, and this reserve price may be more than the stein is worth — not all items at auction are protected this way but many are; and
4) if a buyer’s premium exists, usually 10% or 15%, remember to add that to your total cost before you make your bids. Should you decide to buy steins at an auction, try to arrive in plenty of time to thoroughly examine the steins at the preview. Take copious notes on conditions, qualities, and maximum bids you will make, even for items only remotely of interest to you. If possible, try to frequent only those auctioneers who knowledgeably indicate damage.
5) Stein specialty auctions have come into existence since 1982, having been pioneered by Gary Kirsner Auctions. These auctions offer collectors an opportunity to see and bid on hundreds of different steins. The best of these auctions offer accurate descriptions, in catalogs, with photos and estimates. Guarantees and return privileges are usually superior to those offered at most general line auctions. Bargains are possible, but not common on better quality steins. The selection is usually much better than can be found hunting in stores, shows and general line auctions.
Protecting Your Collection
First, there are some common-sense procedures to follow to avoid damaging your own steins. Hot beverages should be kept out of steins, and no hot water or dishwashers should be used to clean steins. Just use lukewarm water, mild soap, and a soft brush. Displaying steins in sunlit windows, or storing them in extremely hot or cold locations, can cause stress lines to develop in the bodies of the steins. Wrapping steins in newspaper and storing them in damp basements can discolor the pewter. When choosing a place to display steins, try to find an area free from flying objects, swinging brooms, or vacuum cleaner handles. Instruct curious friends in the proper way to hold or examine steins. Warn them especially not to allow the inlaid or heavy pewter lids to flop closed.
Steins often break when transported. Wrap and box them carefully, then wrap and re-box the first box, and insure all packages that are being shipped.
Finally, valuable collections in homes should be fully covered by insurance policies. To protect larger collections, security systems should also be considered. Stein dealers can provide you with accurate insurance appraisals of your pieces for nominal fees.
Steins have always had a fairly high degree of liquidity relative to other antiques. Collectors throughout the country are always looking for desirable items to add to their collections. Many antique dealers around the country are also quite anxious to purchase a nice stein or two, in order to dress up their inventory.
Still, it is important to select the proper method, among the many available, for selling your stein or your collection. There are several avenues open for selling a small number of steins with a fairly low total dollar value.
1) Direct to a collector: This is an excellent idea, if you know a collector who wants the stein(s) that you want to sell.
2) To a local antique dealer: This is a fairly easy and appropriate method if a local dealer is willing to pay a fair price for your steins. Keep in mind he has to resell them at a profit. Depending on his location, he may be able to sell them quickly, or he may have to wait a long time before buyers come along. These factors will contribute to the price he can afford to pay. Many dealers would rather take expensive steins on consignment. If they sell, then you will get a percentage of the sale price.
3) Through a general auction: Many auctioneers are anxious to have high-quality steins to sell. Expect to pay about a 20% commission, perhaps higher. If a buyer’s premium is charged, consider this part of the commission, because the buyer will keep this in mind and bid lower. Rarely do steins sell at retail prices in general auctions. Generally, they will bring less than the retail price.
4) Through a stein auction: Stein specialty auctions will reach the desired buyers. Retail prices will be obtained on most steins, depending on the abilities of the particular auction company chosen. Commissions are generally about 20% to 25%, including the buyer’s premium.
5) Advertise in an antique publication: Fairly good results can be achieved sometimes, but there is no guarantee that the right person will see your advertisement, and most steins are difficult to describe accurately.
6) Respond to an advertisement from a collector or a dealer in an antique publication: Responding to a want advertisement from a collector may result in a sale, but he will have to want the stein(s) you are selling in order for you to receive a fair price. A dealer who specializes in steins will generally pay a fair wholesale price. He will usually buy for resale at a fairly small margin because his turnover is probably more rapid than the average dealer. He will know steins very well, and therefore will not have to make allowances to cover risks due to his ignorance.
Should you have a large collection to sell, realizing a high percentage of the retail price could be of significant importance. A 10% difference in the total price could amount to a large sum of money. Therefore, a number of things must be considered. Do you want to sell everything in one group to one buyer? Do you want to sell immediately, or over a short or perhaps long period of time? Are you willing to work hard at selling your collection: communicating widely, wrapping packages, mailing the steins, and so on? To sell a large collection at retail prices, you will have to be prepared to undertake the expenses and do the work of being the dealer, advertiser, traveler, wrapper, and shipper. While this is possible, it is not practical for everyone. Some collectors have done so successfully, but most who have tried eventually became frustrated and impatient, and ultimately would have fared better with another approach.
A dealer specializing in steins, who is thus familiar with the market, can generally realize a retail price on a greater number of steins from a large collection, and with greater ease than can a collector selling for the first time. Depending upon the quality of the collection, that is to say its desirability, diversification, and condition, a collector can expect to sell a collection to a stein dealer at a discount in the vicinity of 30% from the retail prices. This can, of course, vary greatly depending upon the collection and general business factors.
Just as for the small collection, auctions offer a convenient method for disposing of a large collection. Auctions vary in a number of ways, but certain factors do not vary substantially. It will cost about 20% to 25% to sell a collection at auction. This commission is a percentage of the selling price, not the retail price. Some steins may sell at auction above a fair retail price, but on average, a large collection will not sell at auction above a fair retail price.
This section should provide the seller with the means to calculate the range of prices that are likely to be realized in the sale of steins. Selling steins can require a substantial investment of time and resources. It will be worthwhile for a seller to take the time to work through the mathematics of each alternative, to allow for a good bottom line comparison among the alternative methods of selling the steins.
*Reprinted by permission from The Beer Stein Book: a 400 Year History, 3rd edition, 1999, Glentiques, Ltd., Coral Springs, FL.