By Albert Samaha
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I find vintage barware stunning, but the current craze renders it well beyond my plebian price range. I can't roll into a collector's shop like Mood Indigo, drop $900, and not worry where me and my beautiful 1930's shaker will be parking it for the next two months. I'm reduced to ordering those awful nudie-girl swizzle sticks off the Internetthe kind with groovy suggestions like "bottoms up" (hardy, har har!).
Be as it may, some middle ground does exist for those of us with little dinero. It might require the tenaciousness of a true collector like Stephen Visakay, who scours flea markets and yard sales in the early-morning hours and owns 1,600-plus pieces. Yet the time comes when last year's gift of aged whiskey deserves more than your "Happy Horny 30th" mug. Also, a leather-bound flask and crystal tumbler would make smooth-ass gifts for your wannabe debonair pals.
First, a bit of background: The golden age of barware began with Prohibition and continued after its repeal, through the '30s and '40s. In the 1920s, people were forced to surreptitiously mix drinks at home, spawning a nationwide appreciation for exquisitely crafted shakers and accessories. The glamorous lifestyles portrayed in movies like The Thin Man made everyone desire a taste of that sophistication, however fabricated it was. "You couldn't afford the fancy furniture and cars," explains Visakay, "but you could afford one symbol of luxury: a chrome cocktail shaker."
The most treasured are those from renowned makers like Napier or Revere, or those in unusual forms. Art Deco shapes like skyscrapers, or penguins (in their natural tuxes, symbolizing the good life), even zeppelins are extremely valuable. A shaker that looks like a lighthouse from the International Silver Company is currently sold at Upper East Side boutique Deco Deluxe for $27,000.
When it comes to this sort of treasure-hunting, a price guide like Visakay's own Vintage Bar Ware is a must. No one likes to discover they've dropped $100 bucks on a glass that's worth $2. Visakay's book, which is currently out of print (used copies are still available on Amazon), has plenty of tips to keep in mind: When buying glassware, look for brilliant colors, and for possible chips around the rim and the bottom edgethey can reduce the worth by 30 percent. Likewise, inspect metal for scratches, dents, chips, flakes. And if it says "925" or "sterling" on the bottom, you've struck gold (well, silver, more accurately).
Also be prepared to duke it out with some pretty loony collectors. "I thought depression-glass people were a little strange," says Visakay, "but swizzle-stick collectors are completely wacky. They collect new and old; there's no such thing as vintage to them."