I met a guy once who referred to himself as “one of the undesirable unemployables.” I had no idea why he would call himself that; he was a charming guy with a good reputation and was a hard-working entrepreneur.

But in the late 2000s, when the recession hit, I was forced to sell my business at a loss and I discovered first-hand what he was talking about. Like him, I was in my 50s, and for different reasons than him, was making a career change. And as a longtime self-employed guy in his 50s, typing up a resume and getting a good-paying job is a mountain you’ve never climbed.

After a sleepless nights and some nervous knots in his gut, Bram Hepburn’s new company—Hepburn and Co. Antiques—held its first auction.

Trying to find employment in your 50s is a challenge all on its own. People doing the hiring wonder (rightly so) if you will be comfortable taking orders or putting up with the younger crew. They’ll also wonder how long you’ll last as an employee and if it’s worth the expense of training you. Then, when you do get a job, you believe you’re so much more experienced than everyone else but wind up feeling slow and always out of the loop because everyone else knows the computer codes and the passwords and the how to change fonts and update their apps and text straight while driving.

So, I decided to make use of my business experience and my experience buying and selling antiques over the years, and go back in to business as an auctioneer.

So I traced my steps back a couple of decades and went back to my when I started my restaurant and catering business. I had gone to culinary school and was a chef, and my first steps in to business were taking a course in basic accounting at a local college and doing a local market study; basically going to lots of other businesses, looking around and taking notes. Then I made a list of questions that I wanted answered and took a few different restaurant owners I knew out to lunch, telling them what I was up to. I found that most entrepreneurs are more than happy to share their knowledge and opinions. I would ask them questions you can’t look up in a book (or now online). Questions like, “if you could do this all over again, would you?” and “what’s the part of the business you hate the most?” (it was usually dealing with insurance and tracking down unpaid bills).

Another favorite was, “If you did it again, what would you do differently?”

hepburn and company blurb

So, to begin my new venture, and while I was trying to bring in income with other seasonal work, I took those first steps again. I put together a business plan for myself.

AUTHOR’S ASIDE: As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that on this new business venture, I haven’t fully put my business plan on paper. It’s a time-worn basic for success, so bad on me. It may be that I’m gun-shy this time around and I’m just putting my toe in the water to see how it goes. You might say I’m still in a “little risk, little reward” phase. That comes with having kids to think of. And it’s hard not to be more cautious.

Nevertheless, I took those first steps, and then moved on to the real step that let the world know I was serious about this business. I applied for my auctioneer’s license. I tracked down the very tedious rules and regulations information available online and made an appointment to be tested. In Maine, auctioneers can test only four times a year, so if you fail the test, you have to wait three months to take your next text.

Still, I’m a pretty smart guy, I’ve worked part-time for auctioneers for years, and my auction buddies all told me the test was a piece of cake.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I went to my mailbox and found a letter from the State of Maine that I assumed was my shiny new auctioneer’s license, only to read that I had failed it by one question!

A three months delay because of one stupid question! I won’t go in to details about how the next couple of months went, but let’s just say that I didn’t take it well. But I studied hard and went back three months later and passed with only one wrong answer this time. Lesson learned.

On June 23, 2015, a pretty good crowd showed up for Hepburn’s first auction. The customers were happy and say they are looking forward to his next auction at the end of October.

So, during this time, and for many months prior, I had been doing house cleanouts via word of mouth, and had been finding and buying items for auction. I made a deal with a couple of old auction buddies of mine and asked them to walk me through my first auction. Then, after a few sleepless nights and some nervous knots in my gut, my new company—Hepburn and Co. Antiques—held its first auction.

On June 23, 2015, a pretty good crowd showed up, and the auction went smoothly. The “sold” prices for the items seemed really low, some of them cringe-worthy. But I was warned ahead of time that when you’re on the other side of the gavel, it just feels like everything is selling cheap!

The customers were happy, though, and say they are looking forward to my next auction at the end of October. I can’t wait, to tell you the truth. I know it was only one auction, but that initial fear of the unknown is gone, and I’ve got lots of good stuff to sell.

Now, I can start working on my chant: “Who’ll gimme 50? Hamina, hamina, hamian… I’ve got 50! Now, who’ll gimme 75?

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


For those of us who have been collecting enthusiasts for more than 30-plus years, the advent of eBay was a colossal game-changer. In my specialty—collecting antique American bottles—it has certainly been the case.

In the 1970 and ’80s, someone who bought and sold bottles—or dug them out of the ground like me—had two places to sell or trade them. One was flea markets, where you could spend most of your day explaining to non-collectors why anyone would pay $50 for an empty old bottle while you waited and hoped that an actual collector would come along. The other place would be at your bottle-collecting club’s annual antique bottle show, if you were lucky enough to live in an area where there was an antique bottle club (almost all of which had annual shows).

What would happen at these shows would be that every collector/dealer would jam their year’s-worth of bottle finds onto their show tables, trying to thin out their collection, and hoping to pick up something special to add to their own collection back home. But what began to happen was that dealers wound up passing around the same bottles from one dealer to the next. Trading got stale and slowed over the years. You’d often attend a show and recognize some of the same bottles on tables that were there the year before.

This is a 120-year-old olive oil bottle from the SS Pierce food company in Boston. When found with clear glass, these bottles are considered common and are worth about $10. If you can find one in this much more scarce olive green color, it is worth easily five times as much.

Then came eBay! Suddenly, you could spend the months in between shows selling you’re your unwanted bottle inventory. You had a new, international audience. Any bottle with a proprietors last name embossed on it, like “Woodford,” might now have interest by anyone named Woodford who thought it intriguing that a possible ancestor of theirs may have had their own brand—maybe an elixir or cure-all that was peddled out of a covered wagon or Western storefront.

Suddenly, bottle collectors’ “common” bottle inventories could be turned to cash, month by month, and then when they showed up at the annual show, they had an extra $1,000 in “bottle money” to spend. And in the nerdy little sub culture of antique bottle collecting, the economy got a huge jolt. Like a national stimulus bill, injecting cash into a sluggish economy by building roads, bridges and infrastructure, the bottle collecting world leaped into a whole new era of wheeling and dealing.

This buzz of activity peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As listing methods on eBay became much easier, with digital cameras and eBay Super Stores, the supply finally overtook the demand, and anyone who went along for the whole eBay ride wound up feeling like the end was near for our hobby, saying things like “bottles are down, way down” while shaking their heads forlornly.

Where it leaves us now, in the antique bottle world at least, is with prices that are not nearly as volatile but more polarized. Common bottle values are very affordable, while prices for rare “investment-type” bottles have generally continued to soar.

This is a serious “investment-type” bottle, dug by a friend of mine several years ago. It is the type of bottle which may have brought $5,000 only 10 years ago and its value has held strong or may have possibly increased markedly, even as the prices for more common bottles have been sluggish.

In fact, eBay bottle dealers have so perfected their selling methods that prices are now freakishly consistent from seller to seller, especially with lower- and mid-range bottles. Those common bottles are still over supplied to the market, and their values are now very easy to determine.

As with any collectable now, you can determine its value using eBay’s “completed” and “sold” results. If you have a type of bottle you want to know the value of, you’d log on to eBay, then refine your search to “Collectables” to “Bottles and Collectables” and then “Bottles.” If you want to, at this point, you can choose a sub category such as “Bitters, Medicines, etc.,” and each category will pull up a couple thousand bottles that are currently being offered at auction or for a “Buy It Now” price.

When I search, I do two more things: I click on “completed items” and I look at the number of items listed, say for example 1,500 items. Then I go back and click on “sold items” (instead of completed) and look at the number of bottles listed there from that same category. It may say 800, for example, or 200 or 1,000. This step helps me gauge the “demand” for a particular category of bottle. It’s not an exact science, but if you notice that many bottles are being listed, and not many actually wind up being sold, it can help determine if it is a good week to be selling, or buying, like investing in stocks.

To find the value of a specific bottle, it is pretty easy to plug it in to the search bar on eBay and then look at what comes up. You may find 10 bottles exactly like yours currently listed for sale, which will tell you that it’s not a rare bottle. But it won’t tell you much else, though. A mistake often made is that someone will see a bottle listed as a “Buy It Now” price of $500 and, indulging in a little wishful thinking, believe that a similar bottle they own is also worth $500. After all, “I’ve seen these selling on eBay for $500!”

Obviously, the way to determine the current market value of a bottle is to look under the “sold items” section in the left-hand search column, which shows recent realized prices. If you see five different examples of the same bottle bring prices ranging from $50 to $150, you’ve got a pretty good idea of its worth, at least over the last 30 days or so. For historic pricing, WorthPoint’s Worthopedia is a much better gauge, as its database of sales records goes back several years.

This bottle is a “WORLD’S HAIR RESTORER” in a beautiful vivid purple. It would be worth about $250 to a collector in good condition, but because its neck had been broken off, I glued back together and it only brought $35 when I sold it

Condition is Everything
You can learn everything you need to know about what makes a bottle valuable by looking at the descriptions of those items. You can almost bet that every time a bottle brought a lower price, it was because of damage—even minor damage—to the bottle, especially to the lip.

If you every go to a bottle show and pay attention, you’ll see serious collectors pick up the best-looking bottle on the table first and run the lip around their hand in a circle. If they find a chip on the lip, they’ll hold it up to the light, scrutinizing it, running their finger over it, scratching the chip with their finger nail, etc. They will become obsessed with the chip for a while and then, almost always, always walk away saying something like, “oh, that’s too bad…”

You could have a open pontil Farleys ink bottle on your table, which could be worth up to $1,000 in nice condition, but if it has a chip in the lip, you’d be lucky to get $100. That’s just the way it goes.

Even lesser damage, such as a flake, or a substantial scratch, bruise, stain or sickness in the glass which won’t come out, will bring the price down, giving you that price difference that you’ll see between an run-of-the-mill bottle and one in pristine condition.

This bottle is covered in grime and “stain” in the glass from being buried in ashy soil and it brings its potential selling price down considerably. It could be professionally cleaned for about $20, but it’s a hassle.

Other details of a bottle that will bring varied price results for the same bottle are “whittle marks” (the whittle-like marks adding texture to the glass) and small bubbles and impurities in the glass (which add crudity and character to an old bottle). Also, the intensity of the color of the glass can be a big deal. “Pale” aqua is not generally a good color, but if it is a deeper, more vivid aqua blue, you’ll see descriptors like “great color!” used, often boosting the prices.

If you’re in the market for antique bottles right now, it is a great time to buy. If you’re buying them as genuine 100-year-old decor, or as a lover of history, or you are starting out as a pure hobbyist, you will be able to buy bottles now for often half the price that you could 10 years ago.

However, for the $1,000-and-up-priced bottle, rare pontiled medicines, historical flasks, rare Civil War-vintage bitters bottles, etc., you may well be buying high. And if you wind up down the road getting rid of that bottle by “selling low,” you’ll wish you just put your money in the bank instead.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


Something you see for sale at almost any flea market or tag sale are antique telegraph insulators. These are the heavy glass fittings found at the top of telephone poles, about the size of a softball, that hold and insulate electric wires from the wooden pole. They were manufactured by the hundreds of thousands, most of them are extremely common, so understandably you will see them selling for a buck a piece, which makes it somewhat shocking to find out what their value potential can actually be, if you find the right one.

This telegraph insulator looks very similar to a common, run-of-the-mill insulator you would expect to find at your local flea market for a couple of dollars. But because of its vibrant lime-olive green coloration, and a very minor difference in its design, it is rare and brought well over $1,000 on eBay.

With what seems like a very minor difference in form, embossed lettering or color, that one dollar insulator could be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

That large swing in value is generally associated with the insulators rarity. Of all the antiques and collectables I have collected or researched over the years, telegraph insulator collecting is one of the most detail-sensitive fields I have ever encountered. For an advanced insulator collector, finding a historically important, rare and esthetically pleasing specimen can be a lifetime obsession. And for the non-collector who sees them seemingly everywhere at yard sales and thrift shops, the concept of their potential value can be hard to get a grasp on.

As a bottle digger and collector over the years, I would come across insulators and knew the basics, but didn’t research them fully, and pretty much dismissed them. Then by chance, I wound up picking up an insulator at a yard sale, and paid $5 for it, because it just looked different enough to warrant checking into it. To my shock, I sold it at auction for more than $3,000. That was the wake-up call that prompted me to study the subject more fully, and there was plenty to learn.

This is an attractive and scarce “corkscrew” style embossed New Engl. Tel. & Tel. insulator. The company manufactured a very common insulator, worth only a few dollars, but this one is a scarce and attractive corkscrew style, which is more in the $300 range.

This insulator is an egg-style insulator, and because it is threadless, it sells for $400-$800, and possible much more if in a color other than this aqua blue color.

I found that the insulator I had happened upon dated back to the 1870s and was used on one of the first telegraph lines, strung from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Washington, D.C., running, as most telegraph lines did—alongside a railroad track—which was an ideal place to run lines, where the pathway was already cleared and maintained by the railroad.

The way it was described to me by an advance insulator collector, I found it fascinating, and it helped me appreciate why a specific insulator might be so desirable. He told me that during that period in American history, the only way to get “news” from England and Europe over here to the U.S.—and more specifically in this case, to Washington DC—was by ocean steamship. And the ultimate in fastest ways to get a message from this point A to point B was for telegraph operators on board these ships, to be the first people off the ships as they entered Halifax. So they were lowered down into smaller rowboats or dinghies, racing to the docks and then racing down the docks to the nearest telegraph station. I could picture them racing into a little telegraph station, quickly sitting down and tapping out the urgent news from London or Paris. It must have felt magical for them to know that within seconds, their message was being relayed to Washington, D.C., where the president may be sitting at a table, listening as the news is read to him.

And while I didn’t quit my job and devote my life to collecting insulators, it was awesome to think that the insulator I had in my hands, carried the wire that held those historically important messages. And because of the research and record keeping of the people involved in this field, it could be proved that my insulator could be traced back to that one important line.

This is an example of an insulator that looks very common, but because of a slight variance in form and other subtle details, it sold recently for more than $800, where the common variety you would see would be worth only a dollar or two.

For someone not so interested in the hobby, but wanting to have a crash course in telegraph insulators, there are two major simple points that are helpful from the start. The first point is that virtually all insulators can be divided into one of two categories: “threaded” or “threadless.”

Threadless insulators are older and much rarer. They were used before screw threads were patented and used universally, and the insulators were simply tapped on to the tops of pegs on the telegraph poles. These did not work well, as a good wind storm could yank the insulator off the peg. When screw threads were implemented, the threadless ones were replaced, sometimes wacked with a hammer, with the broken pieces falling to the ground at the base of the pole. Other times, much to the appreciation of collectors, they were replaced more gently and discarded in a trash dump, left there to hopefully be recovered a century later, like old bottles and pottery.

This insulator is base-rim embossed. Almost any base rim embossed insulator is a good one.

The other point is less black and white, but still helpful. It is that there are three insulator manufacturing companies that dominated the industry, and their embossed lettering appears on the face of these insulators. Those companies are Whitall Tatum, Brookfield and Hemingray. As a general rule, any insulator that has embossing other than these is worth taking a second look at, as it could be rare. Don’t misunderstand—those three companies made variants of insulators, variants in form and color, which can be very, very valuable. But typically, with numbers of their common insulators being sold in box lots out in the market, it is a fair bet—not a sure bet—but a fair bet, that they are the common dollar variety.

Insulators are categorized by advanced collectors by a CD number (consolidated design number). I have always admired the meticulous work and research that insulator collectors put in to their hobby. It is so detailed and accurate that it boggles the mind. And that is in contrast to the randomness by which they were discarded and therefore often found today by construction workers or people digging old trash sites for bottles. And if you find one, it can make for a truly unique and unexpectedly valuable discovery!

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


Almost any time I mention to someone that I dig for antique bottles, the first words out of their mouths is something along the lines of: “… you’re kidding! Well, as a matter of fact, one time we were digging a hole for a new water pipe behind our house and the back hoe started pulling up all these old bottles. We didn’t think much of it; we didn’t know they could actually be valuable! We just let them haul them all away in their dump truck. Wish we had known.”

The earliest 18th-century American-made bottles were free blown, and had crude and often misshapen lips. They are hard to know if they were made in the Colonies or imported from Europe because the techniques and glass colors were very similar at first.

Then they ask how to tell if a bottle is really old, and I try to give them a crash-course in dating old bottles or even bottle fragments they may come across. If the house was built before 1870 or so, there is almost assuredly at least one, and more likely many, old whole glass bottles either buried deep in the bottoms of what was 150 years ago an outhouse pit, a well or maybe a trash pit at the back corner of their yard. There can also be random dropped or tossed single bottles that were just “early American litter” that got covered by falling leaves one autumn and then the falling leaves and dust of the next 150 years, which left it protected in its natural cocoon, in the exact same condition it was when it was inadvertently left there.

When you dig and handle antique bottles for a few decades, you can’t help but develop an eye for old glass, and the ability to instantly identify even a small shard of glass as something common, and not so old, from something very special, hand-crafted by the earliest glass blowers in America.

These cork-topped bottles were manufactured prior to 1875 or thereabouts. If you look closely, you can see that the collar-style lip was applied as a separate piece of glass.

These cork-topped bottles were manufactured prior to 1875 or thereabouts. If you look closely, you can see that the collar-style lip was applied as a separate piece of glass.

These aqua-colored “flared” lips from the early 19th century rarely survive excavation in perfect condition, never mind the entire bottle. They were often chipped by the original user of the product when they pried open the cork. These were early medicinal bottles and vials.

Here in New England, some of the pioneers of utilitarian glass blowers were found in the towns of Stoddard and Keene, N.H., Coventry, Conn., and Sandwich, Mass. The rudimentary glass houses in these and other towns consisted of small log-built buildings with a furnace or kiln of some sort, and a source of water. If you find an old photo or sketch of these humble workshops, you’ll see scruffy men with dirty faces in ragged work clothes, with a couple of horses “parked” outside. They could not have thought, their wildest dreams, I’m sure, just how valuable and desired the simple wares they crafted each day would someday be. Like many people, I suppose, they were creating a long-lasting legacy just by what they did in their daily works. And they never even knew it.

A few of the early bottles they crafted are among the holy grail of antique bottle collectors. Even a tiny edge piece of one of these bottles has value to an avid collector. Not to say that you can generally go out and sell broken bottle pieces to anyone, but as a hobby, bottle collectors love to sit and sift through a box of old shards. They’ll go through each one, even tiny ones, and be able to name the bottle, its age, where it was made, what it contained, and its value on today’s market.

These colorful bottles would have dated to after 1875 or so, up to about 1900, which is when bottles began to be machine made. These have hand “tooled” lips, where they didn’t use a separate piece of glass to form the lip, but instead tooled the top of the bottle.

From the earliest free-blown American bottles of the late 18th century to the machine-made bottles that began to be produced after the Industrial Revolution, the manner in which the bottles lip was made give us urban archeologists a pretty clear timeline to go by. A bottle collector can identify a bottle using even a small broken piece of the lip, the way a “normal” person can identify their favorite candy bar by even a little piece of the corner of its colored wrapper.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


Many advanced collectors of early American glass bottles will tell you the category they first started collecting was ink bottles. Their diminutive size and alluring colors and shapes catch the eye of anyone with an appreciation for detail and a fascination with the early glass-blowing trade as it developed on this continent.

For a beginner collector, or an interior decorator in search of vintage accents for old cupboards and desks, a 120-year-old ink bottle will often fit the bill and is very affordable. For a few dollars, you have an authentic glass container that was used every day by someone with a quill pen, sitting at a desk, filling out bills or invoices, or carefully writing a letter by hand in cursive (which is becoming a lost art).

Three bottles that were found while digging (left to right): an unembossed pontiled, 12-sided ink bottle in medium green, attributed to the Keene, N.H., Glass Works, circa 1840 (value $150); an aqua, pontiled, eight-sided Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle (value $150); and a rare sapphire blue eight-sided, pontiled Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle with lip repair (value $1,000 as is).

I have been a bottle “digger” in New England for 30-plus years, digging in the forest, in foundations, in old outhouse pits and even under water with the help of SCUBA equipment. If I didn’t have other responsibilities, this is probably all I would do; it is simply that much fun. Compulsive bottle hunting doesn’t lend well to raising a family and paying bills, however, as the following story attests.

One chilly spring day several years ago, that compulsion to find new old bottles was filling my mind as I drove down the main street of our town. In the back seats of my minivan were my two toddler daughters.

Right on the main drag, I noticed some renovations being done on a large colonial house. But what really caught my eye, was a pile of dirty black bricks that had been dug out of the basement and dumped, along with some other construction trash, next to the side walk for disposal. This simply needed to be investigated.

I parked up the road a bit, put my daughters into the double stroller and, rolling and banging the stroller across the potholed sidewalk and over some curbing, headed towards my target.

When I got to the brick pile, and could see the bricks were ancient and covered with decades of chimney soot. My eye caught a black, disk-shape object in amongst the rubble and I knew instantly what it was.

Two New England geometric ink bottles, circa 1820-40s, like the one I found in the brick pile. The one on the left is a G III-29, which has a value of $150-$250. The one on the right is a G II-18F, which is worth $350-$450.

“Look!” I said to my little toddlers. “There’s a bottom of a pontiled geometric ink bottle in that brick pile there! Man, I wonder how many other bottles they smashed while digging out that basement.”

I left them briefly in the stroller on the sidewalk and mucked through the mud a few steps to gather the shard. But it wasn’t a shard; it had somehow survived intact while being dumped along with the bricks! The bricks were so sooty, and there was so much ash and dirt that must have cushioned the fall—to this day still I don’t know how it survived—but there it was, flawless, without a chip on it.

I grabbed it and ran back to the stroller, yelling to the girls about what I had found. I showed it to them both while hooting and hollering and shaking the bouncy stroller in celebration.

My older daughter laughed at the strange way I was acting, my younger daughter, who had been sleeping, cried in horror at the crazy man who woke her up (they are now accustomed to this behavior).

Upon further inspection, I held a geometric ink bottle. It was a round, disk-shaped bottle with embossed patterns in squares, diamonds and triangles over its entire surface, except for the base, which has a round, usually sharp pontil scar at its center.

Three bottles that were found while digging (left to right): an unembossed pontiled, 12-sided ink bottle in medium green, attributed to the Keene, N.H., Glass Works, circa 1840 (value $150); an aqua, pontiled, eight-sided Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle (value $150); and a rare sapphire blue eight-sided, pontiled Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle with lip repair (value $1,000 as is).

These bottles were blown into a three-part mold, and had a uniquely wide, flared lip, which was lifted up as it was blown, and then pressed back down onto the top of the bottle, basically eliminating the neck of the bottle, producing an almost hockey-puck shaped bottle, with a hole in the top for dipping the quill.

Any geometric ink bottle is a great find, with a value spectrum varying, depending on mostly on two things—mold rarity and color. The two I have pictured here (center photo) are from one of the most common mold patterns and in the most common colors, olive amber. There are several dozen different mold variants of New England geometric ink bottles, with the rarest obviously being the most valuable. The effect of the colors of these bottles on their value is less obvious, ascending in value from dense olive amber, to medium olive amber, to pure olive green, to light olive or light amber, to the rare clear flint glass, to the most rare and gorgeous sapphire blue or cobalt blue (made at Sandwich Glass Works), which can be worth more than $10,000, depending on the mold variant.

I was more than happy to find the “common” geometric ink bottle, considering the circumstances.

Part of the appeal of antique ink bottles is that with their small and consistent size, a collector can display 100 beautiful colored bottles in a shelved bay window, creating a colorful spectacle that you can just sit back and watch as the sun sets behind it. The idea that such beautiful pieces of glass were discarded when they were empty is hard to believe when you hold one in your hand.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is an old cliché, but couldn’t be more precise in this case. Each of the bottles pictured in this article was dug in New England, and while bottle-digging sites are harder to find today, there are still many more to be found.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


Here in New England, if you look carefully with a “pickers” eye, you may be lucky enough to come across artifacts from one of its signature touchstones from its historical past—fishing and whaling. These maritime treasures are sought after by collectors, and the demand for them isn’t fading away any time soon.

A couple of years ago I went for a dive in search of antique bottles for my collection. I was in a small, coastal river, in about 15 feet of water, slogging along at the murky bottom. About a foot deep into the mud at the river’s bottom, my gloved hand ran across a lump of something that I could tell wasn’t a rock. I gripped it and pulled it up. In the swirling, dark brown silt I had stirred up, I couldn’t see a thing, so I swam to the surface and pulled it out of water, where it was draped with water lily vines and leaves.

It was heavy, with a rock in the center, and I had no idea what in the world it was. But it looked very primitive. The rock was held in suspension by hand-cut dowels, amazingly snugged, kept in place on a wood-pegged crosspiece base.

I showed it to some friends and they were as fascinated and perplexed as I was. Someone suggested I immediately begin treating it with linseed oil to preserve the wood, because if it had been underwater for a hundred years or more, the wood will likely disintegrate quickly when it hits the air. And boy was he right! It was becoming brittle within hours and it still is to this day. I oil it and it soaks the oil up like a sponge.

Finally someone suggested that it was a small boat or dinghy anchor. And after some Googling around, sure enough, it is something called a Killick anchor. There are a couple of things that made this discovery especially interesting to me. One is that a Killick anchor can be traced back to the Vikings, according to what I’ve read. But in general, it is considered to be native to Newfoundland and the Maritime of Canada (which was visited by Viking sailors centuries ago). The New Hampshire coast is a few hundred miles south of Newfoundland, but French Canadians settled all around our area over the centuries, as well as Scots down the coast from the Maritime.

So it’s not a stretch to think whoever crafted this anchor had the workmanship skills handed down from Viking ancestors. And speaking of workmanship, the other things that is amazing about this find is that the more you look at, the more impressed on becomes at the skill it took to make it. I would challenge anyone to replicate this Killick anchor using hand tools, or even with modern power tools of today, for that matter, and have it last for a couple hundred years without falling apart.

The center piece at the top is a straight, hand-hewn dowel that has been carefully and perfectly split for ways, then spread apart just enough so that a perfectly tapered rock is gripped tightly by the wood. Then two slats of wood are dovetailed in an X at the bottom and pinned together by the split dowel, through drilled holes that fit perfectly. The only metal pieces on the whole arraignment is one round iron ring that keeps the split on the wood from traveling further up the dowel at the top.

This is the only Killick anchor with this exact type of construction I’ve found while researching it, where the centerpiece is cut from one single piece of wood, as opposed to three or four pieces of wood tied together with twine.

An item like this is impossible to value. For a collector or investor who has no interest in it, it is worth nothing. To a collector of historical maritime pieces, it could be priceless. If I someday decide to sell it, I wouldn’t know what to expect. I am hoping it ends up in a local museum, where its historical context can be documented properly.

On the other hand, a piece like this old whale harpoon tends to be a bit easier to appraise. My buddy found this at a local yard sale and bought it for $10. He wound up reselling it for more than $900.

I asked what specific features added to the harpoon’s value, and he said the piece’s high points were that it had a makers mark (Peters) and the fact that it had a good patina with remnants of its original red paint. It was about 33 inches long and dates to the turn of the 20th century, and would have had a wooden handle attached to it originally.

During my dives for bottles, I have found solid brass propellers, brass rudders, even parts of ships wheels, like group of items that often offered on eBay. These are always easy to sell because people love to decorate their seaside homes with them, and they are items of much interest. Their values are determined in great part by condition, natural patina or original paint.

Any giant-size brass item will have great value in general, and if a maritime item was expensive when it was bought a hundred years ago, you can assume the price will still be very high today.
But the thing that drives the price higher is often the markings, especially the names of fishermen or fishing towns.

To attach historical provenance and context to an antique related to fishing, shipping or boating—especially the whaling industry—makes investment in such a piece a safe bet; sometimes a better bet than having your money in a boring CD somewhere.

These pieces bring back a romantic vision of working on the high seas, and ads character to any living space.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30-plus years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

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Yes, that headline is correct, and I’d love to be able to say I was the one who found it. I didn’t, but the next best thing is for a friend of mine to have dug it up. He did, and I was able to see it and hold it myself.

My friend, whose name I won’t mention here, found it in a location I also won’t mention here. But I can say that it was found deep in a muddy waterside trash dump and, for him, it was the thrill of a lifetime.

The business side of the flask, showing the large, embossed 13-star flag. The value of this rarity—known as a Stoddard Flag flasks—ranges from about $12,000 to $20,000, with a similar example selling early late last year for more than $14,000.

He had dug this site in years past, and found the base to one of these extremely rare “Stoddard Flag flasks” about 10 years ago. Then, a few years after that, after many more trips, he found a shard to a second one. He surmised that there had to be a whole one that survived somewhere down there, buried in the layers of muck. And it became an obsession.

And I can tell you from experience that it can be a lonesome quest, digging in deep mud, looking and feeling somewhat insane, not knowing or even expecting that you will find what you really after. So, when I got news that the impossible had happened, and that he had actually found a whole one, completely intact and in perfect condition, I was happy for my friend and I felt buoyed by his success, as I’m sure all bottle diggers and divers feel; knowing that there are still amazing treasures to be found out there, with just a little—OK, a lot—of resolve, persistence and some luck.

Admittedly, the bottle he finally uncovered is not the Holy Grail for all New England collectors. But it is not unreasonable to call it that for him. I know he considers it to be one.

It is pint size, standing a bit more than seven inches tall, with an open pontil scar base, and in a classic New England olive-amber coloration. One side of the flask is embossed “NEW GRANITE GLASS WORKS STODDARD NH” and the reverse is embossed with an amazing 13-star American flag.

It is a rare and valuable piece of Americana, and it had been lying deep in the mud for about 140 years.

It blown at the New Granite Glass Works in Stoddard, N.H., between 1861-71. Certainly, the form and overall presence of this flask makes it as something special, even to a casual collector or lover of history. But the collector value of this rarity ranges puts it a little pout of the range of the casual collector. It values between $12,000 and $20,000, depending on condition. A similar example of the flask sold late last year for more than $14,000.

Memories of a Great Find of My Own
One of my own greatest bottle digs happened 17 years ago, when my daughter Annie was born. I was giddy at the birth of my first child, and the day we brought her home from the hospital, my wife put her up in the bassinette and I decided to go for a bottle dig to burn off some energy.

There was a spot about 200 yards from my front door that I had driven by hundreds of time. It was right next to the road, and I figured that a couple of old buckets on the surface of the ground would have been inspected and dug through by some bottle digger decades ago.

Nonetheless, I informed my wife that I had to “go find Annie a bottle” and headed out the door.

In a few minutes I was digging carefully, slowly through the leaves and in to the humus and decaying tin cans. I heard my rake squeak on to some glass and brushed away the dirt to expose the words “STODDARD, N.H.”

It weird to try to describe how excited you feel when you uncover a rare piece like that, so you’ll just have to imagine. I presumed it would be a wonderful but broken bottle, and when I pulled it out, sparkling and in mint condition, I charged back to my van and sped home. I honked the horn as I came in the driveway, startling my wife inside the house.

She met me at the door as I stood on the steps outside, holding the bottle so that the words “STODDARD, N.H.” were facing her. She didn’t know its exact value, but she knew enough to know it was a great find! I had been gone for less than five minutes.

Its value is between $700 and $1,400. It is referred to as a “lettered Stoddard flask” and reads completely “Granite Glass Co. Stoddard, NH.” During the 1860s and ’70s, the early glass manufacturers in Stoddard, N.H., crafted some of the most highly sought-after American-made glass bottles.

“Who gave you that flask?” she asked skeptically.

“I just dug it for Annie,” I beamed.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30-plus years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


For almost 40 years, I have been on my hands and knees, digging through trash. It is to the point where more people know me by my “a.k.a.” name—The Downeast Digger—than by my actual name.

It started innocently enough, as my older brother towed my sister and me out in the trailer of our old farm tractor one day, deep into the woods behind our childhood home to a sloping patch of brambles and briars, littered with old pieces of farm equipment and scattered buckets. It was my first bottle dump, which is essentially a 100-year-old trash dump where any organic, wood or paper trash has long since rotted away and most of what remains were glass bottles still hiding beneath the soil and leaves.

I sometimes like to consider myself an archeologist or a historian or something with a more-impressive sounding title. And while I could spin it that way to some extent, the truth is that I am compulsively drawn to the hunt of other peoples trash, which has sat peacefully under the ground for at least a century, finding things that once had no value at all and bringing it out into the sunlight where it may have great value today. The value may be true monetary worth to bottle and glass collectors or the value may be just in my own fascination and interest in what I’ve uncovered.

But occasionally, if I’m lucky, I can dig something that has a special sentimental value. Those are the best of all.

During the run-up to Christmas, as we are being jostled down the corridors of the local mall, like cattle to slaughter, I find myself looking back longingly at a few Christmas presents that I was able to give over the years that were absolute home runs. They cost me nothing but the “hard work” of digging them out of the ground. The satisfaction of watching a loved one open that gift and marvel at its beauty how perfect a gift it was would make me calmly walk in to the next room, and give a silent but emphatic “fist pump” and whisper “yes!”

One such “home run” artifact was a small porcelain doll—or half a doll really—that I dug many years ago. I didn’t know at the time that what I had dug was a pin cushion doll. It was only the top half of a fancy Victorian-dressed woman, and around her corseted waist were three holes where she would be sewn on to a large pincushion to be set on a sewing table or dresser.

When I dug it, I remembered that my Aunt Dorothy had a row of similar dolls on a small shelf in her living room. So I washed the doll up and decided to give it to her for Christmas.

Now, Aunt Dorothy and I loved each other and got along fine, but we didn’t normally exchange gifts. And I always had the nagging feeling that she still remembered the time then I, as a 9-year-old boy, nearly set her daughter Heidi on fire after the grown-ups had gone inside after a summer BBQ and I decided that the hot coals needed a little more lighter fluid.

So, two decades later, after a big Christmas hug and kiss, I handed her a little box and she couldn’t imagine what it was. She opened it up and I’ll never forget the look on her face, she was speechless!

Evidently, the pin cushion doll that I had dug was especially rare and valuable, because the woman’s arm was extended out and not attached to her body, hands-on-her-hips style. Aunt Dot said that usually the hand or arm would have broken off, because they are so delicate. When I told her I dug it while bottle digging in Maine, she simply could not believe it!

“How could this have survived in the ground for a hundred years without being broken to pieces,” she asked. “And this doesn’t have a chip on it! Are you sure you want to give it to me?”


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30-plus years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


I am 54 years old. So if my math is correct, it would have been about 46 years ago (the late 1960s). Now, I’ll sound more like I’m 80 years old when I tell you that my dearly departed Mother would occasionally take me to the “Five ’n’ Ten” store down in the local village, which is when Matchbox cars became the gold standard of personal possessions for me.

She would shamelessly extort good behavior out of me, using the purchase or denial of new Matchbox cars for my collection to keep me in line.

In my oh-so-innocent boyhood days, I could bargain and cajole with her, using any other currency, and come out on top. But when Matchbox cars were brought into the mix, I grew weak at the knees.

And all these decades later, I can still remember vividly a memorable day when I had been sick and home from school and, as a treat, she brought me to the Five and Ten cent store. I’m not sure what I did to deserve it that day, but Mom said I could pick out ten (!?!) cars for myself. I couldn’t believe my ears. We went into the store, and I quickly ran to the back of the store where the Matchboxes were—half on the rear wall, while the rest hidden behind a store room door, where you had to swing back the door to get access to an additional six-foot wall of shiny Matchboxes, stacked on skinny shelves, all packed in their original card board boxes.

On this day, as I euphorically selected my prize picks, Mom had been talking to the cashier, whom she knew on a friendly basis. I’ll assume she was telling her that I’d been sick and out of school, because after a few minutes, I heard them calling my name from the front of the store.

Mom spoke to me in a magical whispering tone sounding like she had been speaking to God personally, and He was going to let me through the gates of Heaven itself for a few minutes, just to poke around. And, sure enough, that was more or less the case, as she said that her friend the cashier was going to let me look at some special, limited-edition matchboxes that the company had sent her special, and she was keeping separate.

She knelt down behind the counter by the register and motioned for me to come back there with her, with Mom smiling and watching.

I remember my heart was absolutely pounding as she pulled some open boxes out from the underneath cabinet and I was allowed to pick out some brand new Matchboxes that I had never seen in any of the yearly catalogs that the Matchbox Company had sent me! One was a crane, one was a farm tractor with two attaching trailers for doubling up, and also a train engine that was from a series called “Models of Yesteryear.” I was never so happy!

I remember in my frantic glee, opening each of the small cardboard boxes that incased the cars as Mom drove me home. She kept saying “Save those boxes; don’t rip them!” So, I listened for a moment, but kept ripping and opening more as I went along through the bag.

I know when I got home, she repeatedly tried to get me to save the little boxes they came in, with the picture of the car on each. I tried to listen. I tried to obey … I really did.

And I took good care of those old, well-made Matchbox cars, and still have them safe in a Matchbox carrying case to this day. My young son plays with them now, and likes the “good old ones” the best.

Because I took such good care of them, they have held and increased their value. The cars that I bought for 59¢ each back years ago are now worth $10, $30, $50 apiece, and even more for some of them.

Oh, yes, and if they are in their original matching paper cardboard box, they are then worth sometimes tem (!?!) times as much.

So, what did I do with my original boxes? I am somewhat sure that when I was 9, on some summer evening when I was bored, I set them on fire somewhere out behind the chicken coop.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30-plus years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

Dover N.H. Salt Glaze Stoneware Beer

These are some of the best bottles and other treasures I’ve recovered.

Bottle :   Stoneware     “Smith’s White Root”

Year dug: 2015

Type of dive site:     Deep fresh water river

Notes:   I got this deep in the grainy sand at the bottom of a river. I had dived this site several times, but it is a good site, so I’ve pounded it pretty hard. I spent most of my time basically doing a headstand on the bottom of the river, upside down, digging straight down into the river bed, looking for earlier bottles that were buried. This is the best one I got that day, a nice local stoneware from Dover and Great Falls NH.