Summer barbecues aren't where most folks imagine finding hot collectibles, but next time you reach for salt and pepper to sprinkle on the corn, check out the shakers. You might be holding pots of gold. They might be 6-inch-long Japanese ceramic figures of naked sun bathers with "his" and "hers" towels over their loins, a small, mechanical, plastic lawn mower with two shaker pistons, ceramic watermelon slices, miniature lobster claws, sailboats or even Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed as chefs in aprons and toques.
Still largely affordable, these ubiquitous, small, decorative, utilitarian items are shaking the collectibles market. It's hard not to be attracted to these appealing and amusing objects, and shaker collectors have tremendous fun pursuing their hobby.
Dot Gammon, of Memphis, Tenn., was bitten by the collecting bug and now spends her free time --ing from yard sale to flea market in search of the spice in her life: figural salt and pepper shakers. Ms. Gammon, a bookkeeper, counts 20,000 pairs in her collection, a feat she believes merits a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records.
"I've been collecting for only 10 years," she said, explaining that a shadow box received as a gift got her started. "I didn't know what to put in its 50 cubbyholes," she recalled. "It didn't take me long to fill my shadow box with small salt and pepper shakers, but then I didn't have the sense to stop," she chuckled.
Ms. Gammon's shakers now fill nearly every shelf, nook and cranny in her house. Pinched for space at home, she also has filled two other buildings on her property: a 20-by-40-foot barn and a 12-by-32-foot structure she calls a "shaker shack." Among her favorites: shakers made in series, such as her Japanese "Dolls of the Month" or her German band of singing and instrument-playing monks.
"The best thing in the world is going to yard sales and flea markets and finding something you never dreamed of finding," Ms. Gammon said, describing her recent purchase of a 50-cent pair of mushroom-shaped salt and peppers, marked "Goebel," the German factory of Hummel figurine fame. "That made my day," she said.
"Salt and pepper shakers get really valuable when you have more than one collecting group interested in them," said dealer Vera Skorupski, of What's Shaking, P.O. Box 572, Plainville, Conn. 06062, (203) 828-4097. Shakers depicting advertising logos, African-Americans and comic characters are among the most sought-after, she added.
Big-ticket items include an early and rare 1930s pair of black and white glazed ceramic Mickey Mouse shakers with pointed noses, made in Germany, which can bring up to $750, according to collector Marty Grossman of Brooklyn, N.Y. An even scarcer 1930s Felix the Cat condiment set (salt and pepper shakers and a mustard jar with spoon) is worth around $1,100, he added.
"New becomes old very quickly in this business," acknowledged Mr. Grossman. For example, mass-produced Disney series shaker sets imported by Enesco during the 1960s, shaped like Mickey and Pluto, Donald Duck and a nephew, Snow White and Dopey, and Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, retail for around $225 to $275 per set. Paddington Bear shakers made between 1980 and 1984 fetch $150 to $175 a set.
Among the most sought-after advertising shakers, according to Mr. Grossman, are sets of Kentucky Fried Chicken's Col. Sanders-shaped shakers served up in the 1960s and 1970s (around $100), 1950s plastic "Campbell Kids" shakers ($45 to $55), Borden's 1950s Elsie the Cow stacking shakers (around $125), and Sheraton Hotel bellhop-shaped shakers made by Goebel ($200 to $250). Sets of Budweiser's "Bud Man" shakers are very popular at $200 to $250 a set: experts say they originally cost $7.95 a set in 1970 at Busch Gardens.
Sylvia Tompkins says salt and pepper collectors feast on new sets as voraciously as vintage examples. A shaker collector for 18 years, she's the outgoing president of the Novelty Salt & Pepper Shakers Club, to which most serious collectors belong. (Annual dues are $20. For membership information, contact Irene Thornburg, 581 Joy Road, Battle Creek, Mich. 49017.) Ms. Tompkins runs "Tomorrow's Antiques Today," 25-C Center Drive, Lancaster, Pa. 17601, (717) 569-9788, a mail-order business specializing in newly made shakers. She thinks many of the shakers she's offering at $15 a set will rise in value.
Up-and-coming shakers include those made for U.S. railroads, figurals with nodding heads, miniatures and "go-withs" -- sets depicting two items that go together but aren't identical. Popular go-withs include an elephant with a tent ($45 to $50 a set), a Sears catalog with an outhouse ($25 to $29), and a bird with a hand ($15 to $20), according to Ms. Skorupski of What's $H Shaking.
Although most novelty salt and pepper shaker collections overflow with Japanese and German-made examples, those by American manufacturers active during the 1940s and early '50s are gaining favor, Ms. Skorupski observed. Makers' names to look for include Ceramic Arts Studio, Frankoma, Regal China, Rosemeade, Shawnee, Sorcha Boru and Vallona Star. Even the Niloak Pottery, of Benton, Ark., best known for its early 20th-century tri-colored swirled pattern vases called Mission Wares, produced novelty salt and pepper shakers. Ms. Skorupski has several Niloak sets, including penguins, bullets, birds and ducks, priced $50 to $75 each. While some American-made shakers command top dollar at $300 to $350 a set, others are more affordable. Ceramic Arts' "Wee Chinese Boy and Girl" shakers sell for $18 to $20 a set, and pairs of Shawnee's "Winnie & Smiley" pigs generally are under $40.
With such a wide variety of novelty shakers on the market, collectors have tremendous possibilities for specialization. Ms. Tompkins concentrates on water-related shakers. She owns around 7,000 sets, including bathtubs, ducks, firemen, fish, fishermen, frogs, lighthouses, mermaids, pelicans, penguins, sailors, turtles and watermelons. "I even have a nudist colony," she confessed.
' Solis-Cohen Enterprises