Glass man has collected his last flask


For years, William C. Pollard's world has been suffused in color: bright cobalt blue, deep vibrant claret, brilliant strawberry amethyst, all illuminated by the sun streaming through the window behind his collection of early American bottles from Baltimore.

Mr. Pollard would sit there savoring their gradations: honey amber, copper amber, apricot amber, root-beer amber. But no more. Come Saturday his Baltimore flasks, the finest collection of this sought-after 19th-century glass ever assembled, goes on the auction block.

Some 114 Baltimore flasks, ranging in value from $100 to $30,000, will be sold at a Ramada Inn in Auburn, Mass., along with 78 other pieces of glass. Collectors and dealers from across the country will be on hand for a sale expected to bring in $500,000.

Mr. Pollard, a retired restaurant designer, is rueful but excited about the prospect of selling off a collection he spent a quarter century amassing.

"I've had tons of pleasure from buying and owning these glorious Baltimore flasks, but to see them distributed among the many friends I've made while collecting will be yet another pleasant experience," Mr. Pollard, 67, said the other day from his home in the Virginia hunt country.

Norman C. Heckler, the auctioneer whose Connecticut firm will conduct the sale, cannot help but wonder, as the sale approaches, why Baltimore has not shown more interest in this sliver of its history.

"Bill Pollard from Virginia is the first person ever to assemble a full range of Baltimore-origin historical flasks," he noted. "On Saturday, this grand array will be dispersed without, I gather, ever having been on public view in Baltimore."

No institutional holdings come even close to Mr. Pollard's collection. The Maryland Historical Society has about 18 flasks, many probably not from Baltimore, reports Nancy Davis, its new curator.

What collectors refer to as historical flasks are glass bottles scious art, made at a few dozen glassworks scattered across early America, were the first bottles made in the United States to bear decorative embossing. But, they are prized especially for -- their vibrant colors.

Baltimore flasks, Mr. Pollard says flatly, "come in the widest range of colors, the choicest tones of all."

Mr. Heckler, the auctioneer and fellow-collector, politely demurs: Let's say two sources are at the top in that respect, Baltimore and Philadelphia's Dyottville glassworks."

The molds into which glass was blown often bore carved patterns, such as an American eagle. Many have head-and-shoulders portraits: George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Zachary Taylor, and even Samuel Ringgold of Washington County, the first U.S. Army officer killed in the Mexican War in 1846.

Baltimore Glass Works, source of the most prized flasks from the city, was founded in 1800. One partner was John Amelung, son of the German immigrant who established the famous New Bremen Glassmanufactory in Frederick County in about 1785.

The name and ownership of Baltimore Glass Works varied over the years, but the firm made panes, jars and bottles until about 1870 at its site between the harbor and the immense sand dune known as Federal Hill.

Three lesser glassworks also marketed flasks: Baltimore Flint Glass Works, at the west end of Lancaster Street in Fells Point (1828-1834); Maryland Glass Works, at the northeast corner of Caroline and Lancaster streets (1849-1862), and Spring Garden Glass Works, at Eutaw and Ostend streets (1851-1890), this last a Baltimore Glass Works offshoot.

Modern glass students and bottle-diggers have mined those sites pebble by pebble.

Bottle collecting goes back more than 100 years; the first book on the subject is dated 1900. Mr. Pollard caught the bug one day in 1968, when he spent $20 for his first Baltimore flask at a New Market antiques store.

Mr. Pollard says he's always had the collector's gene. As a boy, it was "arrowheads, stamps, coins." That day in New Market, Baltimore flasks became a passion that would dominate his life for the next 28 years.

He assembled his 114 flasks the way most collectors do, picking up prize pieces at auctions, buying from other collectors, and occasionally being lucky enough to find a choice flask at an antiques store.

His wife, Leah, also has the collecting gene she treasured painted tin whistles as a girl. She has been "wonderfully with it," Mr. Pollard testifies, no matter how much he spent on some old bottle.

Now, Mr. Pollard has decided to sell.

"Nationally, it's become something of a custom to do it this way, enjoying the commotion, rather than leave it as a chore for uncomprehending heirs," explains J. Leo Levy Jr., 71, a prominent Baltimore glass collector who sent his low-collectors, and page after page of gorgeous bottles in glowing color.

His prize piece, a Baltimore Glass Works purple quart bottle embossed on one side with the Washington Monument and the other with an ear of corn and the inscription "Corn for the World," is expected to be the sale's main attraction. Mr. Heckler estimates it will bring as much as $30,000.

By contrast, Mr. Pollard's collection includes an aquamarine flask bearing portraits of Taylor and Ringgold that may go for as little as $100.

The highest auction price ever paid for a flask is $66,000 for a Jared Spencer flask, made in Connecticut.

Mr. Pollard, of course, is the first to admit that the dispersal of his Baltimore flasks does not mean he's tamed the collecting gene.

He's already on to something new tobacco tags, small pieces of metal that were attached to bundles headed to auction to identify the leaf's origins. There's no citron or teal or puce, no daily light show, but tobacco tags do bear interesting words or devices, and they do go back a way, reminding Mr. Pollard of his baronial ancestors.

"Most come from Virginia and North Carolina, of course," says Mr. Pollard, a nonsmoker whose middle initial stands for Calvert. "But Maryland has some good ones. Already, yes, I suppose I've got more different Maryland tags than do any of the collectors over your way."

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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