There are a lot of antique collectors on the world wide web. Professional seekers of this-n-that, people who track down rarities solely to turn a profit – which is all fine and well. But Dale Smith is different, and our ears perked up when the story of his collection landed in our inbox. “I don’t even know where to start,” his sale liaise, Rachel Wolfe, tells us by phone. As a former WWII soldier and folk artist, Dale’s life is the story of a man-turned-magpie; the tale of how one man’s love for a simple craft (during a dark time) blossomed into an unprecedented collection of outsider art: bottle stoppers. Carved, painted, decades-old bottle stoppers. After a lifetime of hunting them down – over 3,000, to be precise – Dale is finally looking to sell his precious little friends, and make sure his legacy makes it into the right hands…
“As Dale has said to me, and I agree,” says Rachel, “it’s a one of a kind collection.” She’s seen stuff like it, she says, but “never so much of the same kind of thing.” Dale is from Wisconsin, and began collecting the bottle stoppers over 40 years ago in-between calls of duty in Europe. With Europe’s heart and pocketbooks hurting, locals realized that making and selling something as simple as a bottle stopper was a clever – and economical – way to make a buck. “Bad stuff was going on,” says Rachel, “But soldiers had income. When Dale saw his first bottle stopper, it was as a way to support these people selling things from their luggage to survive during occupation.”
As a former military man, there’s an amazing amount of precision and “officialism’ to everything Dale does, says Rachel. “I don’t know if you hear anything about how Chicago people tend to be,” she says, “but he’s such a frank and honest and straightforward gentleman. He’s so cordial and sweet.” Rachel was also impressed to see how well Dale dusts and cares for each bottle stopper. In fact, it’s a miracle most of them made it through the war. “It was a dark, wet, muddy time,” she adds, “But here they are.” Finding these objects was one thing for Dale, but keeping them safe must’ve been another, entirely cathartic experience. He was able to build a little world in which a blonde-haired milk maid mingles with a sea captain, and golfers sit beside Saint Nicholas. It’s an oddball family, and one that gets on swimmingly well in the wooden boats and skyscraper-esque platforms Dale has made for them out of cigar boxes and such.
And therin lies the rub: Dale refuses to break up his bottle stopper family by selling off its members piece by piece, disbanding the little universe he’s created. “I thought, ‘Wow, we got this,’” says Rachel, “We just want to find a public home for them, where people can see them” together, as an extension of Dale’s character. “They lend themselves to that presentation,” she says, “They get this kind of Christmas tree feel.” For all of its whimsy, the collection is a serious undertaking, and has been appraised on recorded purchasing costs and annual appreciation at $250,000. Have a gander:
Dale himself took up woodcarving after the war, and explained to Rachel that she could trace the tradition to Italy’s Anri region, saying that “they came mostly from the [mountains] of the Dolomites.” A bit of digging into the region’s history shows how deeply entrenched it is with wood carving making everything from toys, to religious icons and figurines for churches. Think of it like the real life version of Santa’s Workshop.
“Dale has also tried to find contemporary bottle stopper artists” outside of Italy, says Rachel, but it’s always “the older ones that have the most remarkable craftsmanship.”
When asked if Dale has a favourite in the bunch, Rachel says he honestly loves each and every one, and that he thinks “each one has its own special something – I wouldn’t say he’s a generalist though,” she adds, “He’s just really enthusiastic about all the differences and how a lot of these characters still stand up today.” They’re some of history’s most entertaining punctuation marks, moments from mythology, politics, children’s books and more. Finally, when asked where his desire come to collect not ten, twenty, or even 100 stoppers, but over 3,000 comes from, her answer is just as beautifully simple: “He kept saying, ‘To spark childlike delight. To spark wonder.’”