You know those little liquor bottles you often see on the sides of city streets? Yup, you guessed it, they're collectible, though like bottles of hot sauce, they're more valuable full than empty.
Often referred to as "nips" or "minis," the bottles were designed as samplers and are generally 50-ml miniatures of their full-size counterparts. (In the U.S., a shot of liquor is 44 ml or 1.5 fl oz.)
So many different nips have been produced that some individuals have amassed collections numbering in the thousands (good thing they're so small!) just by concentrating on one kind of liquor - like gin, vodka, or whiskey - or distillery or brewery or winery, or country of origin. Variations in a specific brand's bottle and label can fully occupy a collector's attention for years. And some categories like airline and hotel minis are perennial favorites.
Unlike collectors of "straights," there are some who are more interested in containers than contents. For them there are small flasks and figurals that were sold to be filled with the purchaser's favorite spirits. Usually made of porcelain, these pieces often have raised designs and colorful gazing.
The German firm of Schafer & Vater (1890 - 1962) produced a variety of figural nippers and flasks that were imported to the American market. S&V pieces are some of the most popular among figural collectors and are distinguished by their fine-textured clay bodies, (often) blue glazing, and backstamp depicting a crown over an R within a star.
Japanese lusterware flasks and Italian minis also form the nuclei of numerous collections. Like Schafer & Vater, they, too, were imported in large numbers and can still be found for reasonable prices at yard and estate sales where they are often sold as simple knick-knacks.
Prices for all nips, flasks and figurals vary considerably. The most common specimens can be had for as little as a dollar or two, but more interesting pieces usually sell for $10 to $100. Rarer specimens, like some of the Schafer & Vater, often fetch up to several hundred dollars at auction, while the rarest finds can easily surpass the thousand mark - like the 1950's Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac mini, with packaging, that recently garnered a final online bid of $1,349.
Unfortunately, high prices bring out the fakes - counterfeit labels, switched caps, replaced liquids - so it's important to arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to spot the imposters. The same knowledge will also aid you in separating the wheat from the chaff when faced with the sheer number of pieces available.
Interested in learning more about this collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and
Warman's Bottles Field Guide (Warman's Field Guides Bottles: Values & Identification)
Buying and Collecting Miniature Liquor Bottles - Link to eBay review - This eBay guide by minibeamcollector is a nice little intro to the hobby.
Collectors filling the gaps on figural whiskey bottles - Link to Antique Trader article - Article by Eric Bradley provides information on Schafer & Vater figural nips
Figural Liquor Bottles: Nippers-Whimsies-Nips-Flasks-Decanters - Link to website - Donald E. Bergseng Sr.'s site offers lots of info and pics on Schafer & Vater, Japanese, and others; dating tips, foreign inscriptions and translations, more.
Figural Mini Bottles - Link to website - Carlopeto's main site. Hundreds of detailed pics searchable by country, brand, or theme. Portal to his Schafer & Vater site (Schafer-Vater.com) with history of S&V and German Giveaways. And check out the Introduction to Collectors. Great links.
Hong Kong Miniature Liquor Collection - Link to website - An interesting look at one of the most valuable collections around.
Midwest Miniature Bottle Collectors' (MMBC) - Link to website - Founded in 1979, the club publishes a quarterly newsletter and sponsors an annual show.
Mini Bottle Club, UK - Link to website - Founded in 1979, organization offers club auctions, glossy bi-monthly newsletter, links.