Vintage cork collection lines the walls in Janesville businessman's office

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Marcia Nelesen
Tuesday, January 8, 2013

— The handcrafted genius of the vintage bottle stoppers for sale at a downtown consignment shop—all 350 of them—enthralled Janesville businessman Jim Grafft.

The 5-inch bottle stoppers are whimsical and detailed woodcarvings depicting humans and animals that are set atop corks. Some have mechanical movements.

Joni Bozart, the owner of Carousel Consignments, was considering selling off the collection individually.

Grafft convinced her it should stay together.

Now, the corks—each a tiny package of art—line Grafft's downtown office in the display shelves the son of the collector had built for his dad.

"They're all handcrafted," said Grafft, describing why he likes the corks.

No two are exactly alike.

Grafft owns Wisconsin Wagon, a local company carrying on a tradition of hand built products, and he likened the wagons to his bottle stoppers.

"Someone had to deliberately look at every single piece and individually hand paint and carve them," he said.

"There's an extreme amount of hand work in it to make them mechanical. Someone's got to figure that out."

The figures' actions are prompted by a push or twist of a lever or pull of a string.

One little musician, for instance, saws away at a violin, while another works an accordion.

A couple raise their necks and share a kiss.

A ballerina dips and sways.

A housewife wearing a scarf wields a rug beater.

A cowboy tips his hat and raises his guns.

Bozart said Robert Hessling assembled the collection over most of his 91 years. He gained an appreciation of woodworking from his father, Thomas, a woodworker and carver employed at a Milwaukee furniture company.

Most of Grafft's stoppers likely were created by workers for Anri, an Italian company established in 1912.

According to an online article, the earliest corks depicted both humans and animals—heads or full-figured—with detail and delicate coloring.

The article's authors, Philly Rains and Donald Bull, wrote a book on Anri.

The older pieces have more value because they are superior in carving and painting. They depict a variety of subjects including monks, gunslingers and animals.

The earlier carvings were caricatures of the villagers who carved them, according to the article.

The stoppers cost less than a buck. Many were sold in gift shops after World War I and brought to America by those traveling abroad.

Thousands were produced. The cotton string used in the movements was over time replaced by sturdier stuff, such as fishing line.

"They were small and easy to pack, and they were good gifts because they were not only cute but they were useful," the authors wrote.

The most common bottle stoppers include kissing couples, hat tippers and drinkers in varying stages of sobriety. Those depictions were created throughout production, which ended in 1976.

Through the years, carvings were attached to other household items such as corkscrews, nutcrackers and toothpick holders.

The quality, however, decreased as the popularity of the carvings increased.

The detailed carvings were replaced in the mid to late 1950s by common faces with few variations.

A decade later, the company was producing only a few dozen models and a few animals.

Today, the value of bottle stoppers range widely.

A search on eBay, the online auction service, shows final bids beginning at about $7 and the majority staying below $50. A carving of a monk recently sold for $52, a ballerina for $100 and a fully jointed violin player for $194. A rare stopper—a monkey that stands on its head—went for $258.

Grafft said he might have to put a cork in his own collection: He's bought a few in the last couple years and now the little guys are beginning to double up in the racks.


Last updated: 8:05 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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