Whether it’s matchbooks, comic books or coins, you name the items and there are people obsessed with collecting them. But few things ignite such passion as Coca-Cola memorabilia, which is bought and sold at sometimes jaw-dropping prices.

In fact, the business of procuring and retailing vintage Coke bottles, calendars, signs and the like can be so profitable that certain connoisseurs have made careers out of it. One such person is Gary Metz, 62, from the US, who for decades has been the go-to guy when it comes to buying and selling, providing valuation estimates and hosting some of the nation’s biggest auctions of Coke collectibles.

Following the Signs

How did Metz get his start? “My grandfather ran a country store in Blue Ridge, Virginia, where I worked as a teen in the 60’s. The place had multiple Coca-Cola advertisements,” says Metz. “I remember thinking those signs looked pretty cool. But back then, I was into collecting tobacco tins.” That changed, however, when he got a summer job after high school graduation, working at a Coca-Cola bottling plant. There, Metz watched thousands of bottles coming through the washer and inspection line before being filled with cola, capped, then loaded onto trucks for distribution.

According to expert Gary Metz, this the only known near-mint example of a 1900 Coca-Cola calendar.

“Not only did I witness the entire production process, which was fascinating,” he recounts, “but I also regularly came across old tin Coke signs, and I used to wander into the sign shop, too.“ All that summer, and during the summers that followed while he was on break from school at Virginia Tech, Metz returned to his job at the plant and watched workers in the sign shop as they hand-lettered advertising art and painted courtesy panels, which highlighted merchant names along with the Coke logo. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Metz fell in love with idea of collecting Coca-Cola ad art.

“I started going to flea markets and antique shows,” he explains. “The anticipation of what I might find would produce as much excitement as any hobby or activity I’ve ever done.” That thrillled him to keep searching for great finds all through the 70’s, even while working in finance and marrying and having a child. By the early 80’s, Metz was so hooked on what he describes as “the hunt,” that he found himself constantly selling one item in order to buy another. As a result, he became extremely knowledgeable about the Coke memorabilia market. By 1988, he was making more money buying and selling in the evenings and during his lunch hour than at his day job, so Metz quit to pursue his passion full-time.

Adventures in Collecting

“I bought a truck and hit the road, doing 20 shows a year, both selling and scouring for new finds,” he says. In May of 1989, Metz visited the antiques market in Brimfield, Massachusetts, where the person in the truck next to his happened to be selling an old Coke sign. “It was framed under glass, so I thought it might be a paper copy. But when I examined it more closely, I realised it was a tin original from 1898,” Metz recounts, sounding as excited as ever about the find. “I paid $10,000 for that sign, which was the most I’d ever paid for any collectible at that point. I was excited and nervous. But on the way home, I made some calls and sold it for $15,000.”

In the years that followed, Metz became more inventive about hunting down great finds. One strategy: stopping by former bottling plants on the East Coast, where he sometimes discovered high quantities of old Coke signs that had never been discarded. “I’d ask if the person in charge was interested in selling. If so, I’d make a fair offer then resell the signs later.”

By the early 90’s, he had built up a unique inventory and decided to hold an auction at the Holiday Inn ballroom in Salem, Virginia. The items included advertising art, bottles and assorted memorabilia, such as a school crossing guard sign made by Coke back in the 50’s. It was Metz’s hope that, if things went well, he would sell most of them. And at the end of a busy afternoon, not only had he sold every item, but most of it went for 20% above asking price. As for that crossing guard sign? It sold for $3,000.

Word of the auction’s success spread fast, and people started contacting Metz to sell their collections and individual items. And so, from 1992 to 2006, he held two auctions a year, selling memorabilia for hundreds of consigners, usually grossing between $400,000 and $700,000 per auction. When he was asked to sell a friend's Coke memorabilia, Metz agreed and the treasures from that one collection sold for $268,000.

Finally, in 2006, Metz’s business had grown so large that he merged with Morphy Auctions. The company now holds 40 auctions a year in many categories but is known for its high-quality Coca-Cola auctions.

Tips for Starting Your Own Collection

In addition to Coca-Cola memorabilia, Gary specialises in advertising, country store, soda fountain and soft drink consignments.

With so much success, Metz is often asked for advice on how to start a Coca-Cola memorabilia collection. “I always tell people to follow these two basic rules: First, buy what you like and enjoy. Second, buy the best condition you can find.”

Beyond that, he suggests searching marketplaces, like eBay and other online auctions, plus public auctions, too. And he strongly advises joining the Coca-Cola Collectors Club and attending regional and national events to learn the specifics of purchasing authentic items. “Go to quality shows, talk to reputable dealers and ask questions,” Metz stresses. “The more knowledge you have, the better you will be.”

As for Metz himself, he still loads up his truck and visits flea markets and fairs now and then, selling memorabilia or hunting for good find. “It’s just in my DNA,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think it’s ever going away.”