Among the treasures of the late Yves Saint Laurent that Christie’s sold in Paris earlier this year was an empty perfume bottle that fetched €8.9m. It was, of course, no ordinary bottle; in fact, it never actually contained perfume. Designed by Marcel Duchamp in 1921 and punningly labelled Belle Haleine (“beautiful breath”), it was a typically surreal comment on the world of commerce, and proof that flacons can be works of art as well as vessels for scent.
Most perfume bottles, even those designed by famous artists, are essentially production-line items. But there is a burgeoning market for them nevertheless, thanks to their beauty, rarity or the sheer audacity of their design. In 2006, a shell-shaped frosted glass box containing a pearl-shaped bottle of Trésor de la Mer, designed for Saks Fifth Avenue by René Lalique in 1936, raised $216,000 at an auction in New Jersey. It was bought in 1939 for just $50 and the perfume was long gone.
According to perfumer and collector Roja Dove, who runs the Haute Parfumerie at Harrods, “the scent itself is irrelevant” (even in sealed bottles, it evaporates and oxidises with age) – as is the name of the designer of the bottle: “Quality crystal glass bottles from Lalique or Baccarat were made in their thousands as soon as branded perfumes became a competitive area in the 1920s.” What collectors are looking for is interesting bottles for perfumes that flopped or launched only as very limited editions, or better yet, that never launched at all. That way, “rarity value kicks in”, says Dove. “And it’s enhanced if the bottle is sealed and in the original box.” His own prized examples include an art deco Baccarat design for an obscure perfume by Parisian furrier Max le Verrier, and the Jean Patou perfume given to passengers on the 1935 maiden voyage of the Normandie liner in a bottle shaped like the ship and designed by Louis Sue – both highly collectable.
Even modern limited editions, such as the regular Lalique releases or the recent gilded, cuboid Baccarat bottle for Versace, can be sought after as long as the bottles have been numbered – though Dove warns that they “will take a long time to gain value, so it’s only worth investing if you are young”. And numbers on bottles can also be a trap for the unwary. “Before the advent of plastic stoppers in about 1970, glass stoppers were hand-ground into the bottle,” says dealer and collector Linda Bee. “Each fit was unique, so numbers were engraved on stopper and bottle in order that they could be matched up after filling.”
Bee’s stand at Gray’s Antique Market is a favourite source of authenticated bottles. Current star buys include a rare 1946 Lalique bottle of Nina Ricci Coeur-Joie in the original box (£750); a 1930s Lucien Lelong with a bow stopper (£350); and a late 1930s Schiaparelli Shocking “torso” bottle with a floral stopper (£550). At Dove’s Haute Parfumerie, vintage bottles – including a rare 1956 Baccarat bottle by Christian Dior with an intricate gilded bronze stopper resembling a spray of flowers (£2,500) – can be filled with modern perfumes.
In auctions, perfume bottles tend to appear in sales of glassware or decorative arts. In 2001, Sotheby’s New York sold a rare Lalique bottle for Molinard circa 1928 for $10,800, and in Melbourne in 2006 a 1960s Salvador Dalí nose-lips factice fetched A$1,800 (about £892). But there are also specialist sales. At Drouot’s June sale in Paris, star pieces included a stylised cat in black Baccarat crystal for Gardez-Moi by Jovoy (€2,209), and in the US the specialist author and auctioneer Ken Leach organises a sale at the annual convention of the International Perfume Bottle Association. In the UK, Auction Atrium, which has a gallery in Kensington, has upped bottle auctions from once to thrice yearly. Last March, a Miss Dior bottle in the shape of Christian Dior’s dog fetched £3,000; and an online sale of Collectable Perfume Bottles is currently running until July 8.
Some collectors, however, are motivated simply by a love of the perfume a bottle contained or may still hold. For Paula Sedgwick, now membership secretary of the British branch of the International Perfume Bottle Association, it was “nostalgia for the perfumes my mother wore” that prompted her collection from the now defunct London perfumer Atkinson. “I love the whiff of old-fashioned scent you get even from my oldest empty bottle, which is dated 1903.” Tax accountant Diane Schofield also cites childhood memories as the root of her interest. “My mother wore Je Reviens by Worth and my aunt had beautiful Guerlain perfumes on her dressing table,” she says.
As well as 16 different editions of Guerlain’s Shalimar, Schofield’s collection includes rarities such as Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée from 1902, which is worth about £2,000 as only 50 bottles were issued per year. “Make sure the bottle is by Baccarat, not the less-illustrious Pochet et du Courval,” warns Schofield, who also owns a limited edition 1995 re-issue of the famous turtle bottle for Guerlain’s 1904-formula Champs Elysées, which cost £600, and Caron’s 1920s Nuit de Noel in black Lalique glass, which she also loves to wear. “They change rather than go off,” she says. “I enjoy wearing them rather than seeing them as an investment.”
Guerlain’s classic fan-shaped bottles, however, were made in their millions and, according to Ken Leach, will never be worth more than $50. Nor will classic pre-1950 shapes such as Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps. Rather, it’s the limited editions by post-war artists such as Léger and Cocteau that are most sought-after. Lalique’s Trésor de la Mer or any flacon by Duchamp notwithstanding, the preeminent object of desire for many is Dalí’s Baccarat Le Roi du Soleil for Elsa Schiaparelli, with its face made of doves, which can fetch $25,000. But fashions change, and right now Elizabeth Arden’s figurative designs seem to be in demand, commanding prices well into four figures. “They’re fun pieces,” says Leach, “besides being good investment value.”