November 15th, 1999

Tools of the Trade

Antiques dealer Frank Milwee offers the corkscrew collector

a refreshing twist

By Joseph L'Africain

When asked how many corkscrews he has in his Washington, D.C., antiques shop, Frank Milwee momentarily draws a blank. "Hundreds, unduplicated; hundreds and hundreds," he guesses. 

This comes as no surprise, considering that his shop overflows with corkscrews of all shapes, sizes and mechanisms -- from the grand rack-and-pinion "King's screw" to simple T-shaped designs. Frank Milwee Antiques, located in the heart of Georgetown, also offers the wine connoisseur an amazing selection of wine funnels, coolers, coasters, "tastevins" and claret jugs. 

Milwee's storefront lures shoppers with its display of wine objets d'art. A giant hand-carved wine cooler in the shape of an owl, which Milwee believes to be prewar Italian, oversees the shop. And a fabulous collection of empty wine bottles, such as Mouton-Rothschild 1944, Latour 1946, Haut-Brion 1982 and Lynch-Bages 1989, lines the walls, serving as pedestals for the antique corkscrews that rest atop them. 

Milwee, 58, first considered giving corkscrews a turn after uncovering a small collection at an Alexandria, Va., antiques show six years ago. "I thought they were nifty," says Milwee. "Having personally gone through heaven knows how many corkscrews over the years, I was intrigued." While he won't give a specific dollar figure on the original collection, Milwee admits that he "lucked out, given I knew nothing about corkscrews at the time." 

That first purchase included a signed 1795 Henshall -- a rare find. The first corkscrew patent was issued in 1795 to Samuel Henshall, an English minister. After that, hundreds of patents were granted to European and American inventors for designs ranging from strictly utilitarian to wildly eccentric. 

Milwee has attracted an impressively loyal following. "Frank basically made me a collector," says David Boyd, a Georgetown lawyer. "He has gotten me completely addicted." Boyd, who bought his first corkscrew from Milwee three years ago, has since amassed a collection more than 200 strong. "Frank is both a friend and a professor," he says. 

Anthony Green, chairman of an Atlanta-based brokerage firm, agrees. "Here is a guy who really knows his corkscrews," says Green, a wine buff who has a 2,000-bottle cellar of Bordeaux and Côte-Roties. "He's helped me put together a very diversified collection in a fairly short amount of time, which on your own would be impossible to do." 

Milwee's business philosophy is customer-oriented. "I don't go to auctions," he says. "My customers go to auctions. No dealer should be his customer's competitor." Despite his five-year fascination with corkscrews, Milwee is not a collector. "I collect for collectors," he clarifies. "I cannot stand before my customers and say, 'This is the best I can offer,' if I have tucked away the cream at home. It's not moral. So I have to find corkscrews the hard way." 

That he does. "I go to every conceivable place where I can consider the possibility of even seeing a corkscrew that would warrant an investment," says Milwee. He's scoured the Middle Atlantic states, traversed New England antiques shops and ventured through Canada on the prowl for these coveted openers. Yet the majority of corkscrews in his shop were found in England. "The need for corkscrews is less historically significant in the wine-producing countries than in Britain, where bottles were used for transportation and storage. Consequently, the greatest demand for corkscrews evolved in Britain," Milwee explains. 

Milwee's search for corkscrews has netted him and his customers great finds. During a recent trip to London, Milwee discovered an 1802 corkscrew known as a Thomason IX, made by Sir Edward Thomason. "I feel it is the most satisfyingly elegant and functionally mechanical corkscrew I have seen," says Milwee. "The opened frame incorporates both male and female threads, which by continually turning clockwise will withdraw the cork from the bottle and ultimately release it." The rarity, which Milwee bought for "a fair price," carries on it the inventor's motto: "Ne plus ultra" (none better). Clearly, Milwee agrees. 

Milwee sells about 500 corkscrews a year, ranging in price from $5 to about $3,000, and the market is steadily growing. Christie's held its first all-corkscrew auction in May 1994; now, two sales a year are devoted exclusively to corkscrews. The record price is over $30,000, first made in May 1997 for an English 18th century silver pocket corkscrew and matched in September 1998 by a rare Robert Jones II corkscrew designed in 1842. "It's not unusual to get £4,000 to £5,000 [about $6,600 to $8,200] or more for a rare piece," says Dennis Cox, a specialist at Christie's London. 

Often, the rarest corkscrew may be the least utilitarian. But over the last few years, much to the delight of his customers, Milwee has mounted corkscrews on silk, linen, fine wool and wood as a whimsical alternative to "sometimes kitschy" wine cellar artwork. Each corkscrew can be used and then returned to its mounting. "With few exceptions, I believe that all the corkscrews I sell are capable of being used," he says. 

Milwee himself has employed a "fabulous corkscrew on a fabulous wine." He goes on to say, "What kind of glass you drink wine from truly does make a difference, and if you can afford a $100 bottle of wine, you should be able do more than a mass-produced-throw-it-away-when-it-breaks corkscrew. 

"I don't push the idea of making these everyday tools," Milwee continues. "But I have some gold forks that I lucked out and found years ago, and I assure you, food tastes much better eaten with gold forks."



by Joseph L'Africain © originally published in Wine Spectator Magazine 12/15/99