Coca Cola Trays: Is it the REAL thing?

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About that Coca Cola Tray... Is it the REAL Thing?

Coca Cola items of many types have been popular among collectors for years, but the biggest single category of Coca Cola collectibles is the trays.  Many versions were manufactured from 1897 to the present in many categories including:  vehicles, colleges, cities, national conventions, Santas, Norman Rockwells, women (Gibson Girls), and the Olympics. 

The trays come in many sizes and shapes: round, oval, square and rectangle.  Telling the difference between an original and a reproduction can be tricky, so this guide will focus on that discussion.

This re view originally included many photos that were helpful for comparison, but eBay deleted them for some reason. (???)  That is most unfortunate, so hopefully the text below is still helpful.  Eventually I may publish them elsewhere because the photos are really helpful.


Of course the oldest trays in pristine condition are the most valuable.  The 1897 Victorian lady tray is known to have sold for as much as $12,000.   Finding a tray in really good condition is tough since people used them, and wet glasses of refreshing Coke created lots of rust.  Mint condition trays are unusual, and command high prices. Prices for the common trays from the 1950’s and later have fallen substantially.  For example, I've known the 1950s Menu Girl tray to sell for well over $100 years ago, but have seen her go for MUCH less recently on eBay.  

Prices and trends go up and down with the times and the economy.  Another original I bought at auction years ago for $150 (a deal) with a book price over double that at the time is now selling for substantially less.  That tray was made in 1939.

 The artist name (Sunblom) appears in tiny lettering in the silver line and also reads  "Coca-Cola Company 1939  American Artworks Inc. Coshocton, Ohio Made in U.S.A."

How to know if it is original REAL thing tray:

The back of the tray has no print, and is often black in color.  However, some repros have blank backs, too.  Look very carefully at the capital C in Coca-Cola, for the lower tail of the C will have a registered trademark.  Inspect the front and sides of the tray carefully for very tiny lettering or a copyright date (as in tray above).  It might appear near the bottom or on the lip edge, and sometimes so small that a magnifier might be needed to read it (I need one :-)  This lettering might state a date or the origin where it was made, for example Coshocton, Ohio is printed on many original trays.  
Originals made between 1910 and 1942 were all marked with a date.  The words 'Made in U.S.A  American Artworks, Inc.Coshocton, OH'  will often be found on originals, but not all.   The reproductions have the year written at the edge of the artwork

This is often on the rolled lip edge. Some unscrupulous sellers will scratch this off and attempt to chalk it up to 80 years of wear.  These trays were produced in many places including Canada and even Mexico, Italy, 
and Taiwan.  Originals will also usually include the artist name in the lower left corner, and one of the most common is Sundblom.  Haddon Sundblom passed away sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, and the last tray I know of bearing his signature was a Santa tray issued in 1962.  This was a promo for Long John Silver, and the artwork depicts Santa in front of mantel reading a note saying 'Santa Please pause here. Jimmy' with two youngsters hiding in the shadows.
Reproduction Coke Trays

During the 1970s when Americana was a popular decorating motif, Coca-Cola issued reproductions of some of their most popular early trays. These reproductions will be marked as such on the backs. In the 1980s, they did the same, in honor of their 100th anniversary.  

The repros tend to have very bold coloring compared to originals.  Some even have a bar code on the back, a dead give-away that it is a repro.  One example includes a nice Norman Rockwell tray called 'Barefoot Boy' but there's a bar code on bottom right of the back.

The 'original' of same sold recently on eBay for $280 and looked nowhere near this nice, but mine is worth only $10 or so as a repro.

Sometimes the writing on the back might even say something like... 'authentic reproduction' which brings a smile.  Well technically it IS, since they were made by the Coca-Cola Company as a reproduction of earlier times.   An example that was highly reproduced is Betty.  It is marked on the rim or lip edge of the tray, a good sign...until you realize the words say ...'authentic reproduction' !

While they are 'authentic trays', they are reproductions worth considerably less than their vintage counterparts, generally worth only around $10 each.  Some collectors do not take these repros very seriously and you might see discussions about the 'unauthorized' or 'fantasy' tray.  However I have several repros in my collection that are beautiful pieces, one favorite shown below. 
    Above is an example of a beautiful repro tray of Hilda from 1975 and a story appearing on the back, a 75th anniversary tray.  Maybe worth a little something but I doubt a significant price to a collector.  She's numbered, silver strip on bottom indicates that, but I'm not real sure whether that is authentic either.  At least she doesn't have the dreaded bar code... guess even bar codes will be antique SOMEday.   :-)

There are current books that can be consulted to learn the value of any given tray.  Browse a local book store for a recent price guide for Coke trays to learn more about values.  However these must be used with caution.  First, prices stated in those books refer to MINT condition, so any wear or even a small scratch reduces value.  Also, prices fluctuate along with other trends in the economy, so by the time a book is published it is possible that the market has changed for many prices in it.  Also, consider the range in pricing due simply to geography and source of sale.  For example, a sale in New York City or LA would bring in much higher pricing 
than a flea market in some rural area.  Of the pricing books, I particularly like Petretti.
An easy way to learn more about current values is simply to search 'completed listings' here on eBay for the exact tray you have.  You might find a recent sale of the exact same tray.

Two Important Eras of Coca Cola Trays

The first era of production of these beautiful Coca Cola trays ended in the late 1960s, with the modern era beginning in 1970.  The two eras together include examples spanning over 100 years.  Prices for trays made prior to 1968 ranged from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars.  By the early 1970s a new era in tray products began.  New materials and lower costs made it possible for more collectors to afford this investment.  So that 1970 year is crucial in terms of overall value for collectors...still I'd say if you like it, it's the REAL thing.   :-)

About the author:

My dad worked for Coca-Cola his whole life, so I grew up around Coca-Cola collectibles and memorabilia.  None of it meant much to me beyond the trays.  The Gibson Girls advertizing trays are my personal favorite category. I own several of them, however only a handful of mine are 'authentic'.

Update December 2008:  I found a blog with some excellent photos and detailed comparisons of original trays to repros.
eBay will not allow outside links here, but it easy to find this site if you just type the address below in your browser.
This guy (Tim the Tray Man) did a great job on both photos and descriptions to help you learn to spot repros.  He even discusses how sometimes even collectors are fooled by certain trays, and according to him the Tarzan, Johnny Weismueller tray is the most difficult to distinguish, yet he does a good job of describing these in detail at his site.
Update 2013:  No idea why my photos are not showing in this guide anymore.  Does eBay no longer allow them?  The site above has good photo comparisons of three trays that show clear differences between authentic and reproduction Coke trays.

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