An Agnew & Brown three-inch target ball from the 1870s, showing an embossed pigeon on the reverse side and quite possibly the only picture target ball ever made in glass, soared to $29,120 – a new world record for a target ball at auction – in an online auction held July 15-22 by American Bottle Auctions (www.AmericanBottle.com).
The ball was the top lot at Part two of The Peter Frobouck Collection. Part one was held March 29 of this year. Around 30 rare, vintage target balls were featured at each auction. Mr. Frobouck hails from Pittsburgh, as did Agnew & Brown when the firm was active in the late 19th century. That was when all target balls were made, before giving way to clay pigeons (or skeet).
Don’t feel badly if you’re unfamiliar with target balls. Not many people are. They are a small but slowly growing genre of collectible, especially popular today among well-to-do hunters and gun enthusiasts, but a novelty attraction among bottle collectors. Target balls had a brief but colorful life, bursting on the scene around 1876 before fading out altogether by 1895.
During that small window of time glass balls — not all that dissimilar in size and shape to glass Christmas tree ornaments — were stuffed with feathers and sawdust and catapulted from spring-loaded traps to be hit by shooters. They’d explode in the air in a feathery, dusty cloud, as a bird would. In fact, target balls were introduced because the bird population was declining.
During their heyday, target balls were produced by the millions, and not just here in the United States. Manufacturers sprang up in England, France, Germany and Australia, too. These glass orbs sold for a penny apiece back then, but today a rare example like the Agnew & Brown ball can command a hefty price tag. But it’s entirely possible to buy a nice ball for around $200.
“That’s the beauty of target balls,” said Jeff Wichmann of American Bottle Auctions. “It’s a collectible that’s still cozy and small enough that it hasn’t been overrun by big dollar investors looking to drive up prices in the name of a quick profit. Yes, some of the balls cost a lot of money, but that’s because they’re rare and beautiful. But it isn’t that way across the board.”
Factors such as the diversity of patterns, colors and country of origin can all combine to determine a target ball’s worth. Then there’s the cache of a colorful past. Target ball shooting was a sport observed by U.S. presidents, England’s Queen Victoria and the German Kaiser. An early user was Annie Oakley, who blasted target balls at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows.
The Agnew & Brown ball was in near-perfect condition and boasted a nice medium amber coloration (most balls were amber or blue). Along with the embossed pigeon, it also had the firm’s embossed name and address. Prior to being acquired by Mr. Frobouck, it was part of the Alex Kerr Collection, which American Bottle Auctions also sold, in chunks, from 2007-08.
In all, 31 target balls found new owners at the Peter Frobouck sale, which grossed around $70,000. Two balls failed to meet the seller’s reserve. Following are additional highlights from the auction. All prices quoted include a 12 percent buyer’s premium.
The second top lot of the sale also originated from the Alex Kerr Collection. It was a J.H. Johnston (also of Pittsburgh; there were five major manufacturers in Pittsburgh) target ball, in an extremely rare purple coloration. It soared to $14,560. The three-piece mold ball, in near-mint condition, featured a goodly amount of glass on the base and a staggering amount of embossing.
A three-piece mold, burst lip, 2.4-ounce target ball made by Jas. Brown & Son (also of Pittsburgh), graded 9.5 out of 10 for condition and boasting a light yellowish amber coloration, loads of embossing and great character, breezed to $10,080. Also, a near-mint E.E. Sage & Co. (Chicago) 2.1-ounce ball, light to medium amber, with large-letter embossing, brought $4,928.
A 2.6-ounce glass ball from Capt. A.H. Bogardus of Chicago (who had target balls made for him by several glasshouses), mint 9.8, medium to deep amber and with a rare embossed bottom, realized $4,704. Also, a target ball with stars (or crosses), three-piece mold, 2.2 ounces, with a finely ground lip, razor-thin seams and a handsome warm amber coloration, garnered $2,464.
The top earner of the foreign-made balls was an E. Barton & Sons (U.K.) sand ball in varying shades of light blue, with baby mottled blue patches and green spots. Graded mint 9.8, the bottle had thousands of tiny bubbles throughout and went for $1,232. Another E. Barton & Sons ball, this one an elaborately designed brilliant blue orb graded a stout 9.9, rose to $952.
A German-made Sophienhutte In Ilmenau (Thur) amber colored target ball, 2.2 ounces, with an unusual lattice pattern and in 9.6 condition despite a dent in the bottom side, peaked at $896; while a rare Australian-made target ball with beautiful blue coloring and a two-piece design that turned from a square pattern to an odd geometric design on each side brought $896.
An amethyst Gablonz target ball (made in Germany and very rare and well made, despite being somewhat oddly shaped), 1.8 ounces and a little bit smaller than the standard 3-inch ball, pear-shaped and graded a solid 9.7, went for $896; and a Bogardus target ball made in 1877, with purple and clear coloring and some green near the top, graded 9.7, changed hands for $840.
There are no target ball auctions planned for anytime in the near future by American Bottle Auctions. “There just aren’t that many collections out there, so it’s anybody’s guess when we’ll have another one,” shrugged Mr. Wichmann. “My advice is just to watch eBay and keep an eye on our website. You just never know. One thing’s for sure, they’re gaining in popularity.”