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The Expert

Corkscrew Connoisseur

Frank Milwee, 63, collector of vintage wine tools

Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page M03

TURN OF THE SCREW: I got interested in antiques after I left the Army in 1987. I was walking through a flea market and I just fell in love. It wasn't until about 12 years ago that I got into corkscrews, though. At an antique show, I ran into another buyer who'd purchased a collection of 13 vintage pieces -- I was intrigued, so I bought 12 of the 13. Then, when my customers reacted well, I started amassing a collection at my shop [Frank Milwee Antiques, 2912 M St. NW, 202-333-4811]. Currently, I have 438 on display, with no duplications.

FIT FOR BACCHUS: You should audition every corkscrew -- with the exception of those crappy modern ones you buy at the grocery store. I generally buy and sell about 500 a year, each with the notion that the item is going to be used. One of my favorites is an 1802 Patent Thomason. When you turn the crossbar, the cork is removed from the bottle and ultimately ejected from the screw (or worm, as it is commonly called). It's absolutely first class -- the Rolls Royce of corkscrews. You really get a level of satisfaction with how mechanically fluent and elegant it is.

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DOING THE TWIST: An object is only worth what two people are willing to pay for it, and for this reason I don't buy from auctions. My customers attend them, so if I were to go and bid on an object I'd become their competition. I find corkscrews the old-fashioned way: I get out and pound the pavement. I go to antique shops and estate sales. I go every place that I think there might be a corkscrew worth investigating. This includes quite a bit of travel to places like Canada and particularly Great Britain, where the demand for corkscrews was great.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I always tell people to look with their eyes and not their mouths when buying any type of antique -- tell someone you're looking for a particular piece and you automatically drive up the price. On a trip to London in 1999, I found a particular vintage corkscrew called a Lund's London Lever that I thought was fun, so I bought up quite a few of them. They actually didn't sell all that well. The following year, though, I couldn't find any. I asked a seller what was going on, and he told me that "someone" had bought them all up, making them scarce! Six years later, they're still hard to find.

As told to Karen Hart

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