Bottle Collectors Take Fight to Federal Court

     SACRAMENTO (CN) — A dispute over antique “owl drug bottles” has blown up into a federal lawsuit in which a bottle historian claims he was defamed by a vindictive competitor.
     Jeffrey Wichmann founded American Bottle Auctions in 1993 and wrote “The Best of the West — Antique Western Bitters Bottles” (1999).
     According to the book description on Amazon: “Virtually every western bitters bottle is shown in full color, many in the different color variations they were blown in. For each listed bottle, a brief history is given along with the name, size, year made and type of top it has. It also includes a rundown on the current status of each bottle and points of interest. In addition, it includes the rarity and current value of each.”
     In his April 22 lawsuit, Wichmann claims rival collector David Levine falsely accused him of selling stolen owl drug bottles for $20,000 apiece.
     He claims Levine spewed a “continuing stream of false and misleading allegations” to induce Wichmann’s fans and customers to boycott an upcoming Sacramento antique bottle auction and trade show.
     “Levine went right to the throat, attacking Wichmann’s honesty and integrity,” the complaint states.
     Wichmann claims to have sold the world’s most expensive bottle at an auction in 1998 — for $68,750 — and his legend looms large among bottle collectors. He calls his website, americanbottle.com, “a vital, interactive center for the world of bottle collectors.” Wichmann also is “active” in the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors (FOHBC).
     He claims that Levine “fancies himself an expert on antique bottles,” and “has carried a grudge over Wichmann and the FOHBC principally over the practice of bottle cleaning.”
     Levine maintains his own website, the “Owl Drug Collectors Blog,” which he describes as “A page dedicated to those who have a passion for the history and collection of owl drug bottles,” according to the complaint.
     Wichmann says Levine began defaming him on the blog in December last year.
     “What followed was a series of blog entries over the course of the next three months that presented false and defamatory allegations against Wichmann that damaged Wichmann’s reputation in the community in general,” according to the 28-page complaint.
     The accusations center on three bottles Wichmann sold that allegedly were stolen from an opera house in Nevada in the late 1990s.
     Citing Levine’s blog posts, Wichmann says Levine told his readers that Wichmann knowingly bought the stolen bottles with cash to avoid a paper trail and then quickly sold the loot.
     Wichmann says he had no idea that the bottles allegedly had been stolen and that he bought them with checks, which he provided to Nevada investigators. He says he also featured photographs of the three bottles on his website and digital catalog.
     “The investigative report contains no evidence that Wichmann was anything other than an innocent and good faith purchaser of three bottles,” the complaint states.
     Levine also attacked the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors for inducting Wichmann into its Hall of Fame in April.
     “Obviously they support a lack of ethics, integrity, honest and condone illegal activities and behavior,” Levine blogged after Wichmann’s induction. “Their unanimous vote of 18 to 0 is indicative of that support,” according to one of the numerous blogs quoted in the lawsuit.
     Levine concluded his April 15 post, “Bad Behavior,” by suggesting that the federation inducted Wichmann to its Hall of Fame because he had donated $5,000 to the group.
     “Was it truly a donation or payback or pay forward for favors to come?” Levine blogged.
     Wichmann claims the blog posts were made with “personal animosity” and he fears he will be shunned and ridiculed by his fans and customers.
     The heat generated by the rival bottle barons becomes intense as the lawsuit’s allegations unwind. For instance, Wichmann accuses Levine of “demonstrating his utter ignorance about antique bottles” by claiming that four Cassam bitters bottles were sold for a total of $58,000, a Bryant bitters bottle for $17,000, and “a more rare Bryant variant sold for $30,000.” In fact, Wichmann says, “There is no such thing as a ‘Cassam’ bottle.” They are actually called Cassin bottles, he says. And the bottles don’t cost that much.
     Wichmann seeks $1 million in punitive damages for libel and invasion of privacy,
     He is represented by Peter Glick of Sacramento, who could not be reached for comment after business hours Monday.

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