The family, one of the earliest bottlers of the soft drink, spent years scouring the country for pieces branded with the iconic Coca-Cola name. They opened up a museum to show off their prized collection, but they're ready to move on and have decided to auction 80,000 items piecemeal, beginning in mid-September.
"Some of the pieces that they have in those showcases are beyond belief," said Allan Petretti, author of "Petretti's Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide," which is in its 12th edition. "There may be only one or two or three in existence.
"This is THE event in the world of Coca-Cola collecting."
The entire collection is valued in the millions and includes one-of-a-kind posters, rare serving trays, century-old lithograph calendars, unique bottles, colorful jewelry, lighted signs, vending machines and toys. There's even the side of a Kentucky barn that served as a giant Coke ad.
Coca-Cola's archivist, Phil Mooney, said the world's largest drink maker will be at some of the auctions.
"They'll be some very heated bidding," he said.
The family collection started modestly in the early 1970s when Bill Schmidt, a third-generation Coca-Colabottler, picked up some memorabilia to decorate offices at his bottling plant in Elizabethtown, about 50 miles south of Louisville.
Schmidt, who died four years ago, and his wife, Jan, amassed a treasure trove rivaling the company's own vast collection. Their items — spanning mostly from the late 1800s to mid-1970s — fill a museum and warehouse covering 32,000 square-feet.
"The collection has become inert, and the way to keep it alive is to pass it on," Jan Schmidt said.
The Schmidt family's bottling business began in 1901 in Louisville, making them only the fifth Coca-Colabottler in the country.
They opened their first museum around 1977 at their bottling plant. Two decades later, the family built a stand-alone building to show off the collection.
The Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia, which drew about 30,000 visitors annually, closed Tuesday so the family could prepare for the sales. The family plants to create the Schmidt Family Foundation, which will give to local and national charities to be determined.
Larry Schmidt, 53, who followed his father into the Coke bottling business until selling the franchise in 1999, said the decision was bittersweet but the family was ready to move on and wanted to give the legion of Coke collectors a chance to buy some of their items. The Coca-Cola Collectors Club has more than 2,600 members around the world.
Items expected to draw the most interest will be sold at live auctions at the museum. Each item will have a tag explaining its origin and significance, and it will likely take several years to completely divest.
"We don't want to go out and flood the market with lots of items and potentially harm the value of items that other collectors have," Larry Schmidt said.
Schmidt assessed the collection's value at $10 million or more. He has no idea what his parents paid, but he's sure their purchase prices were a fraction of what the pieces are now worth.
A large yellow poster from the mid-1890s is conservatively valued at $30,000. It was displayed outside drug stores where Coca-Cola was served and features a woman holding a Coke. The ad says "Drink Coca-Cola. Delicious. Refreshing, Cures Headache, Relieves Exhaustion. At Soda Fountains 5 cents."
The other top item, also valued at about $30,000, is a late 19th century "Victorian Girl" serving tray. It's among the first Coca-Cola tin trays.
"We don't have one in our collection," said Mooney, the Atlanta-based company's archivist. "That's how rare it is."
Coca-Cola produced more than 200 styles of trays over the years, and the Schmidts collected them all.
The collection also includes a serving tray adorned by a topless woman. The Prohibition-era tray was put out by a bottling company in Chicago to promote the brand as a mixer in speakeasies. The tray fell flat with Coca-Cola executives.
One of the largest items is an 1893 onyx and marble soda fountain. The oldest pieces date to 1885, a mirror and a tin sign promoting "French Wine of Coca," a drink concocted by John Pemberton a year before the Atlanta pharmacist produced the Coca-Cola syrup.
There's also a vending machine that dispensed Cokes for 6 cents, a short-lived price.
Petretti, who is appraising the collection in advance of the auctions, said the rice pieces of Americana represent some of the world's best advertising art.
"This is the history of our country," he said. "The styles, the fashion, the trends, sports."