AUSTIN -- Shopping bags stuffed with last-minute gifts herald the final stretch of the holiday frenzy.
At the Texas Capitol's gift shop, the annual holiday ornament
was at the top of shoppers' lists. Each year's ornament commemorates a different feature of the historic Texas Capitol and is part of a tradition that stretches back nearly two decades.
"We sell anywhere from 52,000 to 58,000 a year," said Texas State Preservation Board retail director Shawn Goodnight. "We have a lot of folks who are repeat customers. These are folks who have collected them religiously since 1996."
The 2013 ornament features the skylights in the Texas House and Senate chambers. The information card included with the ornament describes the skylights as being originally made from thick plate glass believed to have been manufactured in Belgium. The original glass was removed sometime during the 1940s, with the current reproductions installed as part of extensive renovations in the 1990s. Each ornament is finished in 24-karat gold and sells for $20, but many have seen their value increase over the years.
"Scarcity always increases the value of just about anything," said Goodnight. "We retire an ornament after 10 years, and it's not unusual during the holidays to see any of those retired ornaments on eBay. I think the record bid that we've seen in the last couple of years for the '96 ornament was over $400."
That doesn't include the new record set this year. After 18 years of production, Goodnight said staff realized that 2013 would mark the one millionth ornament made and sold by the State Preservation Board. To commemorate the milestone, the millionth ornament was specially packaged and placed on the online auction site eBay. As the auction clock neared zero, it caught the attention of Austin entrepreneur Doug Guller.
"It turned out the high bidder was from Iowa at the time," said Guller, the founder and CEO of ATX Brands, which owns numerous bars and restaurants, including Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill. "I thought, man, that has to stay here in Austin. So I put the bid in and won it."
After winning the auction with a $5,176 bid, Guller received the milestone ornament encased in a box made of homegrown Texas Capitol wood, along with a letter of authenticity signed by Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas).
"The box came from a 300-year-old live oak that was on the property, on the grounds of the Capitol," said Guller. "When there was a big storm in '09, it blew down, and this specific box was carved out of a tree that had been sitting there for a long time."
Guller said his move to Austin eight years ago began a long love affair with Texas. In fact, he said, his West Austin home is the same in which author James Michener penned the iconic novel "Texas" 30 years ago.
"You just wake up every day and say, 'Man, I'm so thankful to be in this state and in this city,," said Guller. "I thought that having Michener's legacy here and having the ornament in the same house kind of just ties it all together."
The proceeds of the auction, as well as regular ornament sales, all support Texas Capitol preservation and education projects. One example of recent preservation projects aided by sales was the large-scale restoration of the Capitol's dome and facade in 2010.
"I think what it allows people to do is not only take something home to put on their tree or in their home, but it also allows them the gratification of having invested in the state Capitol," said Goodnight. "I think our State Capitol building is probably one of the more beautiful ones in the country, and I've seen many of them. That can't happen without the support of people who buy our products and invest in our programs for Capitol preservation and education."