A couple of years ago, I was browsing at a flea market on London’s Portobello Road when a sterling silver cigar case caught my eye. Its square corners were the first clue that it had not been made for the panatella-shaped cigars that have been popular since the late 1800s. Indeed, it was hallmarked 1854, making it one of the earliest sterling silver cigar cases known. It was an exciting find, but to the English shoppers who passed it by, the pristine case was an impractical Victorian item made for a cigar shape that no longer exists.
Everyone understands the thrill of the hunt, but to actually capture the prey, it helps to know what to look for. In terms of cigar-related collectibles, tortoiseshell cases, antique cutters, and ornate humidors and pipe cabinets are all in demand, mostly because they reflect styles, materials, and workmanship that are no longer readily obtainable.
Age and rarity are not the only indicators of value. An item’s condition is crucial in determining its collectibility. For example, a box of pre-Castro Havanas that are dry and cracked have no real value except, perhaps, to a collector of cigar boxes. But a box of the same cigar that has been kept humidified could fetch $100 to $300 per cigar. Add a premium price for the original box.
Celebrity association also adds cachet, particularly in the United States, where a silver cigar tube normally valued at $250 fetched $1,250 at a Los Angeles auction because it once belonged to Orson Welles. At the George Burns estate sale, his custom-made Dunhill humidor, a $2,500 collectible in its own right, sold for more than $8,000.
Neither item would have drawn nearly as much interest anywhere else in the world, which brings us back to Portobello Road and the notion that location can go a long way toward determining value. At a recent European auction of items from the Austrian Tobacco Museum, a 19th-century American cigar store Indian—an item greatly prized in the United States—was valued at $980 and fetched $3,000. A cased set of six Dunhill Root Briar pipes, easily worth $2,000 on the American market, went under the hammer for only $750. It was sold to an anonymous U.S. collector. "I was praying there would be no other Americans bidding on this set," he says, "or I never would have gotten it."
Hunting for collectibles abroad holds advantages for Americans and Europeans alike. At an antiques show in Pasadena, Calif., a Danish collector lunged with excitement when he spotted five elongated porcelain German Regimental pipe bowls. These colorfully painted bowls are eagerly sought by many Europeans but not Americans. In the United States, collectors would rather claim treasures such as 20th-century briar pipes, or estate pipes, which are commonly tossed out with the trash in England.
As antismoking laws proliferate, even nonsmokers are beginning to collect items such as vintage lighters and ashtrays. "There’s a certain fascination with the romance of pipe and cigar smoking," says Hugh Getzenberg, a vintage pipe and accessories vendor. "It hearkens back to a time when smoking was perceived as a mark of sophistication. For many, it still is. Of course, there is also the element of nostalgia."