A menagerie of vintage figural lighters
NEW YORK – Cigarette and cigar lighters come in all shapes and forms. While mass-produced plastic disposables a la Bic are common today, there are elegant antique and vintage rectangular ones by Dunhill, Zippo, Ronson and other makers that are collectible as fine vintage models.
Their shape can likely be traced back to early match safes and containers as some early lighters used match strikes to ignite the flame. These latter lighters can fetch several hundred dollars each. Increasing in value, however, are figural lighters made of silver and other metals whose looks are limited only by the artist’s imagination.
Mastering fire has been a critical part of civilization from prehistoric times on and having a portable fire one in one’s pocket was a game changer in the 1800s. The earliest lighters were an adaptation of a flintlock pistol, using gunpowder. An early lighter made by German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner in 1823 created a flame by creating a chemical reaction when flammable hydrogen gas came into contact with a metal strike.
Some of the finest silver firms created figural lighters in either silver or sterling silver with rare and exceptional examples, particularly from the 19th century, comfortably bringing five-figure sums. Cast-iron figural lighters also elicit strong demand from collectors.
As Russian silversmith Faberge is renowned for fine silver, it’s little surprise that the firm produced some highly detailed and attractive lighters, particularly in the form of wild animals. A silver table lighter cast as a seated elephant features finely chased details to replicate the texture of wrinkled skin. Bearing the mark for master assayist Aleksandr Vladislavovich Skovronsky, an 1895 example brought $25,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2019 at Shapiro Auctions. Faberge also made these objects in the form of a seated monkey, bearing the workmaster’s mark of Julius Rappoport, that were realistically modeled, the silver chased to simulate fur. One sold at Christie’s London in November 2012 for £85,250 ($135,010) + the buyer’s premium. Both lighters had a hinged cover that opened to reveal a lighter fluid compartment. Other desirable Faberge lighters by Rappaport include one in the form of a standing rhinoceros with a circa 1890 example selling at Sotheby’s London in June 2019 for GBP 47,500 ($60,060) + the buyer’s premium.
Established in 1845 in Sheffield, England, Walker & Hall is well known for its dragon-form cigar lighters that feature silver and antelope horn. A circa 1895 example made $8,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Reportedly, this lighter was likely made for military officers, as theorized by the inclusion of a flaming cannonball/grenade under the dragon’s right foot.
“Several variations of this lighter exist, most in silver-plate, including some that attribute the dragon figure to the comic tale of the Dragon of Wantley,” according to the catalog lot description.
Cigar cutters and lighters, combined in one object, are also collectable. Not exactly portable and much too big to put in one’s pocket, these were likely designed to be tabletop models, and after a gentlemanly game of cards, the men could gather to light their cigars. At 6 inches tall, a rare J.E. Smith cast-iron cigar cutter and lighter with match dispenser would have been perfectly suited for this purpose. It achieved $7,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Morphy Auctions.
Patented Dec. 1, 1896, this cigar cutter and lighter uses a cast bird to both cut the cigar by lifting the tail of the bird, pierce the match supply with its beak and then light the match. While most lighters are silver, a few are gold such as a horse head cigarette lighter made by Tiffany & Co in 18K yellow gold that was heavily chased to realistically detail the mane and head of a horse. One sold in December 2017 for $5,500 + the buyer’s premium at Kodner Galleries Inc.
Dunhill also is renowned for its lighters, particularly its large “Aquarium” lighters with scenes painted on the sides of the lighter, of which Winston Churchill was said to be a fan. A Dunhill “Aquarium” lighter with a painted scene of parrots drew $7,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Clarke Auction Gallery. While the Aquarium lighters are not figural per se, Dunhill created quite a few novelty lighters such as a silver and brass hunting horn lighter and its lighter in the form of a bible.
Whether you prefer flintlock lighters to one that operates by match, naptha-infused wicks or butane, there is a figural lighter for every collecting taste.