From around 1840 to 1910, life-size cigar store figures of Indian chiefs, braves and princesses – mostly carved from wood but some cast from zinc, too – could be seen inside or outside nearly every tobacco shop in America. The U.S. census from 1860 listed no fewer than 2,269 active wood carvers. Of those, 959 were living in New York, the epicenter of cigar store Indian manufacture. New York City was the unofficial headquarters for studios producing cigar store Indians, or “show figures,” as carvers called them.
The most famous and highly collected carvers are Samuel Robb, Thomas V. Brooks, J. W. Fiske, Julius T. Melchers, John Cromwell and William Demuth – although Demuth was not himself a carver but a tobacco products distributor who operated a carving studio. Of the group, all but one (Melchers) worked in New York City. They all even apprenticed under one another at various points in time; that’s how tightly knit the carving community was.
Melchers, the outlier, operated out of Detroit, and was the only carver who was a classically trained artist. The others were more or less folk artists and, in fact, cigar store Indians are generally considered a category of folk art. Melchers, it is said, used actual Native Americans as models in creating his highly detailed, true-to-life creations. In that regard, he’s in the top tier of most desired carvers in the collecting community.
As anyone who’s even casually familiar with the genre knows, cigar store Indians can fetch dizzying dollars at auction. “We sold a Samuel Robb figure at one of our sales not long ago for over $100,000, but that’s not unusual,” said Mike Eckles, owner of Showtime Auction Services in Woodhaven, Michigan. “Cigar store Indians sell for in the six figures all the time. They’re life-size expressions of a time gone by, and people just love them.”
In May 2010, a carved cigar store Indian done in the manner of Samuel Robb – but not definitively attributed to him, since it was unsigned (most weren’t) – was sold for $203,150 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. At the time, it was a world record price, owing to the figure’s original paint, superb condition, impeccable provenance and detailed features. The male chief figure stood 75½ inches tall, including the base.
“Condition and original paint are especially important,” said Marsha Dixie, Heritage’s Consignment Director in the Historical Department. “Keep in mind, these figures were usually outdoors, year-round, exposed to the elements, with people sometimes throwing things at them or even hacking at them. As for paint, it was common for people to re-paint the figures, thinking they were doing the right thing. To a collector, that’s not a good thing. Patina is everything.”
The Heritage record was demolished in 2013 when a female figure – known in the trade as a cigar store princess – sold for a staggering $745,500 (inclusive of 15 percent buyer’s premium) at a sale held by Guyette & Deeter. The Maryland-based firm’s specialty is duck decoys, another genre of carved collectible that routinely sees six-figure prices. The cigar store princess was carved either by Robb or Brooks (again, unsigned) and overall stood 83 inches tall.
“I had known the owner of the figure for quite a few years,” said Jon Deeter of Guyette & Deeter. “It had been used and never traveled far from downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Its condition was pristine and it was a very attractive princess. We’ve sold other Indians in the mid-five-figure range. They’re fun to work with and are a wonderful slice of American folk art.” The sale price still stands as a record today, although it will doubtless be shattered at some point in the future.
The prices for better examples continue on an upward trajectory, but it wasn’t always that way. A New York Times article from 1974 stated, “It was not until the 1950s that the general public began to realize that cigar store Indians were anything more than firewood.” The article pointed out that prices in 1974 were 10 times what they were just 20 years earlier. Nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler, earlier time simply swept the category up to the big time.
One person who may own the next record-breaker is Mark Goldman, a collector and tobacconist in New York City. He began collecting in 1967 and today has over 100 life-size figures, by all the major carvers. But the one he thinks might trump them all is an early Punch figure by James “Jersey Jim” Campbell. Goldman bought it years ago when it was deaccessioned by a now-defunct U.S. Tobacco museum in Nashville. He says it’s worth about $500,000 today.
“Collectors today fall into one of two categories,” Goldman said, “people who are looking to outfit their man-caves and serious collectors. The man-cavers might be happy with a simple replica, which they can buy for around $500 or $600. The serious collectors bring serious money to the table, and are keenly aware of the often-subtle differences that can distinguish an ordinary cigar store Indian from a highly valuable piece of folk art.”
Aside from the obvious markers like paint and condition, Goldman says he also looks for what he calls movement. “A Samuel Robb Indian with a rose, for example, or with crossed legs, or who is showing a smile instead of a stern, steady expression, might double or even triple the value of a figure that doesn’t show those things.” Goldman said whether a figure is male or female (about an equal number of each was produced) matters little. His collection is half and half.
Books on the subject that collectors, or people considering collecting, refer to include Artists in Wood by Frederick Fried (the title refers to what Samuel Robb gave as his occupation on his marriage certificate), Hunting Indians in a Taxi Cab by Kate Sanborn (if you can find a copy; it was written in 1911), Cigar Store Figures by Pendergast & Ware, and The Ship Carver’s Art by Ralph Sessions. By the way, and fakes and repros are out there, so caveat emptor!