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Whiskey: Building a spirited collection

Two bottles of whiskey from the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Kentucky, dating to circa 1912, sold for $23,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For centuries, bourbon, rye, corn, wheat and other grains have provided the basis of aqua vitae (Latin for “water of life”). Once distilled, the liquid becomes ethanol with a high alcoholic content – or, as its connoisseurs know it, whiskey.

European monks in Scotland and Ireland perfected the distillation process around the 15th century, with the aim of creating medicine. Their yield was bitter and hardly diluted – almost pure. The precise addition of water, along with stringent governmental regulations, transformed whiskey into the smoother, more enjoyable spirit countless tipplers enjoy and bid on at auction.

Whiskey or Whisky?

Both spellings are valid and provide clues about the origins of a beverage. Whiskey with an “e” appears on bottles produced in the United States and Ireland; whisky without the “e” prevails at distilleries everywhere else in the world. Regardless of how it is spelled, the term is an anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce, meaning “water,” a reference to one of the drink’s key ingredients. (We’ll use “whiskey” in this article.)

A pair of 12-year-old single malt whiskeys by Suntory, a leading Japanese distillery, sold for $900 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Tenmoku Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Whiskey requires three ingredients: yeast, grain and water. How much of each the distiller includes determines the type of whiskey that will result from the combination.

Whiskey Basics

The range of possible iterations from those three simple ingredients translates to a broad and tantalizing array of choices for whiskey collectors.

If a whiskey is defined as a single malt, it has one of two additional classifications: “single” means the contents came from one distillery, not from one grain; while “malt” refers to barley that has been fermented to produce the yeast used to create the beverage. A blended whiskey combines the products of two or more distilleries. Grain whiskey involves a mixture of corn, barley, wheat or rye, sometimes in specific amounts for each. Single cask or single barrel whiskeys are spirits sourced not only from one distillery, but also from a specific cask or barrel at that distillery.

A full vintage Kinsey blended whiskey from the 1970s with an intact label and tax stamp realized $70 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Image courtesy of Emanon Auctions and Estate Sales and LiveAuctioneers

Bourbon, rye whiskey, moonshine and Tennessee whiskey are distilled only in the United States. Scotch whiskey exclusively refers to whiskey made in Scotland. Those from Ireland, Canada, Japan and elsewhere are distilled under their country’s specific rules. 

Whiskeys are aged in wooden casks that are sometimes charred (for a distinctive flavor) and sometimes not. Once the spirit is bottled, aging stops. This quality has helped grow whiskey’s popularity with collectors. Wine can spoil as bottles slumber in a cellar, but whiskey will not. 

The Ways and Whys of Whiskey-Making

After the final distillation, all whiskey is clear and tasteless. Its color and flavor comes from the wooden barrels in which it is aged, such as oak (the most common choice), maple, hickory or ash. Color, complexity, and taste arise from the maturing spirit’s interactions with the wood of the barrel, which is why whiskey-makers seek barrels that are charred or have already gained seasoning from previous sessions of aging wine, madeira, port or other spirits.

The type of water from which a whiskey is distilled also affects its flavor. Natural sources of water have different minerals in different concentrations. Skilled distillers take advantage of this to craft standout whiskeys.

In the world of whiskey, place names matter, too. Bourbon is made solely in the United States under strict guidelines. To qualify as bourbon, the spirit must be distilled with no less than 51% corn; casked in new, charred oak barrels for no fewer than two years, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (which means the final product is 40 percent alcohol). 

A group of three bottles of Scotch whiskey, two by Buchanan’s and one by Ballantine’s, sold for $46 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Ireland and Scotland both take pride in their national histories as whiskey-producers, and their spirits feature notable differences. Scotch whiskey tends to employ malted barley, while Irish whiskey recipes favor barley seeds, which gives the Irish spirit a distinct taste.

With all these preferences, characteristics and stipulations in play, collectors can assume no two whiskeys are distilled exactly alike, even if they come from the same country or region.

What Do Whiskey Collectors Look For?

During the U.S. period of Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, alcoholic beverages were banned except for whiskey. Distillers did not change how they worked, but they were forced to treat their goods as medicine. Americans who wanted whiskey had to obtain a prescription from a doctor and purchase it at a pharmacy. 

Prohibition-era spirits, especially whiskey, are highly sought after by collectors. In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned a 1926 McCallan Valerio Adami for $1.9 million, which was a world record for whiskey at auction. A pre-Prohibition lot of 25 pints of Hermitage 9-year-old whiskey, found behind a wall in 2018, sold for $24,500, or about $1,000 a bottle. 

But collecting whiskey doesn’t require deep pockets. A 2019 vox.com article titled “The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained,” quotes Andy Simpson, co-founder of RareWhiskey101, as saying collections often start from one simple premise. According to Simpson, some common collecting themes are pursuing a bottle from every possible distillery, obtaining every bottle from a single, beloved distillery; or collecting birth-year vintages. Says Simpson, “ … the list is almost endless.”

A circa-1880s bottle of Cassidy & Co Monasterevan whiskey, one of two known, sold for €23,000 ($26,970) in July 2019. Image courtesy of Victor Mee Auctions and Liveauctioneers

Prices for elite whiskeys have risen high enough to draw the attention of forgers. To avoid expensive disappointments, collectors should consult experts and stay in touch with online communities of fellow collectors. Those sources will teach initiates key details, such as what period-correct labels and bottles look like, and, more importantly, how to know where a particular whiskey has been, and for how long.

Above all else, one should never lose sight of the fact that whiskey-collecting is about pleasure, not hoarding. Some experts advise savor your hard-won prizes neat or on ice, with friends, or with one special person; or in quiet contemplation, perhaps beside a fire. After all, as Rudyard Kipling said, “Whiskey is not a drink; whiskey is a philosophy of life.” Just be sure that, no matter how you choose to enjoy the fruits of your collection, you do so responsibly. Cheers!

Rally ‘Round These American Flags

A 30-star American Flag with a charming scattered-star pattern sold for $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium at Cowan’s in June 2019. 
Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many national flags are older than the flag of the United States, but no national flag has changed as often. From 1777, with the adoption of the 13-star design, to 1960, when it assumed the current 50-star pattern, the American Flag has officially changed no fewer than 27 times during the past 245 years.

The American Flag’s appearance is familiar, but unfixed. A new star is added to its canton the word for the blue field in the upper left for any new state on the following July 4th after its admittance to the Union. With Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico pursuing statehood, the look of the American flag could change at some point.

A flag that exists in more than two dozen iterations, interpreted by countless creators during more than two centuries, provides rich pickings for collectors. Naturally, some American Flags are more sought-after than others. Below are some of the most coveted styles and forms.

An early 19th century 13-star US flag made as a small boat flag for the US Navy sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The 13-Star Flag

Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That was the entire Congressional Resolution of June 14, 1777 that officially adopted the national flag of the new United States of America. There was no meaning attached to the colors, the shape of the stars, or whether the stripes were horizontal or vertical. The flag was only intended to identify the new country aboard Navy vessels when entering foreign ports.

Additional resolutions were adopted later specifying that new states beyond the first 13 would be recognized on the flag with their own stars. This ensured the American flag would routinely change as the country expanded westward.

The 13-star flag remained official until the admission of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795, yet there is no credible 13-star American Flag that has survived the 18th century.

American Flags found at auction that feature 13 stars were used primarily by the US Navy on smaller launch boats from the 1850s to 1916, when the national flag was substituted instead.

The Star Pattern

Until the advent of the commercial sewing machine around 1850 (which could only sew in a straight line), all American Flags were stitched by hand, and they were not routinely displayed at home. These facts makes any American Flag of this period the most coveted at auction.

American Flags made after 1850 but before the circa 1890 advent of the zig-zag sewing machine (which could sew stars in place) are the second most desired at auction. Flags manufactured after 1900 are less scarce.

It is important to note that the appearance of the American Flag was not regulated until 1912, when a canton with a 48-star box-like pattern was deemed the official flag design for government and military use. Prior to 1912, manufacturers and individuals created any star pattern they wanted, and some of them were exceptionally innovative and eye-catching. Unsurprisingly, the most unusual and creative star patterns have proven the most collectible at auction.

Once codified, the 48-star American Flag relied on all-wool bunting until World War II, when cotton was substituted to conserve the wool for uniforms. Wool flags, then, are generally about a third more valuable than cotton ones.

The 49-star American Flag, adopted when Alaska earned admission to the Union in 1959, was official for only one year, as Hawaii gained entrance in 1960. For this reason, it is the most collectible American Flag in any size or format. The 50-star American Flag is the longest-lived variation on the design, and is the most common.

Collectors who want to build an unusual collection seek American Flags with an unofficial number of stars, such as 14, 16 to 19, 22, 39 to 42, or 47, especially in hand-sewn wool bunting, as most examples are particularly scarce.

Civil War Flags

The three national flags of the Confederate States of America and the two national flags of the United States of this period one featuring 34 stars, and one 35 stars are extremely collectible and routinely auctioned with high reserves.

Apart from the national flags, individual regimental flags from both North and South were hand-sewn with great care. Any that appear to have been made in haste or seem unusually battle-worn are typically outed as fake.

An Apollo 10 American flag that flew to the lunar surface sold for $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2014. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Flags Flown in Space

Humans have flown in space only since Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union successfully completed one orbit around Earth in 1961. Since then, about 560 individuals have experienced true weightlessness in space, not counting the 242 visitors to the International Space Station (the structure is positioned in low Earth orbit, which sticklers don’t count as space travel).

Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first to carry an American Flag in space during his Mercury Freedom 7 capsule voyage in 1961, roughly three weeks after Gagarin’s flight. Since then, American astronauts have been allowed to pack a few personal belongings in a PPK (personal preference kit) that usually includes small American flags to distribute as souvenirs once they return home. Each of these space-flown flags routinely garner great interest at auction.

But flags flown to the moon are easily the most prized. The 18 astronauts chosen for the six Apollo missions collectively brought several hundred small American flags on their extraterrestrial journeys, leaving few for would-be owners to fight over.

Documentation proves this shredded 48-star wool American Flag flew over the US Capitol on April 6, 1917 – the day that war was declared against Germany. It sold at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2020 for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Historic or Special Event Flags

A tradition among those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts calls for those on patrol to tuck small American Flags inside their uniforms. Once home, the flags are normally given to staff, family members, or institutions. Only occasionally have they sold at auction. Such flags fit the definition of “special event” flags, which can draw the interest of collectors.

An American Flag that flew over the White House or U.S. Capitol during historic or meaningful occasions tend to keep their value. Examples of events that can pique the interest of flag collectors are those flown during inaugurations; when a deceased president or legendary person lies in state; or when an act of war is declared.

Flags flown from a prominent location during a high-profile event such as the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the like can attract serious bidding at auction. Those that hovered over a gathering on a notable day of remembrance, such as a 9/11 anniversary, might be sought-after as well.

Still others that command attention are those bearing the signature of a president or someone of similar prominence; early campaign flags; folk art flags; flags sewn by prisoners of war; and those with a celebrity connection or a backstory that distinguishes its provenance.

More than a Collectible

Any American Flag that bears the official number of stars is never decommissioned even if it is rendered obsolete by an updated design. Whether it floated over a battlefield or traveled to the surface of the moon or never left the flagpole in the front yard, an American flag represents a compelling story of freedom, liberty, and national identity that makes it more than just a collectible.

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Montblanc pens have the write stuff

A Montblanc Meisterstuck chevron fountain pen sold for $7,040 in March 2021 at J. Garrett Auctioneers.

Why would anyone spend $250, or $500, or $1,000, or more on a fountain pen when a plain but efficient BiC will do the job for a small fraction of the price? The answer, of course, is that pricey pens are more than mere tools. Those who spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a pen see it as a fashion accessory that ranks right up there with their Patek Philippe wristwatch and Bentley sunglasses. In those two categories, customers have a long list of name brands to choose from, but in the world of fine writing instruments, one dominates: Montblanc. The case of each Montblanc pen is crested with the image of a six-pointed snowcap with rounded edges, an homage to the highest mountain in the Alps: Mont Blanc.

Montblanc International is a German maker of luxury goods, based in Hamburg. In addition to pens, the company also sells fine watches, jewelry, fragrances, leather goods, and eyewear. It was founded in 1906 by two businessmen: Alfred Nehemias, a banker, and August Eberstein, an engineer. They produced simple, functional pens, but went on to sell the business to three businessmen who had grander ideas.

Their first model of pen, introduced in 1909, was called the Rouge et Noir. It was followed by the pen that would later give the company its name: Montblanc. In 1924, the company unveiled its first true luxury fountain pen, the Meisterstuck, which translates as “the Masterpiece.” The Meisterstuck is still the top-of-the-line offering among Montblanc pens, with prices soaring to around $1,500 and higher. The low end starts with Montblanc’s ballpoint pens, which are priced around $250.

A Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen with an 18K gold nib sold for $564 in Feb 2021 at MiddleManBrokers, Inc.

Montblanc continued to offer modestly priced pens until 1977, when the company was acquired by Alfred Dunhill Ltd. It focused Montblanc exclusively on the top of the writing instrument market and branched out into lines of goods other than pens (which are listed above). Today Montblanc is part of the Richemont group, which is owned by the Rupert family of South Africa. Its sister companies include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chloe, and Baume et Mercier.

A circa-1995 Montblanc Meisterstuck limited-edition “The Prince Regent” Patron of Arts fountain pen sold for $2,662 in April 2013 at Kodner Galleries, Inc.

“I think there’s a certain status associated with Montblanc pens, similar to how designer watches are regarded. However, I don’t think it is entirely ‘snob appeal,’ as I believe that people are willing to pay more for quality items,” said Madeline Roberts, a cataloger for Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals, with locations in Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee.

She added, “Montblanc is well established as a high-end brand that uses luxury materials, such as precious resin, vermeil, and 18K gold in their pens and nibs. I think in this age of cheaply made goods that break after a few uses, people appreciate well-made items that can last a lifetime.”

A Montblanc Meisterstuck Ramses lapis vermiel rollerball pen sold for $1,188 in November 2020 at Miami Art Dealers.

Roberts said Case Antiques has enjoyed success with Montblanc pens over the years because they’re fortunate enough to have had limited-edition pens from two well-known Montblanc lines: Patron of Arts, and Writers Edition. “These are highly decorative and unique pens that celebrate certain historic figures who are known for their contributions to the arts and literature,” she said. “The fact that they’re associated with recognizable historical figures only adds to their collectibility. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s detective novels would likely be interested in owning a pen that was inspired by her writings.”

A 1997 Montblanc Peter the Great Patron of Art fountain pen sold for $1,664 in July 2020 at Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals.

The Montblanc pens Roberts describes were manufactured in the 1990s and are not as readily available through retail stores anymore, at least not for the prices one might expect to pay at auction. For example, the Patron of Arts Prince Regent 4810 fountain pen retails for more than $4,000, whereas Case sold one for $1,320. “Granted, it was gently used,” Roberts said.

A Montblanc Lorenzo de Medici limited-edition fountain pen sold for $4,224 in November 2018 at Revere Auctions.

The market for Montblanc pens past and present remains robust. A Patron of Arts Peter the Great Montblanc pen in new condition sold for £900, or about $1,200, in 2014, a then-record for the model. “In July 2020, we sold the same pen in gently used condition for $1,560, including the buyer’s premium,” Roberts said. “This leads me to believe that Montblanc pens, especially those from the special limited-editions series, are and will continue to trend up, even if they are in used condition.”

As with any expensive fashion accessory, fakes pose a problem. Certain clues can help collectors detect genuine Montblanc pens. Meisterstück models created after 1990 have a serial number located on the ring at the top of the clip. Usually inscribed under the clip are the words “Made in Germany” and often “Pix.” Montblanc pens with black barrels might be made of what’s known as “precious resin,” and will reveal a reddish hue under strong lighting. If the pen does not have these attributes, then it could be a fake.

Collectible Meerschaum pipes lined up for May 25 auction

Meerschaum — geologically known as sepiolote — comes from a German word meaning “sea foam.” Pipes made from sepiolite are said to be ideal for smoking tobacco, because the mineral serves as a natural filter to absorb nicotine, but it never burns. On May 25 at noon, Jasper52 will offer an 84-lot collection of collectible Meerschaum pipes.

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Malachite treasures will turn you green with envy

Malachite inlay box with fine flower-type patterns, which sold for $5,250 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Malachite, memorable for its rich green color and silky, swirled patterns, is actually weathered copper ore. Ancient Egyptians, who sourced this mineral in the Timna Valley in what is now southern Israel, believed that it held magical, protective powers. They carried malachite seals and amulets, and to guard against ocular diseases commonly found along the Nile River, they ground it finely, then lined their eyes with the powder.

To Egyptians, malachite also signified life, death, and rebirth. In addition to portraying Osiris, the god of the dead, with green skin, they decorated coffins and created burial chamber paintings with malachite-green pigment.

From the 7th century on, malachite pigments appeared abundantly in Chinese and Japanese paintings. But the pure, coarsely ground hue that Renaissance artists favored proved very difficult to “work,” so they rarely used it. Eventually, ground malachite fell from use entirely, replaced by artificial pigments.

Massive malachite freeform with one side polished and the other left in its natural finish, which sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Limited deposits of malachite have since been discovered in Arizona, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, France, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Scores of contemporary jewelers, including David Webb, Cartier, Chopard, and Van Cleef & Arpels, feature lavish malachite pieces in their permanent collections. Yet many museum experts, connoisseurs and collectors consider Russian malachite, discovered in the Ural Mountains, to be the finest of all.

“Malachite was a favorite of Russian tsars, who used it to decorate their lavish palaces, such as the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg,” said Lauren Goforth, Sr. Researcher at M. S. Rau. “Year after year, the Russian treasury paid top dollar to hoard the best malachite, much of which went into Romanov palaces and extravagant objets d’art,” she said. “Today, the Hermitage Museum possesses more than 200 examples of this ‘palatial’ malachite, displayed in the legendary Malachite Room.”

Some of the Malachite Room’s massive urns, columns and grand fireplaces, which are carved from huge, solid blocks of malachite, feature variegated light-to-dark banding in graceful, sweeping curves. Others displaycharacteristic so-called “peacock eye” patterning. Smaller pieces, made from blocks too pocked with pits to be cut into slabs, were crafted through Russian malachite mosaic. This technique entailed skillfully laying thin malachite veneers on basalt, slate, marble or metal bases in artful artificial or random patterns.

Paired malachite-clad neoclassical-style obelisks realized $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

As Russian merchants became rich, they, too, commissioned prestigious malachite treasures. Some adorned their writing desks, cabinets, and mantelpieces with dramatic tapering obelisks. Others acquired malachite game boxes, chessmen, or elegant gaming tables topped by malachite- and-marble chessboards.

Overhead view of a continental malachite games table, which sold for $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Though malachite is beautiful on its own, it is also sympathetic with other luxurious materials. Russian vases, jewel caskets, dresser boxes, and candelabras often feature opulent gold, silver, bronze, or gemstone decorative details. In addition, malachite clocks, inkwells, and desk sets were often mounted with ormolu, one of the most flamboyant decorative accents of the 19th century.

Lenoir Louis XV gilt bronze and malachite figural mantel clock, which realized $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Conversely, ornate gold, silver, onyx, and ormulu boxes, urn lamps, and tea caddies often featured rich, mellow malachite trimmings. Since items such as these were highly prized diplomatic gifts. Examples can be found in countless palaces, state buildings, and museums in Mexico, England, and across Continental Europe.

19th-century silver and malachite tea caddy, which sold for $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Taylor & Harris and LiveAuctioneers

In time, Russian jewelers also integrated malachite embellishments into gold and silver brooch and earring designs. They also fashioned beads or cabochons for ring stones, necklaces, cuff links, tie pins, and pendants. Smaller pieces, of course, are far less likely to display desirable malachite patterns.

“Malachite has long been a symbol of prestige and wealth,” explained Goforth. “The mineral was so prized in the 19th century that Russian papers of the time wrote, ‘To afford a big piece wrought in malachite is synonymous to owning diamonds.’”

Finely carved meerschaum pipes to sell in online auction March 10

Fifty-six collectible meerschaum pipes comprise an online auction that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, March 10, at 4 p.m. These prized smoking pipes are made of a mineral commonly known as meerschaum. Found in deposits in the city of Anatolia in present-day Turkey, the hard white clay has been hand-carved into pipes since the 18th century.

Sultan, hand-carved meerschaum pipe, 4.9in long. Estimate: $50-$60. LiveAuctioneers image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Pop-up valentines send hearts soaring

NEW YORK – How do I love you? Let me count the ways … A handmade or printed valentine is one popular way to tell your spouse, parent, child or sweetheart of your feelings on Feb. 14. Evolving from religious devotionals and sung/spoken messages of love, sending cards on St. Valentine’s Day has been a tradition for centuries.

One of the earliest known valentines is in the collection of the British Museum in London and was sent by Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown. Published in 1797, the hand-colored card included a handwritten message from its sender that is sad and heartfelt, reiterating past requests for him to please visit her. One wonders how the relationship turned out or if Ms. Mossday found someone else to return her ardor.

A group of antique die-cut, pop-up and articulated cards made $70 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Matthew Bullock Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bullock Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

There are endless variations of valentines, from lace-trimmed Victorian cards to die-cut and pop-up cards. Pop-ups, sometimes referred to as mechanical cards, have been perennially popular and were made in France, England and America to name a few. Clever use of paper, layering, string/wire or use of honeycombed tissue elements make these cards pop up. Their collectibility is largely based on the card’s elegance or whimsy. Most also have a footed base that allows them to stand up for easy display, adding to their appeal. They can easily be stored in books too. At the height of the Victorian era, collecting valentines was like a status symbol and eligible young women would have scrapbooks of valentines they had received that visitors could peruse and admire.

A group of antique pop-up Victorian Valentine die-cut cards took $65 + the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Matthew Bullock Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bullock Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Before the advent of affordable postage and expanded mail delivery in the 1840s in England and America, two countries where Valentine’s Day is avidly celebrated, sending valentines by mail was expensive and they were often hand-delivered instead. The penny stamp in England, for example, revolutionized the holiday and it’s estimated that some 40,000 cards were sent in 1840, the first year that letters of a modest weight could be mailed for a penny. The holiday soon became big business and today is a billions-dollar industry with cards a large part of that along with flowers, chocolates and gifts.

A group of 13 pop-up Valentines in shadow boxes realized $190 + the buyer’s premium at Litchfield Auctions in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Litchfield Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The origins of Valentine’s Day cards is rife with urban legends and stories going back as far as the Roman Empire. A popular legend is that St. Valentine was in jail for performing weddings of local soldiers, where he is said to have fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter and sent her a love note signed “your Valentine.” This story is entertaining but given the literacy rate at the time and the odds he would be able to get pen and paper while in prison makes it seem a bit unlikely.

Many holidays are lamented for being overly commercial and Valentine’s Day became widely commercialized in the United States starting in the mid-1800s as paper became mass-produced and printing was cheap. Hallmark now rules the greeting card industry here but before the company’s debut in 1911, there were several small stores up and down the East Coast carrying fine valentines, mostly imported from Europe.

A collection of vintage Valentine cards, including pop-ups, sold for $105 + the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Terri Peters & Associates Auction and Estate Marketing. Photo courtesy of Terri Peters & Associates Auction and Estate Marketing and LiveAuctioneers

Esther Howland in Worcester, Mass., was one of these early proponents, importing fancy paper, lace and other items from England to make valentines here. Tapping into her squad of lady friends to work, she ran a profitable cottage industry up until the 1860s making and selling valentines. Companies like Beistle in Shippensburg, Pa., also got into the greeting card business around 1900 and Valentine’s Day was soon a popular addition to the company’s product line.

A dozen pop-up Valentines fetched $60 + the buyer’s premium at Saco River Auction in January 2016. Photo courtesy of Saco River Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The more unique the card, either in sentiment or design, the more collectors will covet that particular example. The most popular depictions in pop-up Valentines are scenes of love or friendship. Commonly seen are fetching young ladies dressed to the nines, often standing in front of a beautiful house or in a garden, or images of couples dancing or being serenaded by Venetian gondoliers. From roses to lilies of the valley, flowers are prolific in valentine cards especially in early 1900s cards. These cards usually feature elegant young women in poofy gowns and frilly hats, often surrounded by flowers. Cherubs and angels are also a popular motif. Whimsical cards often feature people pictured on a bicycle or in a trolley car and the best examples are not rectangular cards but silhouetted and shaped cards cut into the forms of people or objects.

Sentiments vary from shy or cutesy to saccharine with messages like “Valentine, You ‘suit’ me well / from head to toes/ I think you’re swell” on a pop-up card showing a boy and girl enjoying a day at the beach to “I send you this Valentine to say I like you better every day.”

Fine hand-rolled cigars don’t always go up in smoke

NEW YORK – A fine cigar is the only collectible that, if done right, should go up in fragrant smoke that imparts a satisfying flavor, warmth and personal enjoyment.

Turns out, though, that collecting cigars isn’t much different than collecting fine wines. Each has their rarities, exclusiveness and the ability to be enjoyed in the company of friends while also being a unique piece of art with investment potential. But what makes a fine cigar worthy of such special attention?

Presidential cigars from John F. Kennedy occasionally appear at auction such as this unusual cedar lined wooden cigar box featuring a ceramic seal of the president and two Flor Extra Fine cigars sold for $15,919 + the buyer’s premium in January 2020. 
Image courtesy RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Where fine tobacco comes from

More of a mystical plant cultivated for thousands of years, tobacco was originally a staple crop in the Caribbean and South America used mostly in ceremonies and as a medicinal plant. The word tobacco is probably from the Arawakan Taino word tabaco meaning “roll of tobacco leaves.”

That changed when Christopher Columbus visited the Caribbean islands in 1492. He was the first European to be introduced to tobacco and the first to export it to Europe for resale as a cash crop rather than for medicinal purposes. From there, tobacco was eventually introduced by explorers throughout the known world.

The leaf

Over the centuries, the development of tobacco resulted in two types, flu-cured (low nicotine, high sugar content) and burley (high nicotine) with both requiring nitrogen or nitrate occurring either naturally in soil or added with fertilizer to make sugar, cellulose and nicotine. “Without nicotine in the tobacco plant, it would have virtually little or nonexistent commercial use,” according to Jeffrey Wigand, a biochemist and a former vice president of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.

No matter whether it is commercial or artisanal tobacco, all tobacco plants are first grown from seed in a greenhouse for about a month. Then, after a month, the plants are transplanted into fields where they will grow to maturity.

Once picked the leaves are dried for up to 60 days, sorted, dampened and allowed to dry in piles to ferment for another three months with the process repeated one more time before being sent to be graded, bundled and made into cigars. The process from greenhouse to cigar takes about two years.

A cigar collection need not be expensive to start, especially with vintage mix of Cuban and Dominican Republic cigars such as this collection of 11 cigars in different sizes and distinctive shapes that sold for $90 + the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

How its made

Derived from the Mayan word sikar meaning “to smoke rolled tobacco leaves,” the English word “cigar,” which is derived from the Spanish cigarro, was introduced in 1730.

Since then, handmade cigars have had three main components: the outside wrapper (capa), the binder underneath (capote) and the filler (velado, seco, and ligero leaves).

The buncher (bonchero) begins by rolling different filler leaves called long fillers because, unlike processed cigars, each filler is a full leaf, never cut, to create a unique blend of flavor. The filler is then wrapped with a binder leaf compressing the filler leaves together, not too loose and not too tight to allow for easy airflow. The completed bunch is then handed to the roller (torcedor).

The roller places the completed bunch into a cigar mold that is stacked and weighted down until the bunch is evenly compressed into proper tubes. It is then ready for the wrapper, the final step.

The wrapper leaf is specially grown in shade to maximize overall smoothness, color, flexibility and taste. During production, the stem and vein of the wrapper leaf are removed leaving a left and a right-side leaf. The skill of the torcedor is evident in the cutting and rolling of the outside wrapper leaf (rolling either left or right depending on the leaf) using only a curved blade known as a chaveta. A rounded cap is glued with gum arabic at the end of the cigar, a signature mark of an experienced torcedor. 

Lastly, a stack of 50 handmade cigars is bundled and aged together. After aging they are individually tagged with a paper band and placed in specially crafted boxes for shipment.

Nothing is more important to age a cigar properly than a humidore, such as this vintage burlwood roll-top Cigar Master humidor complete with a ‘self-regulating humidification system’ that keeps cigars at no less than 70% humidity and always near 70°F (21°C). It sold for $400 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

What to look for

Premium handmade cigars are generally measured by their ring gauge (its diameter in millimeters) and its length measured in centimeters.

The most common cigar shape is the parejo, otherwise known as corona, that are round, have even sides (no figural shapes) with an open end on one side and a covered ‘cap’ on the other that needs to be cut off or punched through before smoking. Altogether there are at least 19 different standard versions of parejo cigars ranging from the very small cigarolla measuring less than 8mm in ring size (a third of an inch) and 8cm (about 3 inches) in length (which are found in boxes of eight or so) up to the Double Toro measuring 24mm in ring size (shy of one inch) to 15cm in length (6 inches) bought individually or in large gift boxes.

For collectors, the figurado is the most desirable. Made in irregular shapes from the traditional parejo could mean a perfecto that is narrow at the base and the tip, but bulged in the middle to the pyramid that has a broad foot, but narrow at the tip. Figurados were more popular in the 19th century until about 1930 when they fell out of favor. Arturo Fuente, a prominent cigar maker in the Dominican Republic, occasionally makes figurados in the shape of American footballs, chili peppers and other shapes that are prized by collectors.

Smaller cigars such as the cigarillo and small, filtered cigars bought in packs like cigarettes since the 1940s are machine-made and not considered collectible.

Cuban cigars

Collecting premium handmade cigars isn’t complete without a reference to where it all started – on the Caribbean island of Cuba.

The Spanish saw the potential marketing of tobacco in Europe after Columbus visited the area in his voyage of 1492. Tobacco plants, known as cohiba by the early inhabitants, didn’t survive the trip to Europe very well, but rolled cigars did. So, the Spanish outpost on the island of Cuba became the first cigar factory in 1542.

Because of the perfect soil, humidity and weather conditions, Cuba is still considered a prime producer of handmade cigars. However, over the centuries, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic all have gained prominence equal to Cuba in cigar production due mainly to the original tobacco plants that began with seeds from Cuba.

With the United States embargo on Cuban cigars and other goods in 1962, it is difficult to find authentic Cuban cigars in the country even though the United States is the leading consumer of cigars in the world. Some estimates suggest that 95% of cigars claiming to be from Cuba in the United States are mainly from the New World countries. President Barack Obama lifted some restrictions in 2015, limiting the purchase of Cuban cigars to $100 intended for personal use only.

Collecting historic cigars

It’s well known that many presidents, prime ministers and entertainers smoked cigars. President John F. Kennedy, for example, routinely smoked hand-rolled Cuban cigars until 1962 when all imports from Cuba were embargoed, but only until after he was given 1,000 Cuban cigars for his personal use. These cigars continue to be featured in auctions from time to time.

The personal cigars of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also occasionally come to auction along with cigars from the personal collection of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (one of his half-smoked cigars brought near $12,000 at RR Auctions in 2017).

Another famous celebrity cigar aficionado was comedian George Burns who gifted one of his cigars and a signed photo that together sold for an affordable $40 + the buyer’s premium in 2006. Burns, who died at age 100 in 1996, once said, “I’m at the age now where just putting my cigar in its holder is a thrill.” Image courtesy Randy Inman Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Mid-century comedians George Burns, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx and actress Marlene Dietrich all routinely smoked cigars throughout their professional lives, usually as a part of their act. “I smoke 10 to 15 cigars a day,” said George Burns who lived to be 100. “At my age I have to hold on to something.”

According to Mitchell Orchant, managing director of C.Gars in London in a recent article How to Collect and Age Vintage Cigars at cluboenologique.com, these “… cigars from the 1940s and 1950s are particularly popular at the moment …” Of course, the celebrity helps, too.

Not just the cigar

A distinctive handmade cigar can be aged, or laid down, over decades like fine wine. The secret is to keep the cigars in an atmosphere of no less than 70°F (21°C) and 70% relative humidity.

To accomplish that, cigars are stored in specially constructed enclosed boxes, usually made of wood, called humidors, that are fitted with hydrometers to maintain proper humidity levels. This helps to age the cigars in a constant temperature over a long period of time.

When traveling, a travel case of leather, silver or even wooden traveling cases serve as a portable humidor to protect the cigars from the vagaries of weather, sunlight and changes in humidity. Most have a limited capacity of just a few cigars, called fingers, and fits easily into a jacket pocket, briefcase or hand luggage. Many vintage humidors and traveling cases are routinely sold at auction in distinctive sterling silver or even exotic animal leather.

Collecting vintage cigar cutters, cigar advertising, framed cigar labels, and wooden cigar boxes also brightens any cigar collection.

A colorful wooden sign featuring a torpedo cigar in bas relief advertising handmade Cuban cigars sold for $200 + the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy: Abell Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Celebrate with care

It’s known that the use of tobacco results in health issues over time no matter its form. Smoking cigars may have different health issues than cigarette smokers, but the warnings are still relevant. The key, of course, is what Mark Twain was to have said, “I smoke in moderation. Only one cigar at a time.”

Whether to celebrate a birth, a special occasion or even the New Year, a cigar hecho a mano totalmente (made totally by hand) is indeed a pleasurable way to pass the time with friends, family and community – one puff at a time.

Carousels: Carved animals in motion

NEW YORK – Who, as a child, hasn’t whirled merrily like a top? Or spun a playground merry-go-round and hopped onto it for a thrilling ride? Carousels, which feature creatively-shaped mounts on rotating circular platforms, are the ultimate spinning amusement for fun-seekers of all ages.

Surprisingly, they originated in medieval times, when mounted knights, to hone their skills, tossed balls to one another while galloping in circles. Indeed, the word carousel originates from Italian and Spanish terms for “little battle.”

By Elizabethan times, circling jousters speared small, suspended rings. Within a century, similar ring-tilt carousels sprang up at fairgrounds across Europe. Wooden horses, suspended from central canopies, replaced riders. These popular amusements, powered by ponies or rope-pulling youngsters, however, had no platforms. So as they gained speed, the horses pushed outward centrifugally, flying free.

Their wooden stick-legs, heads and bodies, adorned with rabbit-skin manes and tails, were crude, wrote George Sanger in Seventy Years a Showman. But bright-white and “plentifully dotted with red and blue spots,” they thrilled the crowds.

Rare, county fair-style carousel frog, park paint, 40 x 42 inces, American, circa 1914, Herschell Spillman. Realized $6,500 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

By the mid-19th century, newer models, featuring carved riding horses fixed to round platforms suspended from central poles, replaced flying-horses. Like earlier ones, however, these were pulled by man or beast.

When the first steam-driven carousel appeared a decade later, its impact was profound. A Halifax Courier journalist described its … “huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle of next month.”

Soon afterwards, Frederick Savage, an enterprising British engineer, incorporated farm machinery into fairground rides — including carousels. According to Victorian fairground manufacturer Frederick Savage, The Platform Galloper, his best-loved carousel, “imparted a vigorous rocking motion to the mounted horses via a series of eccentrics under the platform.” Later models featured platform slides — which swang poled-mounts concentrically as carousels gained speed — as well as gears and off-set cranks, which created up-and-down “galloping.”

Eventually, Savage carousels were also enhanced by “vivid scenic painting, exuberant scrollwork, carved Baroque dream images, plush upholstery, engraved mirrors, barley-sugar brasswork, gaudy hues and gilt. The emphasis was on unashamed opulence.” As traditional British trading fairs gave way to public performances and amusements, Savage carousels thrilled crowds far and wide. They were also exported around the world.

French carousel carvers, including Gustav Bayol and Limonaire Frères, fashioned charming figures, like prancing donkeys, long-eared pigs, cockerels, and cows with brass horns. German carvers usually created gentle-faced, prancing horses, while others fashioned whimsical pull, wind-up, or wind-driven toy carousels.

Philadelphia-style, outer row stander carousel horse, provenance Great Escape Fun Park, Lake George, New York, 58 x 62 inches, Gustav Dentzel. Realized $10,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant, introduced carousels to America in the mid-1800s. Most of his large, decorative, Philadelphia-style machines featured elegant, realistically carved horses, along with menageries of rabbits, roosters, bears, and other beasts. Carvers, including E. Joy Morris, D. C. Muller & Bro., and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, created similar creatures.

Glamorous Coney Island-style carousels, fitted with bright lights and glittering mirrors, also featured flamboyant horses adorned with multifaceted jewels and gilded trappings. Lavish Looff, Carmel, and Stein & Goldstein equine creations are especially appealing.

Prolific North Tonawanda, New York carvers, like C.W. Parker, Charles Dare, and Herschell Spillman, created small, easily transportable county fair -style carousel animals for the seasonal Midwest county fair circuit. Their elegant though substantial pieces generally inhabited permanent amusement park carousels.

Whatever their style, American carousels usually featured three rows of mounted animals. Visible, outer rows usually boasted grand, colorful stationary horses with lavish, finely carved manes, gilded trappings, and decorative images on their flanks. Inner rows, in addition to accommodating ornately carved chariots and smaller animal mounts, featured “ galloping” poled horses in prancing (front legs up) or jumping (all legs up) positions.

Until the Great Depression, thousands of American fairs, towns, cities, and amusement parks hosted carousels. Afterward, many were closed, destroyed, or abandoned. While some reopened as the economy improved, they were overshadowed by more thrilling rides and were no longer main attractions. Today, some 400 are believed to exist.

Fiberglass reined elephant featuring iron hand/foot rests, 48 x 26 x 45 inches. Realized $700 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Due to extensive use and exposure to the elements, most carousel mounts were repaired and repainted every few years. Since those in original or near-original condition are very rare, those that have been restored — stripped to their natural wood, repainted with original colors, or featuring brighter “park paint” hues — are the ones most likely to reach the collector marketplace.

For those who dream of owning an entire carousel, the price is steep. In 2012, RM Sotheby’s auctioned a huge, extraordinarily ornate, custom-built example featuring a menagerie of 42 historically accurate, hand-carved animals and two chariots, along with a Wurlitzer 153 Band Organ and 10 music rolls. It realized over one million dollars.

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The enlightening story of the menorah

NEW YORK – Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, falls during the darkest days of the year. It commemorates the rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple following second century B.C. Greek defilement. Though a bit of consecrated olive oil, enough for one day, was found to rekindle the Temple’s candelabra, it burned for eight days and nights – long enough to prepare more.

Ever since, Jews have celebrated this eight-day miracle by kindling special lights commonly known as Hanukkah menorahs or lamps. Their form is fixed – eight lights at uniform height, along with a separate “servant” light, used to kindle them. One light is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, followed by another on each subsequent night. By holiday’s end, all eight are aglow.

Rare, important, Neo-classic style Hanukkah lamp of hand-chased silver with the original servant light, 7in high, Wurzburg, Franco-Germany, 1800. Realized $17,500 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of J. Greenstein & Co. Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Though candelabras appear on Jewish coins dating from 40 B.C., people likely kindled eight individual oil-filled clay lamps or single ones featuring eight small oil-fonts. During the Diaspora (70-1948 A.D.) when Jews scattered worldwide, Hanukkah lamps often reflected local materials, techniques and traditions. Some were impermanent. Many communities kindled eight small cups of oil, while others used eggshells or scooped-out potatoes.

Through the late Middle Ages, Franco-German Jews evidently favored wall-hung bronze lamps featuring pierced, triangular backplates. In place of olive oil, however, they may have kindled wicks dipped in goose fat.

Rare, engraved silver, marked Hanukkah lamp with architectural-type backplate, 25.5 x 13.5 x 4 centimeters, Salé, Morocco, 1899. Realized $950 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Hammersite and LiveAuctioneers

Early Spanish Hanukkah lamps, though similar in style, featured vertical backplates.

Examples reached foreign shores during the 15th century when Jews sought refuge overseas from persecution. In time, Moroccan wall-hung models incorporated Moorish-type arabesques, openwork geometric designs, stylized birds and architectural elements. Algerian and Tunisian ones, edged with tiny oil fonts, featured decorative scrolled motifs and crenelated backplates. Since North African Jews favored appearance over age, when these lamps were worn or needed repair, they were melted down and cast anew. As a result, originals are rare.

With the expansion of international trade, North African Hanukkah lamp elements also appeared in other lands. Early, squarish, brass Dutch backplates, for example, were pierced, punched or embossed with low-relief bird, flower, candelabra, heart or Star of David images.

Brass Bezalel menorah, marked, 29 x 15.5 centimeters, circa 1915. Realized $5,500 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Ishtar Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

By the 19th century, however, Dutch Jews, like many others across Europe, favored convenient, candle-lit silver, gold or bronze menorahs featuring symmetrical branches supported by central shafts. Some were simply designed, evoking the stately Temple candelabra. Others featured imaginative bases, decorative spouts and intricately scrolled branches, along with oil jug, lion or Star of David finials.

Small, decorative backplate, footed menorahs of this era, especially those wrought by master craftsmen, were highly desirable. Silver Austrian ones often feature semicircular backplates exquisite chased and pierced peacock, ramping lion, or Ten Commandment motifs enhanced by rich florals and regal crowns. Polish brass ones, depicting crests or noble animals like stags, griffins or eagles, are sometimes flanked by similar side panels. Fine, woven silver filagree “Baal Shem Tov” models, featuring gilded, cartouche-shaped backplates adorned with birds, flowers, Torah scrolls, architectural elements and paired servant lights, are particularly enticing. Though most were small, designed for table use, “monumental” Polish and Russian synagogue menorahs ranged up to 4 feet in height.

Baal Shem Tov menorah, fine woven filagree, with applied decorations, marked 12 and a clover, 12in high, Ukraine, circa 1820. Realized $8,000 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of J. Greenstein & Co. Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Rare, exceptional, antique menorahs, featuring fine, unusual images or craftwork, explains Jonathan Greenstein, Judaica expert at J. Greenstein and Co., are extremely collectible. Yet few survived the Holocaust. Most available on today’s market reached the West during earlier Jewish immigration.

From 1909 through 1926, members of the Bezalel School in Jerusalem created appealing stamped brass and silver backplate menorahs, many depicting classic motifs or scenes of the Hanukkah story. Classic Bauhaus forms and green, patinated brass models followed.

Rare Austrian silver peacock menorah, marked and initialed, Vienna, late-1800s. Realized $9,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Pasarel and LiveAuctioneers

Contemporary Western artists often recast favorites or, inspired by tradition, create modern ones featuring Hebrew inscriptions, embossed Biblical scenes or popular motifs, Some, through cutting-edge technology, create crystal, acrylic, glass and freeform “molten” silver beauties. Others craft intriguing menorahs from found materials like bullets, artillery shells, or a mishmash of metal pipes.

Handmade sterling silver menorah featuring spheres intertwined with silver pipes, signed Ari Ofir, 13in high, Israel, modern. Realized $11,000 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy J. Greenstein & Co. Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Though many celebrate Hanukkah with a single menorah, others assign a separate one to each member of their family. Seven, eight, nine menorahs with candles all aglow – that’s a sight to behold.

Many observant families, however, prefer kindling oil-fonts because they are closer to tradition, closer to the Hanukkah miracle. These are enclosed in protective glass boxes, then displayed outdoors for all to see.