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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.

‘PUZZLING’ ANTIQUES: TEAPOTS TO TOYS

NEW YORK – Puzzles are toys, games or brain teasers that test a person’s ingenuity. Mechanical puzzles, whether twisted, assembled, disassembled, disentangled, misleading or completely “impossible,” test not only physical skills, but personal mettle as well. They also make delightful collectibles.

Chinese, hand-painted, lidless Fitzhugh Pattern Puzzle Cadogan teapot, 5½ x 7½ x 4in. Realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Greenwich Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Ring-puzzles often require long wire loops to be disentangled from networks of wires, much like disentangling a mesh of delicate gold chains. Puzzle-rings, however, are bits of wire cleverly intertwined around a central pivot. Though they may seem indivisible, they separate with a simple twist. These intriguing trinkets developed from gimmels, traditional betrothing rings typically bearing clasped hands. Their challenge, explained Mechanics Magazine in 1829, “lies in disengaging the rings from the wire; and every additional ring increases the difficulty. This puzzle is of great antiquity …”

Intricately crafted Japanese wooden puzzle boxes, famed for beautiful geometric marquetry, seem entirely sealed, with no apparent points of entry. Some open with a simple secret mechanism or two. Though owners may try every trick in the book, others open only by following complex successions of shifting, sliding, inclining, rotating, pushing, pressing and/or lifting movements in precise order.

Japanese puzzle box, 3¼ x 4¾ x 7in. Realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Fortune Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to keeping secrets safe and documents free from prying eyes, a puzzle box is perfect for storing personal letters, tokens of affection or treasured trinkets. It’s also a charming way to give a gift in a gift.

Cadogan porcelain puzzle teapots, adaptations of traditional Chinese wine-pots, are named for Lord Cadogan (1675-1726), who introduced them to British society. Traditional and peach-form models often feature auspicious dragon, phoenix, lotus, prunus or peony motifs in classic blue-and-white or famille rose or verte palettes. Some, reflecting 18th-century expanding horizons, feature images of merchant fleets, trading posts or the stylized Fitzhugh china pattern, evoking the British East India Company. Other Cadogans, unadorned, glow with bright green, treacle, turquoise or aubergine glazes.

These teatime conversation-starters feature functional handles and pour from spouts, yet lack lids. Inversion is the key. When hot water is poured into wide holes at their bases, it flows into funnel-like, narrowing channels. When turned upright, the liquid pools at the base of these funnels. Bottoms-up!

Pottery puzzle jugs beguiled and befuddled European imbibers through the 17th and 18th centuries. These unique tavern amusements, due to unconventional construction, hindered filling, pouring or drinking without spilling a drop. Discovering their secrets was the name of the game.

Some puzzle jugs, like Cadogan teapots, were filled bottoms-up. Some channeled liquids through hollow handles and rims before reaching their spouts. Some, featuring decorative, perforated necks, could be filled, but not emptied. Others, to drink without drenching, required stopping up one or more holes while sipping from another. Moreover, hidden holes (and increasing tipsiness) could make manipulating puzzle jugs even more demanding. Rare ones that incorporate verse into their designs are particularly charming. A 17th century one, for example, reads, “Here Gentlemen come try y skill, I’le hold a wager if you will, That you don’t drink this liquor all, without you spill or lett, some fall.”

English Delftware puzzle jug with drinking verse, circa 1750, 7in high. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

Native Americans of the Great Lakes region, believing that puffs of smoke carry thoughts and prayers to the spirit world, used ceremonial pipes during traditional tribal rituals. Those with wooden stems are often highly decorative. Some boast animal hair, dyed quillwork, beadwork, feather, brass tack or hot-file branding adornments. Some spiral from top to bottom or depict carved, low-relief figures of birds, elk, bighorn sheep, turtles, fish or buffalo. Other wooden stems, in addition to spirals and bright pigmented images, feature intricate fretwork hearts, chevrons, triangles or diamond piercings along their lengths. The puzzle is how inhaled air winds its way from pipe bowl to its smoker.

Great Lakes pipe, Ojibwa, late-1800s, black steatite bowl with elaborate lead and catlinite inlays, stem carved with twist and puzzle elements, featuring brass tacks and file branding, 27in. Realized $5,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

Model ships-in-bottles, which date from the mid-18th century, are well-known “impossible” mechanical puzzles. (Spoiler: though different techniques exist, their flexible, cabled masts, spars and sails are often rigged tight to hulls while outside, then raised when inside.)

On the other hand, Harry Eng (1932-1996) encapsulated full-sized books, golf balls, tennis balls, decks of cards, padlocks, packs of cigarettes, scissors, signature rope knots and/or puzzling Rubik’s cubes into narrow-necked bottles. Some surmise that he shrank, sliced, unstitched, bent, folded, rolled or disassembled them before slipping them inside. Then, with tweezers, pencils, rubber bands, mini-vises, tiny metal tubes, extreme cleverness and endless patience, perhaps he expanded, glued, stitched, straightened, unfolded, unrolled or reassembled them into their original condition. Or not. According to the Puzzle Museum website, Eng, educational consultant, schoolteacher, magician and inventor, created impossible bottles to make people think.

Impossible Puzzle Bottle, Harry Eng, circa 1990, 10in high. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Though table and floor-assembled jigsaw puzzles are perennially popular, puzzle-carpets take them to a new level. Marcello Morandini, award-winning Italian architect, sculptor and graphic designer, for example, created one featuring seven wool pieces edged with Velcro.

Seven-piece ‘Puzzle carpet’ from PRORGETTI series, wool/Velcro tape, 404 x 99 or 202 x 198 cm, marked Marcello Morandini, circa 1988, made by Melchnau AG, Switzerland, 1990. Realized €1,600 ($2,063) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen GmbH and LiveAuctioneers

“In my usual ‘black and white’ graphic language,” he explains, “I wanted to design a carpet that is not static in its format and its visual perception, but modifiable in its shapes for the infinite combinations and the different practical spatial needs of living. Life is a puzzle!”

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.

A Faberge silver table lighter formed as a seated elephant, Moscow, 1895, sold for $25,000 + the
buyer’s premium in January 2019 at Shapiro Auctions. Photo courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and
LiveAuctioneers

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.

A ram’s horn dolphin cigar lighter by Black, Starr & Frost fetched $4,750 + the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Showtime Auction Services. Photo courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

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.

A rare Walker & Hall Victorian silver and antelope horn dragon-form cigar lighter, Sheffield, England, circa 1895, made $8,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“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.

Thought to be the only known example, this rare J.E. Smith cigar cutter and lighter with match dispenser went out at $7,000+ the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

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.

A vintage Tiffany & Co heavily chased 18K yellow gold horse head cigarette lighter made $5,500 + the buyer’s premium in December 2017 at Kodner Galleries Inc. Photo courtesy of Kodner Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

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.

Vintage buttons, brooches featured in online auction Sept. 2

More than 200 lots of vintage buttons and brooches comprise much of a Jasper52 online auction that will be conducted Wednesday, Sept. 2. The collection ranges from the Victorian age to the mid-20th century. Additional vintage jewelry rounds out the sale catalog.

Edwardian/Victorian 12K gold filled chatelaine brooch, 4 ½in long. Estimate: $90-$110. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Inkwells: vintage reservoirs of the written word

NEW YORK – “Ink was black, in inkwells and bottles, in the past. It would get all over your fingers because it would run and flow relentlessly,” wrote Alain Badiou in Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color.

Not if you were an Egyptian scribe. These highly trained court members, penning bills and magic spells with pointed river reeds, moistened their mineral-based, powdered pigments in small, hollowed-out stone mortars. Millennia later, Chinese calligraphers moistened ground gum-and-soot inksticks on similar, exquisitely carved soapstone, onyx, porcelain, jade or marble creations.

Jade Dragon ink-stone depicting two sinuous, horned, clawed, horned dragons amid swirling cloud patterns, 18th century. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Imperial Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During the Middle Ages, when writing was deemed a lowly craft, European scribes and scriveners copied texts with quill pens fashioned from goose, eagle, hawk or swan wing-feathers. Because their flexible, sharpened nibs offered unmatched ease and precision, they particularly suited parchment and vellum work. Their brownish iron-gall, black “India ink” and bright naturally dyed inks were stored in inkhorns or practical pots deep enough to accommodate these quills.

As more people became literate, writing became not only socially acceptable but also a source of pride. Though simpler folks might keep their inks in unadorned pots, affluent writers adorned their fine-wood writing desks with finely crafted silver, pewter, jade, bronze, brass, cut crystal or pressed glass models. Some, like an Italian bronze cylindrical well, featuring a body supported by three, massive legs shaped like eagles and an outsized, seated putti finial holding an open book, were extravagant.

Footed silver tray featuring ink and pounce jars with engraved, monogrammed bell stand, 29 x 21cm, mid-18th century. Realized €20,000 ($22,360) + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

Small wells, which held several ounces of ink, were generally square, rectangular or faceted. Larger ones were domed or shaped like capstans, mechanical devices used aboard ship to move heavyweights. Other sizeable wells featured sloping sides and flat, stable, wide-bottom bases. All, large or small, were lidded to prevent contamination, evaporation and spillage.

The wealthy, instead of inkwells, often acquired lavish desk standishes, known today as inkstands. These shallow rectangular, circular or oval trays, crafted in silver, gilt-bronze, onyx, brass, inlaid wood or porcelain, were the ultimate in writing luxury. In addition to matching wells, many featured grooves to store writing instruments and perforated “sand” shakers or pounce pots. Their fine- ground cuttlefish-bone powder, when sprinkled, not only smoothed rough, “unsized” paper. It also prevented ink from smearing.

Bronze-mounted Chinese porcelain double inkwell on cartouche coromandel lacquered panel with pen rest on raised feet, 14in wide. Realized $3,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Abell Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Travelers in coach or on horseback, if wont to write en route, tucked tiny, hinged glass inkwells – snug in small, protective cases – into their pockets or luggage. Others toted plain or plush sloped, wooden travel-writing desks. Besides ink bottles, these often contained quills, quill knives, parchment, ponce pots, slate pencils and sealing wax.

Traveling 12-gore Globe ink wells, 4/5cm high. Realized £320 ($538) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Innovative dip-pens, featuring small capillary-like channels and interchangeable mounted-metal nibs, replaced quills in the early 1800s. Every few words – for want of a reservoir, they had to be re-dipped in wells. Each dip could prove perilous. Nibs, falling off, could sink in the ink.

As European steamship and train travel increased, dressing cases (hand luggage) in addition to toiletries and writing implements, were often fitted with glass or rubbery, non-breakable gutta-percha ink wells. On the other hand, wells resembling the Liberty Bell, the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, made enviable souvenirs.

Limited edition Baccarat ‘Zola’ lead crystal inkwell, marked and numbered, 6in high. Realized $600 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Well-off Victorians often sought gilt-mounted silver, cut-crystal, or ornate porcelains ink wells. Others decked their desks with ceramic tortoise, owl, camel, or elephant-shaped charmers. In time, sensuous Art Nouveau wells gave way to dramatic Art Deco models. Tiffany’s mother-of-pearl, pattern-stamped, patinated bronze, favrile glass and crab-shaped wells were particularly popular.

Tiffany Studios ‘Byzantine’ inkwell featuring glass cabochons, with glass insert for ink, 4³⁄₈in diameter, 1920s. Realized $2,900 + buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Bruce Kodner Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The advent of the Waterman fountain pen, which prevented ink-reservoir overflow, eventually spelled the end of decorative ink wells. Though ink no longer runs and flows relentlessly, collectible wells embody art, fashion and a world of literature. Each also evokes those intimate moments when writers put pen to paper.

Remembering the suffragettes

NEW YORK – The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex – 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote, Aug. 26, 1920.

“All men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence, except when it came to voting rights. Without property, (white) men couldn’t vote and it left out women entirely. It would take the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in August 1920 to finally guarantee women the right to vote (owning property as a qualification was discontinued by 1856). It was a long struggle that would take 144 years from the founding of the United States before half of its population could participate in its democratic principles through the simple act of voting.

Three ways to show support for women suffrage are these different lapel pins, one in felt and two in distinctive lithographed color prominently supporting ‘Votes for Women’ that sold collectively for $248 + plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Hake’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers.com

The struggle known as the women’s suffrage movement began soon after the Constitution went into effect in 1789. While women in many Colonies were allowed to vote before its adoption, the Constitution left it up to the states to determine voting rights. And none immediately granted that right to women, except New Jersey, which then rescinded the right in 1807.

Popular opinion was changing, though. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women’s rights convention that demanded the right of women to vote in its Declaration of Sentiments. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others emerged as leaders of an activist movement intending to secure that right across the country, instead of state by state. Adoption of a federal statute, though, was slow. Wyoming Territory was the first to grant full voting rights to women in 1869, with Colorado, Utah and Idaho granting women the right to vote in the 1890s, mostly to attract more women into these mostly desolate regions. No other state would comply.

A framed advertising broadside highlights the four states that allowed women to vote; Wyoming in 1869 and Colorado, Utah, and Idaho in the 1890s – but not yet in New York – that sold for $1,400 in 2010 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers.com

World War I was the catalyst for the suffragette movement both in the United States and the United Kingdom. With men on the battlefields in Europe, women were granted the right to work in factories and other wartime occupations not normally available to them before the war. This led to an increase in popular opinion that women can contribute more to society than just as housewives and schoolteachers. “Votes for Women” became less of a slogan and more of a genuine movement, especially with the increased cooperation of men.

And it was a tortuous movement. Labor and hunger strikes, parades, editorials, court cases, legal arguments, large demonstrations, abuse, legal torture and jail time were the norm. Demonstrations in front of the White House were unheard of before a “picket” of women from the National Women’s Party in 1917 camped out day and night to bring the cause directly to the president. They wore sashes and pins, held up banners, carried flags and waved signs with the ubiquitous “Votes for Women” specifically directed at President Woodrow Wilson. All the while, they were routinely carted off to jail, where they were often abused and sometimes beaten while in custody. Yet the pickets continued.

One of the key factors in ‘Votes for Women’ was the ‘picket,’ a demonstration such as this one in front of the White House in 1917. The sashes, banners and protest signs were the hallmark of the movement since the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, which began the women’s suffrage movement. Image courtesy: Harris & Ewing and the Library of Congress

The focused picket worked. President Wilson, at first reluctant, finally supported the adoption of a constitutional amendment. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 with the vote of Tennessee and certified eight days later on Aug. 26 guaranteeing women the right to vote. Their first federal election was for president that same year.

One of the last images of Susan B. Anthony along with other prominent women’s rights pioneers taken at a suffrage convention in Los Angeles in August 1905. The photograph sold for $1,300 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Anthony died almost one month after turning 86 in March 1906. Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers.com

Throughout the struggle for women’s right to vote, getting the message out without social media was a difficult, time consuming and a constant process. Yet, after World War I, suffragettes in the United States and the United Kingdom were creative in the use of visual items to keep “Votes for Women” in the public eye. Of all the protest movements throughout the history of the United States, auction values for women suffrage items are increasing because so many types of buttons, flags, playing cards, sheet music, posters, broadsides, clothing, sashes, signs, banners, salt shakers, currency, coins, jewelry, ceramics and other items exist that were made in relatively small batches. The book Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study by Kenneth Florey highlights the sheer number of collectibles the movement produced.

This bright yellow and black button and ribbon (colors of the suffrage movement) supported the 1920 election of Republican Warren G. Harding, who won in a landslide over Democrats James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The button and ribbon combination in such great condition sold for $340 in 2018 + the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Another reason for suffrage collectibility is in the branding. The slogan “Votes for Women” carried well throughout the movement in the United States and the United Kingdom for its clear and concise message.

Part of the movement’s branding was the adoption of official colors. Buttons, ribbons, sashes and banners are usually yellow and black because the colors simply stood out well (although yellow may have been adopted because the Kansas cornflower was favored by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton). Purple, white and green were UK movement colors while U.S. suffragette colors were purple, white and yellow.

Most clothing worn by suffragettes was mostly white, especially in parades and demonstrations to contrast with the darker clothing normally worn by spectators. Their white attire was also intended as a subtle sign of nonaggression signaling that the votes of women would help keep politics “clean.” In fact, wearing all white outfits by women in power today is a tribute to the women’s suffrage movement. All the women members of Congress did just that during the State of the Union address of President Donald Trump in 2019 when all 126 women of both Houses of Congress – only 26% of the total elected members – wore all white outfits to show the under-representation of women in Congress.

So it seems that even with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, issues of representation and electability still persist. Electing a woman as president of the United States still hasn’t been achieved while the UK has had only two women prime ministers since they gained the right to vote there in 1928.

At times, women could vote on a special issue that men thought women would have an interest in, such as children’s education, according to the auction description of this metal japanned ballot box intended only for women votes. It sold for $2,600 in 2010. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

As a protest movement, ‘Votes for Women’ has come a long way, but much still needs to be done. Women have voted in higher numbers, around 55% or so, since the first election of 1920 when only 34% voted. Women legislators have steadily increased since the 1960s from the courthouse to Congress and continue to make a difference with their votes overall. However, women are still in the minority in economics, housing, finance, careers, education, as business CEOs and as major power brokers overall.

Perhaps just collecting and displaying women suffrage memorabilia will serve to underscore that no man is created equal until women are, too.

Antique kitchen tools: cooking with style

NEW YORK – Cookware and kitchen tools are a million-dollar business today. While new products are readily available, many people still prefer to use antique and vintage tools. Often contributing to this phenomenon is the desire for having tools just like Grandma’s, which brings up fond memories of being a child and watching her cook. The aesthetic appeal of old tools is also powerful from an Art Deco toaster with its elegant streamlined shape to an ornate soup ladle.

The great thing about old kitchen tools is most are affordable and can readily be found at flea markets and garage sales. Barring rust or broken parts, tools made 40, 50 or more years ago are still functionable. In many cases, they even work better than their modern counterparts. And sometimes they are no longer made anymore or not to the same level of quality.

Early metal tools often are highly collectible. This rare set of four Pennsylvania iron and brass kitchen tools, circa 1830, went for $12,000 + the buyer’s premium at Pook & Pook Inc. in April 2013. Shown are a ladle, a flesh fork, a strainer and a taster, all with inlaid floral vines. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“Even if you can find food mills more easily now, I’ll stick with my old one that came from my next-door neighbors because I know it can stand the test of time,” wrote Kristin Appenbrink in a blog about the appeal of old tools on thekitchn.com.

They also make decorating a kitchen fun. Instead of artwork, wall decor could be copper molds in whimsical forms such as fish. A collection of wrought iron trivets or wooden spoons can make for attractive groupings.

A collection of 18th century copper kitchen tools realized $820 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Bolli & Romiti and LiveAuctioneers

Cooking used to be an hours-long process in Colonial times, from roasting meat in a Dutch oven over an open fire or turning fresh-picked fruit into preserved jam. Heading into the 19th century, time-saving kitchen utensils became readily available from salad spinners to molds and potato peelers. Well into the 20th century, nonstick coated metal pans replaced copper pots for most home cooks even though many professional chefs still favor copper cookware. Cast-iron cookware, especially vintage examples, has seen a resurgence in recent years.

Among old kitchenware, vintage canisters are popular. From brightly colored enamel or metal canisters, often decorated with flowers, to ceramic examples, either round or squared off, canisters blend function and form.

This black metal canister designed to hold and sift flour, for example, has five extra drawers labeled to hold other spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg. It sold for $600 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among popular kitchen tools that collectors seek out are hand mixers, waffle irons, graters and potato mashers. Collectors are often drawn to items that have a striking design and the handles/ material can increase a tool’s value. Lobster forks with Bakelite handles or tools having wooden handles in certain paint colors are sought after. Cookie cutters are also desirable, and older examples made of copper usually bring higher prices than aluminum ones.

Mason jars have wide cross collecting appeal. While they were, and continue to be made, for canning fruits and vegetables, they are versatile storage containers. As far as actual kitchen and food storage goes, vintage Corningware, Pyrex and Tupperware remain perennially popular.

This huge lot of wrought iron kitchen tools, including a scrolled toasting fork, ladles and a pierced skimmer with a rattail twist handle made $550 + the buyer’s premium in June 2017. Photo courtesy Forsythes’ Auctions LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Famous chefs and the tools they use often inspire budding chefs. Even their kitchens can be of interest. Julia Child’s home kitchen is where she began cooking and filmed her television cooking show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a decade. In 2001, she donated her kitchen and its tools and equipment dating to the late 1940s to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is on display.

A Pennsylvania horse and rider tin cookie cutter, 9½ inches long, sold for $1,100 + the buyer’s premium in July 2016. Photo courtesy of Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Toasters have long been collectibles and their design has changed much over the years. Before early electric toasters, people would use long forks to hold the slices over an open fire to toast the bread. In 1893, Alan MacMasters invented the first electric bread toaster in Scotland, which he called the Eclipse toaster. Dozens of design changes have been made since. By 1926, Waters-Genter of Minneapolis offered a redesign called Toastmaster. “It was the first automatic pop-up, household toaster that could brown bread on both sides simultaneously, set the heating element on a timer, and eject the toast when finished,” notes Linda Gross, a reference librarian at the Hagley Museum and Library in a blog on the museum website.

Enterprise cast-iron coffee grinders are a staple of flea markets and common ones are not hard to find. This fine example, retaining the original 1876 decals, sold for $650 + the buyer’s premium in April 2017. Photo courtesy of Leonard Auction Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

One sometimes finds at auction examples of an Coca-Cola electric sandwich toaster/sandwich press, made in St. Louis, Missouri, around 1930. Having decorative scrollwork and an elegant black Bakelite handle, this device embossed a Coca-Cola script logo onto the bread. Several have sold between $1,500 and $3,500 in recent years.

Antique and vintage kitchen tools are not merely utilitarian items, they are also pieces of history and often a family heirloom with many stories to tell.

Disney pins: trading up and beyond

NEW YORK – While people flock to Disney’s theme parks for the rides and photo ops with costumed characters, a popular attraction for about 30 years has been Disney pin trading. These colorful enamel or enamel cloisonné pins make for perfect souvenirs; they are cute, small and don’t take up much room in luggage or when displayed.

While new ones can be bought affordably at retail outlets, buying vintage pins to create – or fill out – a collection can provide hours of enjoyment. For collectors, it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps them going. There are pins for all tastes and budgets with some rare pins going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

Walt Disney used to say it all started with a mouse and Mickey Mouse pins are a staple of most collections. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While pins have been part of Disney experience for years, it was not until the Millennium celebrations in 1999 that Disney began marketing the concept of pin trading at its parks, which quickly took off. Pins were soon on sale at nearly every shop at Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California as well as at Disney stores in malls across America. At parks, Disney cast members would gladly trade certain pins with park visitors that they wore, usually on their ties, sashes or cards.

Today, there are millions of Disney pins in existence and in every imaginable type, from characters to park attractions. Mickey Mouse pins are prolific and there are also pins for nearly every Disney character from classic movies to contemporary ones such as Chip and Dale, Goofy, Cinderella and all the Disney princesses, Maleficent, Jiminy Cricket and Buzz Lightyear and, of course, the Star Wars franchise. A “Memorable Scenes” series captures key moments from movies on pins. New pins are often launched to celebrate Disney anniversaries, the opening of park attractions, movies and other special events.

A set of five ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’ limited edition pins quadrupled its high estimate to bring $1,400 in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Some collectors seek out “First Release” pins, which was a new classification introduced in 2008 to mark a pin’s first year. “Our guests like adding new Disney pins to their collections, especially pins featuring brand new designs,” Steven Miller, project manager for Disney Pin Trading, said at the time. “The concept of ‘First Release’ gives our guests a way to prove they were one of the first to purchase a particular open edition pin.”

Proving indeed it all started with a mouse, Disney also awards its longtime cast members and employees with service pins, the rarest of these being the Steamboat Willie pin (the first cartoon short featuring Mickey Mouse), given to those Disney staffers celebrating 50 years of service. Reportedly, this pin has resold for around $5,000.

This Disneyland tour guide pin, circa 1970s, realized $1,600 in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“Generally speaking, the rarest are the pin releases with a smaller edition number. If Disney created only 500 of a certain pin, they are going to be harder to find than something they’ve made tens of thousands of,” said Toby Osbourn, co-creator of the Pin Trader Club, said. “That isn’t always reflected in the cost; there are some super low-edition-size pins that don’t go for that much because no one collects that character or series of pins.”

Rarity is definitely a factor in price, but the other main driver is collectibility, he added. “For example, Stitch pins seem to go for more than some other characters, because people know the resale opportunities are higher (he is a very popular character),” he said.

These pins of the Stitch, an extra-terrestrial fugitive marooned on Earth, were included in a bag of more than 100 Disney pins that sold for $300 at an auction in March 2020. Photo courtesy of Appraisal & Estate Sale Specialists Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Early pins from the 2000s tend to bring the most money, likely owing to scarcity (they were likely produced in smaller numbers than today) and collectors seek out older pins to fill out holes in their collections.

Ryan Mondics, owner/founder of Disney Pins Blog, said typically it’s the older 2000s pins from Disney Auctions and Disney Shopping that are the scarcest. “It all depends on the collector. Most people go after what their interest is, whether that is a favorite character or attraction at the parks. Disney makes open edition pins (large quantity) and limited edition pins. Of course, limited edition pins have a higher value,” he said.

A collection of eight boxed Disneyland pin sets for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary brought $1,600 in a May 2019 auction. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

With so many pins available, both new and old, new collectors would be wise to start small and focus their collections on what they love. Instead of placing importance on pin value, collectors can start with pins that bring them joy (to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo) such as their favorite park attraction or character.

In a Disney blog, four Disney store artists, who have designed pins, were interviewed on the design process and how they embraced whimsy to create a new take on favorite characters. Keith Fulmis, who has created pins based on Disney movies Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, said he was excited to see a resurgence in pin culture. “Pins have been part of our culture in America going all the way back to political pins that were used in Lincoln’s era and pins have been part of Disney culture from the beginning as well.”